The British Fashion Exhibition is Trending

by Amy de la Haye on 16 October 2023

Fashion exhibitions, like runway collections, are trend-driven. As British fashion continues to spring up in major exhibitions, dress historian, curator and contributing exhibitions review editor Amy de la Haye details the shows to see.

Fashion exhibitions, like runway collections, are trend-driven. As British fashion continues to spring up in major exhibitions, dress historian, curator and contributing exhibitions review editor Amy de la Haye details the shows to see.

In 1954 Cecil Beaton, a defiant social elitist, declared that, ‘At its truest the taste exhibited by the Englishwoman has a certain “literary” quality: almost, one might say, a Virginia Woolf appreciation for clothes that possess the association of ideas…Old things have a certain romantic charm about them, and English women of sensibility appreciate this. Far from preferring a trim, neat look, they incline more towards the picturesque.’ (Glass of Fashion: 244)

Until the 1960s, Paris was the undisputed fashion centre of international fashion. When British fashion designers were commended for their creativity, journalists often applied the adjectives ‘artistic’ and ‘original' - terms familiar today. Britain was the first country to industrialise and large sections of the British population have been preoccupied with romantic perceptions of the rural environment and the past ever since. It's worth exploring then, the plethora of exhibitions on British style currently on show.

Kim Jones' Dior Men's S/S 23. Photographed by Brett Lloyd in front of Charleston reconstruction

Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion Charleston in Lewes, England, 13 September – 7 January 2024

Writer and curator Charlie Porter’s exhibition explores the alternative dress styles, and the conventional tailoring, worn by the coterie of modern artists, writers and, intellectuals who resided at Charleston Farmhouse, snuggled beneath the Sussex Downs.

In the early 20th century, the flouting of linear fashion trends was the preserve of the very wealthy, politically active, artists and bohemians. It was not until the 1960s that self-taught young fashion designers and graduates of the (so hard fought for) fashion courses within Britain’s art schools catapulted fashions that were ‘artistic’ and ‘original’ into fashion’s international headlines. No longer did daughters dress like their mothers. British youth fashion and rebellion had become inextricably entwined.

Virgina Woolf for Vogue, 1924. Photographed by M.

Fashion City: How Jewish Londoners Shaped Global Style London, Museum of London Docklands, 13 October – 14 April 2024

The title of Fashion City: How Jewish Londoners Shaped Global Style makes fashion curator Lucie Whitmore’s manifesto explicit. This exhibition recognises and celebrates the creativity and massive contribution made by the Jewish community to Britain’s fashion, clothing and retail trades at all market levels. Heinous personal stories of antisemitism and the obstacles this imposed are shared, but the focus here is on achievements. I walk round the show with David Sassoon, a first-generation fashion graduate from the Royal College of Art, whose designs for Diana, the late Princess of Wales are on display. Now aged 91 years, he considered it a fine tribute.

David Bowie wearing a Mr Fish dress design.

Fashion City is divided by time and space into London’s East End in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and, the West End up to the 1960s. A small brown leather suitcase is one of the first objects we encounter; it is symbolic of migration and displacement. It belonged to Juci Laszlo who fled Czechoslovakia aged just five years. Many Jewish immigrants were highly skilled tailors who went on to contribute significantly to Britain’s worldwide reputation in this area. The first galleries are dedicated to their stories and displays of the garments they crafted, made using wool and tweed. (The characteristics of a nation’s cultural products are partly determined by landscape and climate. In Britain these are conducive to sheep farming.)

We then embark, via a replica Central line tube passageway, to Oxford Circus. From here we journey to Mayfair, home of the court dressmakers and London couturiers who succeeded them in the 1920s. There are examples of high street and department store fashions, Savile Row tailoring and youth fashion sold in Carnaby Street’s boutiques in the 1960s. London spaces are central to this exhibition’s narrative and the installation design evokes these effectively.

Sarah Stockbridge wearing tweed crown by Stephen Jones for Vivienne Westwood A/W 87. Photo by Nick Knight

Royals & Rebels – British Fashion The Hague, Kunstmuseum Den Haag, 9 September – 7 January 2024

Royals & Rebels – British Fashion is curated by Madelief Hohé. She states that British fashion has always played an important role in the Netherlands. The show was prompted by the death of Queen Elizabeth ll and crowning of King Charles lll; the popularity of the television series The Crown and, the deaths of Dames Mary Quant and Vivienne Westwood. She added that, '…in these socially troubled times, punk is alive and kicking again.'

The exhibition is organised into three themes: ‘In the City,’ ‘In the Country’ and, ‘Royals & Rebels.’ It features work as diverse as the gowns worn by debutantes as part of the social season that used to revolve around the monarchy and the court, to dress worn by modern-day climate activists. Designs by Charles Frederick Worth, Lucile, Edward Molyneux (an amazing and surprisingly little-known London designer) to Zandra Rhodes, Katharine Hamnett, John Galliano, Stella McCartney, Robert Wun and Matty Bovan feature. But it is Vivienne Westwood who takes centre stage. The lead image portrays Sarah Stockbridge modelling an outfit from her Harris Tweed A/W 1987-88 collection; she dons a mock crown and winks seductively at the viewer. This seminal photograph was taken by Nick Knight.

Image from Somerset House's The Missing Thread. Eileen Perrier, 'Afro Hair and Beauty', 1998

The Missing Thread London, Somerset House, 21 September – 07 January 2024

A bank of suitcases belonging to members of the Windrush generation introduce visitors to The Missing Thread, curated by Harris Elliott, Andrew Ibiand and Jason Jules of the Black Orientated Legacy Development Agency (BOLD). This show also seeks to redress a lack of recognition, this time of trailblazing Black creatives who have so profoundly shaped British fashion, image-making and music.

It is arranged into four key areas, ‘Home, Tailoring, Performance’ and ‘Nightlife,’ each of which facilitated Black British design and fashion to develop on its own terms. It is an appealingly intimate show, with armchairs and carpeted niches for people to enjoy audio narratives and music. Photography is prominent throughout and there is a major tribute to the forty-year long career of the late Joe Casely-Hayford. I was especially thrilled to see his 2012 Pearly tribute suit, created in collaboration with Judy Blame. The exhibition concludes with commissions by Nicholas Daley, Bianca Sunders and Saul Nash that explore the generational lineage of Black creative excellence in British fashion.

REBEL: 30 Years of London Fashion photographed by Andy Stagg

REBEL: 30 Years of London Fashion London, The Design Museum, 6 September – 11 February 2024

Britain established, and once funded, the finest fashion courses in the world. But, all too often their alumni floundered in business; they had full order books but no cash for materials. In 1993 the British Fashion Council (BFC) launched its NEWGEN programme for emergent talent. REBEL: 30 Years of London Fashion marks the 30th anniversary of the scheme which has helped to launch the careers of scores of ingenious, irreverent and daring designers including the late Lee Alexander McQueen, Christopher Kane, Charles Jeffrey, Erdem, JW Anderson, Kim Jones, Mary Katrantzou, Simone Rocha, Grace Wales Bonner, Molly Goddard and Bianca Saunders.

The emphasis placed on their debut and early collections, including sketches and memorabilia, makes this show (which utilises the most inclusive range of mannequins I have ever seen) all-the-more fascinating. A notable absence from this roll call of British fashion fame is Hussein Chalayan who was not a NEWGEN recipient.

REBEL is a collaboration between the Design Museum and the BFC. It is co-curated by the museum’s curator Rebecca Lewin, and Sarah Mower who has reported on London fashion since the 1980s.

Thirty years on the socio-economic and political landscape is as bleak as it was in 1993. But, as the current designer collections bear witness, British fashion is phoenix like, it is from the ashes that it rises at its most radical and resplendent.



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