The Origins of the Fashion Blockbuster Exhibition

by Amy de la Haye on 13 June 2023

The dress historian, curator and writer, Amy de la Haye, looks back on the seminal exhibition Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton.

The dress historian, curator and writer, Amy de la Haye, looks back on the seminal exhibition Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton.

Today the blockbuster fashion exhibition – comprising awe-inspiring apparel set within a spectacular installation - has become a hugely popular cultural mainstay. It can be traced back to Diana Vreeland’s tenure at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York and, slightly earlier, to one exhibition called Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton staged at London’s V&A in 1971. My colleague exhibition-maker Judith Clark and I have researched this show for over twenty years. In 2015, our book Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971 was published by Yale University Press and we continue to explore strategies to variously capture it. Although I never saw this exhibition, it is the exemplar against which I evaluate all others.

In 1971, fashion held a very lowly status in the V&A’s hierarchy of objects. Contemporary objects - defined as less than 50 years old – were not collected and the collection policy was unashamedly elitist. It would take the full force of British photographer Cecil Beaton to ring in the changes! Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton was modern, enchanting and dynamic; it was multi-sensorial (different designer fragrances were sprayed into the spaces twice daily and there was a sound track) and incorporated movement (some mannequins rotated).

From 1969 Beaton corralled, from the world’s most stylish clients and top designers, with whom he was on first name terms, a huge collection of the twentieth century’s most iconic fashion items for the museum. At the suggestion of Michael Haynes, the Regent Street display artist who was brought in to design the show. Beaton also raided the rails of nearby boutiques including Biba, Foale & Tuffin and Mr Freedom. It would have previously been unthinkable for the museum to acquire, let alone display, ready-made fashions that were simultaneously offered for sale.

Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton was arranged thematically (Royalty, English Contemporary, Space Age & Miscellaneous), chronologically (1920s, 1930s, 1950s), and by fashion designer (Schiaparelli and Surrealism in the 1930s, Balenciaga, Mainbocher, Dior, Givenchy). The intriguingly titled ‘Miscellaneous’ section permitted Beaton the conceit of placing centre stage in the front entrance the Ascot scene costume he designed for Audrey Hepburn to wear in the film My Fair Lady (1964). The exhibition was sited in the museum’s main Brompton Road entrance. Sunday Times journalist Ernestine Carter described Haynes design as a ‘Perspex Cathedral of Fashion’. The complex double-tiered structure was divided into different sections, each of which was given an entirely distinctive interior treatment.

The following images, taken as 35mm slides, provide a taste of the panoply that visitors experienced.

The 1920s. Left: Two dresses by Paul Poiret dating c.1919 and 1925. Right: La Fleur by Vionnet c. 1920. The artist Patrick Stackhouse echoed the appliqué flower pot design on Vionet’s cotton lawn dress and created an art-deco style backdrop. Beaton was creative with the themes - a glimpse of an opera cloak by Lucile from 1915 can be seen on the very far left before it was placed on a mannequin.
Schiaparelli & Surrealism in the 1930s. This section featured backgrounds painted by Patrick Stackhouse in the style of Salvador Dali’s artworks. The mannequins were customised with surreal style head coverings. The mannequin on the far right, seated on a trapeze, wears a pink jacket from from Schiaparelli’s - now legendary - 1938 'Circus' collection. The horse headdress was designed by Andrew Logan. The pink rose head references Dali’s painting 'Woman with a Head of Roses' (1935) and cover design for American Vogue (1 June 1939) featuring abstracted female figures with rose heads. Other iconic designs include the tear dress from 1938 (left image, far right), the skeleton dress, also 1938, next to it and the trompe L’oeil ‘bow knot’ sweater, displayed on a mannequin torso, which launched the designer’s career in 1927.
Christian Dior. This image offers a glimpse of Haynes’ two-tiered installation design and the arrangement of figures. In the foreground is Dior’s gown called ‘Maxime’ from his seminal 1947 New Look collection, teamed with a shimmering tulle hat. Beaton accessorised the Schlappi mannequin with a diamanté necklace. Many evening gowns are designed to be worn with precious jewels and the absence from these in museum exhibitions can be misleading.
The 1950s. Veils with applied fabric daisies suffused this installation to create an aesthetic redolent of Beaton’s 1943 portrait of the young Queen Elizabeth ll. Two of the mannequins wear the face masks the manufacturer used to pack them for delivery. Apparently Beaton thought it was hugely amusing re-using them in this way. The main figure is dressed in an evening gown designed by Yves Saint Laurent for Dior 1960. Museum records document the purchase of 504 (42 dozen) bonded fibre daisies, 500 white fireproofed daisies and 504 daisy petals were supplied by Burt Bros of Bow.
Space Age. Designer Michael Haynes was in his element designing this section as he also worked as an artist using Perspex. Panelled walls and gleaming metal reflective domes provided a modernistic setting for and (amongst the few items of menswear) ‘Cosmos’ a polo neck and belted tunic outfit by Pierre Cardin dating 1967. The part striped triple gabardine coat by Courrèges is also from 1967. Yves Saint Laurent’s 1965 Mondrian dress and Cardin’s bright red dress with dramatic sleeves from 1970 are not ‘space age’.
English Contemporary. Left: Designs by Mr Freedom (Tommy Roberts) 1970: wet-look ‘Bingo jacket’, ‘Desperate Dan’ leather boots and a cotton T shirt with a print design that read ‘ God Bless Woolworth’s’ (the latter a chain store selling cheap household goods). This mannequin formed part of Adel Rootstein’s ‘Heroes and Heroines’ collection. Right: Mr Freedom baseball inspired cotton jacket and trousers displayed on Rootstein’s highly successful range of running figures, this one sculpted to resemble the body of athlete Su Lin.



Interview: Amy de la Haye on Coco Chanel

04 September 2013
Curator Amy de la Haye discusses the story behind Marion Pike and Coco Chanel's friendship and the process of curating the exhibition – Coco Chanel: A new Portrait by Marion Pike, Paris 1967-1971.

Video Essay: Schiaparelli

05 December 2014
Alexander Fury and Amanda Harlech talk Schiaparelli couture A/W 14, individuality and walking the line between the ridiculous and sublime.

Video Essay: Fashion in a Time of Crisis

20 November 2020
Amy de la Haye examines how fashion has responded in historical instances of food shortages, racism, homophobia and Nazism.
Back to top