Runway Successes – The Appeal of Fashion Exhibitions in Museums

  • 2019-06-11
  • Apollo Magazine

The Dior exhibition in the new Sainsbury Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum (until 1 September) asks visitors to do something of a double-take at the start. In the brightly lit entrance, the famous Bar suit with its sculpted jacket and full, pleated skirt stands by itself in a glass case, draped on a mannequin topped by the equally familiar lampshade-shaped hat. To the left of the case is a set of framed sketches made by the designer in 1947, the year of his first solo collection; to the right, a wall of personal ephemera: postcards, letters, and photographs.

Nearly half a century later, it seems that the Beaton-Vreeland legacy in the museum, and at the V&A and the Met in particular, is the fashion exhibition as immersive theatre. It’s an approach that seems to have reached its culmination in the recent Alexander McQueen retrospective – easily the most spectacular experience I’ve had in any museum.

One of the great pleasures of costume exhibitions – one that diminishes if the rooms are ridiculously crowded – is eavesdropping on the other visitors. Unlike exhibitions of fine art, where loudly expressed, inadequately evidenced theories fly around, the responses to clothes tend to be personal (often nostalgic and anecdotal) and curious (‘how exactly does that work?’ – followed by an attempt to puzzle it out). It’s a useful reminder that clothes are not just objects, but repositories of social history and lived experience.