Friday, 16 April 2010

Preserving fashion forever

On the eve of the Grace Kelly exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I thought it might be nice to take a look behind the scenes. It’s amazing that so many of the style icon’s clothes and accessories are still in such fabulous condition. A few, including the 1955 Oleg Cassini designed dress shown on the exhibition poster and book cover (see right), are no longer in existence. However, Jenny Lister, the exhibition’s curator, was given a choice from around 300 stunning dresses, largely because Princess Grace’s clothes were so well cared for and looked after at the Palace of Monaco.

In the interests of gleaning some hot tips on how to keep the ShopCurious stock in pristine condition, I was especially curious to know where and how the V and A’s highly prized antique costumes and vintage clothing are preserved for posterity. Rather like a big hotel, department store or hospital, a large part of any museum will never be seen by the general public. If you ever get the opportunity, it’s fascinating to explore the enormous back rooms, where so many of a museum's treasures are housed and maintained.

Getting into the costume stores at the V and A is rather like entering Fort Knox. Apart from the security procedures, there are also strict rules about how one should dress and what can be taken inside the temperature controlled rooms. Opportunities to handle the garments are restricted to key personnel, who must wear latex gloves at all times.

In the past, fashion has been kept at the museum mainly as a record of dress style through the ages. Historically, collecting art and antiques has been a predominantly male pastime - anything to do with vintage clothing was considered somewhat lightweight in comparison. In the 1950s and ‘60s, movie costumes weren’t thought to be that valuable and were often recycled, or purchased by stars, such as Grace Kelly, after filming was over. It’s only in recent decades that items of vintage clothing have become valuable collectors’ items in their own right – and film studios are scrambling to buy back the costumes they created decades ago.

For fashion pieces to be collectable, it’s essential they’re in the best possible, ideally mint, condition. The problem is that most fabrics are perishable and affected by wear and tear over the years – as well as being prone to attack by moths and beetles. For these reasons, all of the V and A fashion department’s items are kept in purpose built fridges, each numbered and marked up with details of their precious contents.

However, some garments, like this 1960s Mondrian inspired PVC dress by Stephen Willats, are probably less appealing to pests than others.

All potential exhibits are catalogued, (some more scientifically than others), for quick and easy retrieval, when necessary. Here you will find everything from Vionnet to Vivienne Westwood:

There are rare Fortuny dresses, beautifully made and embellished clothing and accessories from the likes of Schiaparelli, Dior and Balenciaga, curious retro creations by designers such as Mary Quant and Mr Fish - and extravagant celebrity gowns, like the Elizabethan sleeved, Liberty print Bill Gibb dress worn by Sandie Shaw (see below).

Upon death, most people’s old clothes are taken to charity shops, sold at auction or distributed amongst family members to be worn, or kept as heirlooms for future generations.

It’s great if clothing can be recycled and given new life in this way, but if you want your cherished vintage collection to be well looked after when you die, you might consider leaving it to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

I can’t guarantee you’ll be immortalized like Grace Kelly, but at least you’ll know your clothes will far outlive you.

Will you?


Jan said...

Thanks for this sneak peek Susan.
Yet another exhibish to find time for!

Eri said...

Wow Susan, that was a fantastic post! It's so interesting to see behind the scenes, that must have been a fab experience. Thanks for sharing with us.


janettaylor said...

Thanks for sharing this, such a super post. Really interesting!

abril en paris said...

That great luck to be able to see there this exhibition.
Beautiful Grace !