(* Actually the title is a bit of a misnomer, as there is a smattering of menswear in there too, but to simplify things I shall just use the word ‘dresses’ throughout.)
The exhibition starts with a bang, or more accurately a pop, as the first exhibit is a champagne bottle costume, worn to a fancy dress party in 1902.
Click here for a photograph of the dress being worn, complete with a pouffy champagne cork hat.
The dresses are grouped together in two large displays, and one smaller one. As is obvious from this photograph, all the displays are behind glass, so apologies for the quality of some of the images.
|The first display|
This arrangement of the dresses allows you to see the back of most of them (yea!).
|Mid-1860s silk day dress, front and back|
It wasn’t clear to me how the order of the display was decided upon, as it is neither chronological or colour based. As a result you get a bold navy and red 2009 Erdem dress next to an early 1800s plain white muslin beaded dress by an unknown maker (my favourite of the entire exhibition).
|Two centuries earlier|
The arrangement does create some interesting juxtapositions. The flashes of yellow in a 1950s Victor Stiebel silk ballgown are echoed in the yellow and grey stripes of the 1999 Vivienne Westwood evening dress displayed beside it.
|Two treatments of yellow and grey|
A 1960s Gerald McCann suit and the 1660 silver tissue dress are linked by a similar palette.
|Two two-piece costumes|
Although very different, the 1938 Schiaparelli ensemble and the 1780s man’s Court coat both feature exquisite embroidery on velvet jackets.
|Photograph brightened to show the embroidery|
Not all of the dresses in the exhibition are ‘fabulous’ by way of decoration or the name of the designer; some have been included precisely because they are incomplete, examples of what ordinary people wore, or simply intriguing.
Some are undoubtedly very grand indeed.
|1760s embroidered Court mantua, with matching shoes|
This late 1860s striped silk day dress by an unknown maker has an unfinished neckline. Either the trimmings were removed to be reused, or the dress was never completed.
|No fastens or trimming on the neckline|
This Worth dress belonging to Mary Chamberlain Carnegie is from the mid 1890s, when ‘dresses’ consisted of two parts. The skirt has been lost or possibly cut up to be reused; only the bodice survives.
|Wonder what the skirt looked like?|
Each polka dot of this 1940s housecoat by an unknown maker has been carefully outlined in stab stitching, quilting the rayon fabric, the interlining and the cotton gingham lining together, a major undertaking.
|The simple appearance belies the work that went into this|
The provenance of this printed hessian tunic dress, c. 1910 is a mystery. Undoubted a stage costume, the designer and the production it was made for are both unknown.
|Possibly influenced by the Ballets Russes?|
Many of the dresses are displayed on ordinary dress forms such as those in the two photographs above. However in a nice touch the exhibition does make use of vintage mannequins, such as this one.
|1934 silk net Vionnet evening dress on a period mannequin|
Slightly oddly, the 1780s man’s Court coat is displayed on a mannequin, but with no other clothing. I can’t help feeling that this would have looked better on a dress form, as the combination of the beautiful workmanship and pink plastic legs is very odd. Fortunately there are too many reflections in the photograph I took for it to be of any use other than for reference, so I shall spare the mannequin's blushes and not post it!
As this is a fiftieth anniversary celebration, it is only right that the exhibition should end with gold. Sadly my photographs of the final exhibit, a 1925 gold lace and cloth of gold dress by Paul Poiret, are not good enough to post. Instead I’ll finish with some pictures of dress number 49; a late 1820s gold embroidered dress by an unknown maker.
|Close-up of the bodice|
|Gold metal strip embroidery on the hem|