Sunday, 10 March 2019

Unexpected elegance from the 1970s

Usually when I post about exhibitions taking place in my 'local' museums I am referring to one of the venues which make up National Museums Liverpool, such as the Walker or Lady Lever art galleries. But today I'm delighted to be writing about somewhere truly local to me: the Grosvenor Museum in Chester.

According to this recent article in The Guardian, 1970s fashion is currently having a bit of a moment. In which case, the Grosvenor is clearly right on trend with its current exhibition, Unexpected Elegance: Female Fashion from the 1970s. Although only small, it covers a range of dresses from locally-made to designer, and from everyday to special occasion wear.

Image © West Cheshire Museums

All of the exhibits are behind glass, so apologies for the reflections in some of the images.

Part of the display

The exhibition aims to challenge the widely-held idea of the 1970s as 'the decade that taste forgot'. It covers the entire period, with dresses dating from 1970 to 1978, arranged in date order.

Dresses from 1970 and c.1972

The blue dress on the left dates from 1970, and was made by students at Bangor University in North Wales. The cut of the dress and the overprinting of the blue cotton/linen mix fabric were designed to work together, and the dress was sold commercially.

Printed cotton/linen shirt dress

The photo-realistic print of this c.1972 polyester dress looks like something you could buy in a fabric shop now. The ruffles and smocking detail look far more of the 1970s however.

Polyester dress by Eastex

The next dress is a wedding dress, made-to-measure by a semi-professional dressmaker in Liverpool in 1972. Because it was for a winter wedding, a warm fabric was needed. The choice was unusual for a wedding dress, but very 1970s - corduroy!

Empire line wedding dress

Covering those buttons with such a bulky fabric must have been tricky

From dressmaker-made to me-made. The red cotton mini-dress which features on the museum website was made by the donor from a commercial pattern c.1972-3. It may have taken her that long to do all the intricate smocking on the bodice. I would love to see the pattern it was made from.*

So much work, and a fabulous collar

There's no mistaking the provenance of the next dress. I hadn't realised that Ossie Clark was born not far from here, in Warrington.

Ossie Clark dress, viscose fabric designed by Celia Birtwell

The dress was bought from Biba, c.1974

Next are two more designer dresses. This plain A-line wool mix shift dress with neat top-stitching details is labelled "Givenchy / Nouvelle Boutique / Made in France / Paris", and comes from the company's ready-to-wear label. The panel at the waist is printed faux leopard skin.

Givenchy ready-to-wear dress, c.1975

The flowing blue cotton tunic dress is in contrast to the fitted lines of the Givenchy, although both dresses are simple and plain. It is by Zandra Rhodes, and its only decoration is the printed pattern around the bottom of the skirt.

Different styles from 1975 and 1976

Abstract design in brown and pink

The caftan beside it is a similar shape, but longer and with long sleeves.

Made in Shropshire and bought in North Wales, c.1977

The caftan is also made of cotton, printed with a design of Persian hunting scenes. I must admit, that when I first looked at it I thought that the figure on the top right was hunting with an enormous flower as some sort of lance!

An unusual choice of weapon

On closer inspection, I realized that actually he was holding an arrow, and the flower was separate (and out of proportion to the figure below). What I still can't work out though is why the zip is sewn in place with matching thread, while the neckline is sewn with white thread.


The label has been removed from the final dress, so there is very little information about it other than that it dates from c.1978. It is made from man-made chiffon, with a nylon underdress, and has a bias-cut skirt. The collar is very 1970s, but there is something of 1940s film noir about the overall look.

So much synthetic, but fabulous with it

Close-up of the bodice

Unexpected Elegance runs until 7 July, in the Costume Gallery. Admission is free.

* - Update, 16 August 2021
I found it! While browsing Style patterns on ebay I came across this, and recognized it at once. (Can we just gloss over the fact that I frequently can't remember what I went into the next room for, but show me the pattern for a dress that I saw well over two years ago and I can instantly link the two!)

Bingo! Style 3837, 1972

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