Artist Textiles at the Fashion and Textile Museum

The Fashion and Textile Museum’s current exhibition looks at “20th century art in textiles and fashion from Cubism and Surrealism to Pop Art”, as the tagline puts it. The many pieces on show are predominantly printed textiles designed by figures better known for their paintings, drawings or sculptures.

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Salvador Dali, Dress in ‘Flower Ballet’, Screen-printed rayon ‘pebble crepe’ fashion textile. Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics Inc., New York, c. 1947

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‘Hostess Cocktail Culottes’ made from Picasso’s textile ‘Musical Faun’. Screen-printed cotton corduroy velvet. White Stage Clothing Co., Portland, Oregon, 1963

I particularly loved Dali’s ‘Flower Ballet’ design, which shows a Daphne-esque half-ballerina, half-bouquet pirouetting on a stage, and Picasso’s ‘Musical Faun’ daringly printed onto velvet corduroy and made up into rather enviable ‘Hostess Cocktail Culottes’. A few designs diverge from the artist’s usual style, but most, such as John Piper’s ‘Chiesa de la Salute’ could be a repeat copy of a canvas painting.

John Piper, 'Chiesa de la Salute', screen-printed 'Sanderlin' satinised cotton furnishing textile. Sanderson & Son Ltd, London, issued 1960

John Piper, ‘Chiesa de la Salute’, screen-printed ‘Sanderlin’ satinised cotton furnishing textile. Sanderson & Son Ltd, London, issued 1960

This seeming lack of imagination or adaptation is unsurprising, since making a dress or some curtains out of a print by Picasso (which actually looked like it was made by Picasso) was a cheaper, more widely accessible alternative to actually owning a unique Picasso artwork. Artist-textile company collaborations allowed the masses to buy a piece of modern art for a pound a metre.

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Pablo Picasso, screen-printed cotton. Scarf designed for the Berlin Peace Festival, 1951

Why does a textile print not count as ‘A Picasso’ or ‘A Dali’? Yes, the initial drawing is the only bit actually in contact with the artist’s hand, after which printers take over, but this is also true of etchings sold for millions. The distinction seems to lie in the near limitless production of a textile compared to one-off paintings or artists prints, which are restricted to an edition of, say, ten, to ensure the high price that comes with exclusivity. It’s also down to the puzzlingly prolonged distinction between ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’ art forms, with textiles and their usually anonymous makers consigned, for now, to the latter.

Mass production and repetition are themes that played a key role in Andy Warhol’s work. His very sweet ‘Happy Bug Day’ design interestingly predates his first silk-screen artwork by several years.

Andy Warhol, 'Happy Bug Day', screen-printed cotton fashion textile, mid-1950s.

Andy Warhol, ‘Happy Bug Day’, screen-printed cotton fashion textile, mid-1950s.

With this exhibition, the big (male) names and movements of the Western art world inevitably take over. The curators have used them to both structure the exhibition, with section titles such as “The 1960s: Pioneers of Pop”, and no doubt to attract an audience outside of the FTM’s usual fanbase. However, they have also paid tribute to lesser-known groups such as the Edinburgh weavers and Hammer Prints Ltd, whose intention to “anonymously encompass all aspects of interior design” reminds me of the ‘no-brand’ ethos of Japanese company Muji.

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Edinburgh Weavers designs

Although too many exhibitions now seem to be put together like books or essays, with visitors plodding through a beginning, middle and end in that order and only that order, I think it’s important for curators to wrap up with a summary or ‘take home message’. This show fizzles out rather disappointingly, leaving us wondering where the final section is. What happened to artist textiles after the 1960s? What about the rest of the world, outside of Britain and America? What are today’s equivalent artist-fashion company collaborations? Although the show succeeds as a comprehensive look at artist textiles specifically in Britain and the States from the 30s to 60s, it lacks the context and points of comparison that would allow us to see these designs in the bigger picture. It also misses out on a good opportunity to discuss issues in the textile and fashion industry; for example, the decline of textiles sold for home sewing as cheap, off-the-peg clothing took over.

Zandra Rhodes, 'Lipstick', screen-printed crepe fashion textile, c. 1967-8

Zandra Rhodes, ‘Lipstick’, screen-printed crepe fashion textile, c. 1967-8

‘Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol’ is on at the Fashion and Textile Museum until 18th May

In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion

In all things related to the British monarchy, I wholeheartedly share Mark Steel’s views.

That being said, I can’t help having an awe and fascination for the exquisite monstrosities that only a budget unimpeded by common sense and commoner conscience can summon. So, this week I paid up £10.75 and paid a visit the Queen’s Gallery to see the exhibition In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion.

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The curators successfully refocus our attention of familiar paintings (such as those of the young Elizabeth I and Edward VI) onto the changing fashions of the Tudor and Stuart courts. Alongside the paintings are displayed examples of clothes similar to those the sitters wear. Seeing the real clothes seems to bring the painted ones into our space, breathing life into them.

The oil paint on wood depictions are supposed to outlive their sitters and the fashions they proudly show off, so it’s incredible to see these sixteenth- and seventeenth-century garments still intact, let alone looking fresh. Their materials, cost and craftsmanship has inspired diligent care by a line of owners and now textile conservators to challenge the wearing effect of the passing of centuries.

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Portrait of a Young Boy, by Paulus Moreelse, 1634.

The exhibition has some unexpected elements; it shows us that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, dresses were not just the garb of little girls and long curly periwigs were not the reserve of men.

I timed my visit to hear a ten-minute talk by one of the curators, Ann Reynolds (and I’m very glad to have made it on time). She chose the title of her talk Pretty Ladies dressed like men, from a comment by Samuel Pepys in his diary of 1660-69, to describe two unusual portraits – one of Frances Stewart, the other of Mary of Modena. The paintings contrast with the standard seventeenth-century depictions of courtly feminine beauty. In both, the usually bare arms and décolletage are hidden beneath outdoor masculine clothing, the usually delicately pinned-back hair is replaced by the impressively thick spaniel ears of periwigs, and both sitters (or, rather, standers) hold a sword. They remind us that, then as now, people play with identity by trying on different guises, expressions and masks.

Frances Stuart, later Duchess of Richmond (1647-1702). Painted by Jacob Huysmans (c. 1633-1696), c. 1664. Oil on canvas, 127.7 x 104.4 cm Royal Collection © Her Maj Queen Elizabeth II

tuastfashion2Another object in the exhibition quite literally plays with identity. A portrait miniature of Henrietta Maria, it comes with a set of transparent overlays to ‘dress’ the lady in different outfits. It’s hard to tell whether the set is supposed to honour or ridicule the wife of Charles I, since it was produced after the execution of the king. Is it commemorative or malevolent? Either way, it was designed to be entertaining.

The fact that half the surviving overlays are of masculine clothing is another example of seventeenth-century play with gender, although the intention behind it is obscure. Was the act of dressing Henrietta in, for example, the hat and collar of Oliver Cromwell, the ultimate form of mockery, or was it just another outfit in a courtly masquerade party – nothing to bat an eyelid at?

Set of mica overlays and miniature of Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), British school, c. 1650

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The exhibition is both informative and thought-provoking, and the curators succeed in giving a clear picture of the fashions of the Tudor and Stuart courts. However, I found myself wishing for a little more social context: who made these clothes? Where did the materials come from? How were they made? What was the rest of the country, outside of the court, wearing at the time?

In a reimagined version of this exhibition I see a lord’s bejeweled bedcap sitting side-by-side with one of the countless knitted caps thrown into cesspits by Tudor city workers and later found there by 20th century workmen (many of these are now in the Museum of London collection). Also, there would be a map charting the journey of the silk for the thread covering that button, a recreated version of a Tudor taylor’s workshop, examples of the dyes used for Edward VI’s doublet..

But that’s all another exhibition.

In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion closes Sunday 06 October 2013.

Adult ticket £9.50 + £1.25 booking fee (make it a 1-year free pass if you remember to get it stamped on the way out)

I’m looking forward to going to THIS tomorrow

Kerry Taylor Auction Sale.

I’m going to have a nosy around the preview with my sister, tempering bank balance sighs by saying “I could make that!” (..if I had the fabric, time and awesome sewing skills of a 17th century French couturier, ahem). Thanks for the heads up, sis.

An elaborately embroidered black glazed cotton jacket, probably Guixhan Miao people, Chinese, early 20th century.

In other news, I was just rudely awoken from an epic nap by a very sweet man selling Sky packages. Evil tosser. Time to wipe away the giveaway dribble marks and knit to World on 3’s latest offering.

Listen up!

Fashion photographer David Bailey is coming to the William Morris Gallery!

© David Bailey

Book your ticket now to hear him talk to Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, about his life and work.

13th March 2013, 19:30 – 21:00

Tickets: £12 each, booking required

At the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow.

Click here for details on the gallery’s website.

Creative Curating at Somerset House

valentinoToday I visited two exhibitions at Somerset House on the Strand – Tim Walker: Storyteller and Valentino: Master of Couture. Both struck me as particularly imaginatively curated.

At the Tim Walker exhibition the curators took the playful nature of the photographs and extended them into the space of the gallery – some of the fantastic, often gigantic props used in the fashion shoots are displayed alongside the images. A giant replica of a spitfire appears to have elegantly crashed through one room, whilst in another a menacing, monstrous doll looms over visitors – as it did over a model in Walker’s original photographs. In yet another, the sand in an image literally spills into the gallery space.

The larger (paid) exhibition devoted to the career of Italian designer Valentino also takes the visitor into the world of fashion. In the main space, the gowns are displayed on mannequins standing and sitting either side of a central aisle. Roles are reversed, as we, the visitors, walk down the catwalk observing the anonymous, glamorously-dressed spectators around us. A selection of samples and short films also provide an awe-inspiring glimpse into the creation of Valentino haute couture by nimble-fingered seamstresses.

Tim Walker: Storyteller is on at the East Wing Galleries until 27 January 2013, FREE.

Valentino: Master of Couture is on at the Embankment Galleries, South Wing until 3 March 2013, £12.50/ £9 concessions.

Men, Women and Clothes

I’ve just come across this amazing series from 1957 in the BBC archives called Men, Women and Clothes. The six episodes were presented by the formidable fashion historian, Doris Langley Moore, and the series was the BBC’s first in colour. The whole series is available, free, online here.

Doris Langley Moore in the first episode – Men, Women and Clothes: How Fashions Come and Go, 1957.

A Trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum

Yesterday I paid a visit to the V&A Museum with Sayed and our friend John, hoping to visit Light from the Middle East: New Photography.

Unfortunately, I failed to account for it not opening until the 13th November.

So, what to see? The idea of going to their current paid exhibition Hollywood Costume on a busy Saturday afternoon made all of us wrinkle our noses, so we struck out in a random direction, up a flight of stairs and into pretty much the first gallery we found.

Wow. These are some of things I was engrossed in for the next three hours:

Woman’s Smock, England, 1575 – 1585, Linen embroidered in silk.

Knitted Jacket, Italy, 1600 – 1620, silk and silver, hand knitted and sewn.

Pair of Mittens, England, ca. 1600, Crimson velvet and white satin, embroidered with silver and silver-gilt thread, coloured silks, beads and spangles.

Embroidered linen cloth, England, 1570 – 1600, linen, embroidered in silk with bobbin lace border. In the verses framing the central image, the artist has cleverly replaced some words with images, known as rebuses.

N.B. These objects were all on display in the British Galleries, Room 57 and adjoining galleries. Since the V&A rotates its display to protect objects from light damage, they will not be on display indefinitely. Also, the online collection entry for an object may state ‘in storage’ but actually be on display, and visa versa.

All images © Victoria and Albert Museum, London