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The cutting edge: Post-war fashion at the V&A

Tradition meets trendiness in this huge exhibition of British fashion

London

Fashion houses from Paris to New York seem to want to bottle London’s unflappably hip style these days. But what makes British fashion so distinctive? Is it the art school training of young designers, the idiosyncratic British character, the class system, history, or perhaps the weather?

“The cutting edge: 50 years of British fashion” (6 March-27 July) addresses these questions by tracing the history of British high fashion since 1947 through four distinct themes: romantic, tailoring, bohemian and country. Over 250 garments are displayed, including Her Majesty’s coronation robes, Savile Row tailoring and Hackett’s Country Life tweed shooting suit. Bauble-like accessories, such as Philip Treacy hats and Manolo Blahnik shoes appear particularly at home alongside the V&A’s collections of decorative art.

The exhibition details the shift from bespoke to ready-to-wear clothing in the post-war period and reveals how even the most radical designers, including Mary Quant, Vivienne Westwood, and rising stars Alexander McQueen and John Galliano have both embraced tradition and rebelled against it.

“The cutting edge” is the latest in a series of exhibitions and events which increasingly blur the boundaries between art and fashion. The Imperial War Museum is currently showing “Forties fashion and the New Look” (until 31 August). The Louvre recently opened the Museum of Fashion and Textile (see p.6). And Diana, Princess of Wales has offered to donate her 1981 wedding dress to the V&A.

So is fashion now being acknowledged as an art form or is the V&A show part of a trend to bring wider audiences into museums, which now depend on visitors for revenue? Dr Aileen Ribeiro, costume head of History of Dress at the Courtauld Institute of Art comments, “I am glad that fashion is finally being recognised as worthy of serious study. But I cannot see that clothes per se will ever be regarded as works of art”.

“It is true that in the post-war period, fashion has fed into art”, she says, citing Gilbert & George dressing up as “Singing sculptures” and feminist art’s abundant use of weaving, cosmetics and clothing. “But art stimulates a deep intellectual response, whereas fashion by its very nature is sensual and often frivolous”.

In terms of the history of art, there is nothing new about the symbiotic relationship between artists and fashion. Rubens, for one, loved costume and Dr Ribeiro comments that the “Young Gainsborough” show now at the National Gallery in London (until 31 March) is one of the best places to observe the importance fashion plays in encoding social status and affiliations.

Unfortunately, laments Dr Ribeiro, museum exhibitions of fashion often suffer from a conservative curatorial approach. “There is a certain absurdity with putting fashion in a museum. It jars with the ephemeral nature of fashion to be pinned down”.

“But as designer Jean Muir said, “Clothes are craft”. They are material and need to be displayed on living human bodies—a conservation no-no. To me there is always a sinister aspect to fashion exhibitions full of mannequins”.

Ribeiro hopes the renewed interest in the museum world for fashion will lead to a more flexible approach to costume display. She also notes the need to rescue fashion studies from the Scylla and Charibdis of, on the one hand, curators and collectors and, on the other, modish intellectual theorists. This is the goal of the new quarterly Journal of Fashion Theory, on whose board Dr Ribeiro sits. Edited by Valerie Steele of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and published in Oxford, the journal explores the social significance of fashion in articles relating fashion to the history of art, economics, literature and a variety of cultural studies.

Journal of Fashion Theory, (Berg Publishers, Oxford) Tel: +44 (0)1865 245104; Fax: +44 (0)1865 791165.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘The cutting edge'