Fashion Lessons at The V&A

Historic fashion at V&A Museum

1920s Suffragette Outfit
Fashion at V&A

Over the May Bank Holiday I visited the V&A Museum. It’s one of my favourite museums in London – somehow I always discover something new each time I go, and this time round I was inspired by their fashion collection.

Ingénue

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not well-read when it comes to fashion. Not that I wouldn’t like to be – I love the thrill of picking up the odd Vogue magazine (and dipping my nose into Inside Vogue when I feel like frolicking in Alexandra Shulman’s shoes), but other than buying clothes for my own back, I’m still mystified when it comes to fashion. Sometimes I wonder if that clueless mysticism is exactly why fashion has such a draw – there’s no rhyme or reason, there’s just art. And other times I realise I’m on the other side of the spectrum, unable to afford beautiful pieces, unable to understand why styles come and go.

Division or destruction of labour?

The fashion collection at the V&A is one of the most comprehensive in the world (or so says their website) so it was the perfect timeline to tread to see fashion grow and change.

Walking round the exhibit I was first struck by the delicate and unique pieces from long ago such as the corset and skirt above. It reminded me that the fragmented production lines we have today for most fast fashion is actually quite novel, and these clothes were completely made by hand, taking time and real skill. Looking round the most prized pieces, while they weren’t made for the average man or woman, it was clear that they were really special, and must have been treasured to be in such good condition even now.

“Buy” society

Another glaringly obvious lesson that I learnt while touring the gallery was the reflection of society in clothes. Despite being a fan of 100 years of fashion or beauty videos (who isn’t?) I’d never read up on certain items of clothing – stories of Dior’s “New Look” symbolising a celebration of the end of the war and rationing, or how the thong toed the line of Los Angeles’ modesty law in the 1970’s. One outfit that caught my eye in particular was the white lace blouse and purple skirt – while I missed the sign denoting the outfit’s significance, I thought it was a nod to the Suffragettes and how even high society women took to physical protests to get their right to vote.

Cut from different cloths

When I neared the end of the gallery, I found more and more pieces made from man-made fibres and created through uniform techniques. While I don’t wish for one second to move back to making my own clothes or having to pay out for a tailor, I do think somewhere in-between the 1940’s and now we missed a chance to balance the accessibility of fashion and the manufacturing processes in place today. Hand-stitched dresses were replaced by shiny plastics and bright colours, and it felt dizzying to see fashion go from necessity to society symbol to accessible commodity at a cost. Even peering through the 90’s section, I was drawn to more expensive pieces and felt sad that while clothes are now an opportunity to express personality, the way they are made almost always shows a lack of care for either the people making them or the planet.

Buy less, buy better

Leaving the gallery I tried to imagine what the 2010-2020 section might look like. While certain trends will reign supreme (seeing as I’m self-proclaimed clueless, I don’t dare to guess!) perhaps a move towards minimalism or ethical production will make it’s way in there too? My fingers are crossed.