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Exhibitionist

April 12, 2010

It’s always interesting to see how museums display their costume collections. I don’t mean what kind of glass or plywood they use for the cabinets, but what exactly they decide to show, and how they decide to group those pieces.

The Brighton Museum is a well set out museum with galleries devoted to various areas such as 20th century design, the history of Brighton, etc. It’s a very manageably-sized  museum experience which doesn’t leave you weak with fatigue (but if you are there’s a tearoom in one mezzanine gallery overlooking the main hall, as you can just see on that distant shore below).

One of the Museum’s rooms is also devoted to Fashion and Style. We circled around this room for a while- almost not wanting to enter, or rush the experience. Gobble it down too quickly, and then it’s all over! Ah, the excitement of visiting a new collection you haven’t seen before. But just one room. So small a space! How do you use it? What do you show?

Costume exhibits are grouped into cases by theme: George IV, Internationalism, Renegadism, etc. Each theme (apart from George IV) contains examples from different eras. On the whole I like this idea, which museums seem to be embracing more and more. Instead of asking you merely to admire, it asks you to engage your brain in another way – to think about the similarities between objects, and about what connects them across time.  (There is obviously a drawback to this display approach though- it’s a lot less useful for specific study of a particular time period.)

There was only one “issue” that I was left pondering as we made our way out into the Brighton sunshine. For a museum with one room of display space, and apparently over 10,000 objects in its costume collection, why show so many contemporary or very recent pieces? Are most of its older pieces simply too fragile for display? Do displays get changed frequently? I’m all for making museum exhibits accessible and appealing (especially to a younger audience), but do I really need to see a modern goth outfit or a black leather biker suit? Interesting? Certainly. But not the reason I visit a museum’s costume collection; what I’d prefer to see is pieces I am not going to see walking along the street in Brighton that same afternoon.

Anyway- a few things we did see (and sorry about the photo quality). At the top of this post is a  jaunty red bathing suit from the 1920s, and next to it peach silk  georgette camiknickers made in 1940. Part of Lady Holman’s trousseau, these were made by Hermine of 164 Bond Street, home of luxury made-to-measure and sumptuous handworked lingerie. Let’s take a closer look- see the whimsical appliqued purple lace ballet dancers?

One of the more modern examples.  Pleated jacket by master-pleater Issey Miyake from summer 2001. “Pleats move and change form with the wearer’s body movements. As the pleats move they change colours, giving an optical illusion like a kaleidoscope” says Miyake, and the colours do indeed shimmer and change as you change your perspective:

From the “Internationalism” theme, a quilted silk banyan from 1760-1770, with a glorious rich blue sheen. Worn by Captain Willian Fernell, commandeer of the East India Company ship Valentine and probably made in China:

More costume pieces tomorrow, with particular emphasis on Georgie Porgie!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2010 11:17 am

    I love that red bathing suit, I think that would definately be worth reproducing : )

  2. Nathalie permalink
    April 12, 2010 11:25 am

    That ballerina slip is so cute! The quilted silk banyan (I knew it was a tree, I now know it can also be a garment!) in that last picture is also rather fabulous. I’ve never been to Brighton museum but this makes we want to visit!

  3. April 12, 2010 3:56 pm

    The ballerina slip is to die for! Love it! Thanks for sharing. I also agree that I would rather see the older (more interesting) pieces than the modern ones that i can see on the street or more easily imagine. Some of them may indeed be too fragile for display depending on the setting. Many need to be kept in fairly dark rooms and you would never be allowed to take photos of them.
    Did you happen to catch the Land Girls exhibit that closed last month?

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