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Grace and favour

June 14, 2010

There are two textile/fashion exhibitions on at the V&A museum at the moment: Grace Kelly: Style Icon (runs to 26 September) and Quilts 1700 – 2010 (which runs to 4 July).

I visited the V&A last week with the specific intent of seeing one, and ended up vastly preferring the other.

I went to see Grace Kelly’s wardrobe, and I’ve been mulling my impressions of this over for a few days. I wanted to love it- and I know friends who’ve loved it- but I was, well, unmoved by it. (Perhaps I should say there are “spoilers” ahead for those who have yet to visit, and don’t want to know what’s in the exhibition? I’m afraid there aren’t actual museum photos- photography not being allowed and all…)

photo from here

It was such a promising start: the first part of the exhibition, by the entrance, contains Grace’s earlier outfits from the 1950s. There’s some lovely gowns designed by Helen Rose, some Edith Head creations. There are some of the costumes from High Society, including my favourite- the silk crepe swimming cover-up (yes, I know- silk crepe? swimming?!). There’s also the gorgeous black dress from Rear Window at the top of this post. One of the most interesting dresses for me was the one Grace wore at her first meeting with future husband Prince Rainier of Monaco. Due to a power cut at her hotel, the only unwrinkled dress she had that didn’t need pressing was one apparently made from McCalls pattern 3100. Grace wore this exuberant floral number on the cover of the McCalls pattern catalogue below. (Questions unanswered for me: why did she still have the dress? did she make the dress herself? did she model the dress and get to keep it?)

So far so good, but moving onto the 1960s and beyond, I was a little less interested. That’s just my personal taste, though. I just couldn’t get excited about long acid bright 60s chiffon numbers. I’m not sure whether some of these have stood the test of time. The muted colour palette of the pastel pinks and nudes of the 1950s became acid brights, browns, magenta, green, which were not particularly easy on the eye.

But perhaps by that time I was just too hot (it was stifling in there, and very busy). A lady wandering past was just saying to her friend “I thought it would be bigger”, and indeed it felt like the exhibition had hardly got going before it was finished. I looked around for another room, but that was it. The space was, in a way, too small for the exhibits. There are cases it’s tricky to look at without standing in the way of people watching the video footage projected on the walls of Grace. Spread out a little more, in a bigger room, you could have seen the exhibits far better (and possibly from all angles?) and overall it would have been a much more relaxed experience.

So I came out slightly underwhelmed. Perhaps also because I’m not a die-hard Grace Kelly fan? I expect if you are this exhibition would be amazing… (But perhaps also because Grace’s style was refined, elegant and ultra-appropriate for the life she led as Princess of Monaco, but take away Grace Kelly the woman and you’re left with some fairly conservative designer clothes?)

Somehow I managed to wander into the Quilts exhibition in a museum fuddled daze. (I didn’t mean to.) And it was a revelation. I haven’t actually come across many quilts in real life, and those few I have handled have been firmly in the category of bed furnishings, although I can certainly appreciate the time and skill that has gone into them. (I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m a quilt philistine, or perhaps a quiltistine.) But these quilts in the V&A were gobsmacking. Some were more traditional in technique, incredibly intricate with elaborate stitching patterns, while others, more contemporary, used fabric in strange new ways I’d never seen it used before. There was oceans of space to really get a good look at each piece (and hardly any glass cases to get in the way), and all this space made it seem like hardly anyone else was in there. But there were, and the mood was… engaged. Excited. Exclamatory. People were pointing out the gorgeousness of the quilts to each other, and sharing stories. (And the giftshop was doing a brisk trade in Liberty print quilting fabric…)

The quilt seems to quiltistine me to be almost a metaphor for endurance, for perseverance. For a huge investment of time and a patience I cannot even begin to comprehend. A labour of love. So it was the stories behind some of the quilts that produced a lump in the throat- the inmates of Wandworth prison who’d learned quiltmaking (and the moving video in which some of them explained how quilting had quite literally changed their lives). There was the soldier’s quilt here made out of tiny tiny pieces of woollen uniform fabric made reputedly by William Brayley of the Devonshire Regiment, probably in the late 1800s. (Needlework was used as a form of therapy for those injured in conflict and recuperating in hospital and soldiers were encouraged to take up sewing as a valid alternative to drinking and gambling).

I’m incredibly pleased I saw this exhibition. Not only did it give me a whole new insight into a field of textiles I didn’t know very much about and show me how you can push the limits of using fabric, but ultimately it inspired, uplifted, and moved. And you can’t ask for much more than that. So if you’re visiting and you only have time for one of the two exhibits, I might gently steer you towards the quilts…

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