Collecting Fashion

One of my family’s Christmas traditions revolved around watching a peculiar musical version of the Cinderella story, set in about the mid eighteenth century. I suspect that has something to do with my ongoing interest in historical clothing which has recently been piqued by a couple of new arrivals in our collection.

Book cover: Historical fashion in detail : the 17th and 18th centuries For those of us with the costume bug, everything up to the middle of the sixteenth century is largely guesswork – based on a very small selection of existing pieces, archaeology, artworks, documents and literature.  However from roughly the seventeenth century on, there is a growing supply of surviving pieces of all kinds and these frequently survive in museums such as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Kyoto’s Costume Institute and The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Luckily for those of us without large travel budgets, some of these publish books that allow us to ogle the extravagant (and more restrained) fashions of the past. The Victoria and Albert have published a series of books of Fashion in Detail, our latest arrival being Underwear in Detail. What I particularly like about these books is that, as their title suggests, they look at the details of garments – focusing down on seams, buttons, gathers and other details that make up the artistry of the whole. Each chapter focuses on one element, so a garment might show up in more than one chapter, but showing different elements.

Of course the flip-side of this is that the whole garment is rarely shown except in a line drawing. Search their online collection for images of entire pieces.

Cover: 100 dressesThe Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute have just released a book of 100 Dresses, with another follow-up book promised already. Being a book of dresses, it is all women’s fashion. But we’ll forgive them that, as it is full of beautiful gowns from the late seventeenth century to the early twenty-first (2005-2006 winter season). The selection is acknowledged as being eclectic but I found myself wanting to start re-constructing them one after another. I couldn’t name a favourite, although Dior’s Junon of 1949-50 is definitely up there along with Louise Carnegie’s wedding ensemble of 1887.

100 Dresses is a little light on the details, especially with regards materials and construction and a visit to their collection database is warranted to find out more.  The Metropolitan Museum website has an excellent “my collections” feature which allows you to save your favourite items to a personal list which is a nice feature for regular users. In 2009 the Brooklyn Museum collection was integrated into the Costume Institute  which will result in “the single largest and most comprehensive costume collection in the world” so there is plenty there of interest.

cover: FashionFinally, from the Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute we have Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century. This is easily the biggest of all these books as it is chock-full of photos, details and history of both the individual items and the styles in general. It weighs more than two and a half kilos, so might not be too comfortable to read on the bus. Despite that it is still very browsable and it is enhanced with the occasional pattern, artwork and short sections on accessories which make it a more complete history of fashion than the books above.

Almost half the book covers the 20th century so if more recent fashion is your thing you’ll be well catered for. It’s a good thing that the book is so complete as there is little available on their website apart from a quite nice timeline of 200 of their objects.

These are only a selection of our books on historical fashion and costume. If you’re interested in more try searching our catalogue for costume or fashion or browse the shelves around 391 (historical & cultural costume) and 746.92 (fashion design).

World History

This week saw the launch of a fabulous programme from the BBC and British Museum, A History of the World in 100 Objects. Every day a new object is ‘released’ in the form of an item on the website and a podcast of just under 15 minutes. There’s also a blog and the introductory post by Neil MacGregor sums up the programme nicely:

Most of us learn history from books, but I think that it is physical objects – actual things – that most powerfully connect us to the past – things made by somebody with hands just like ours, for a purpose we can still hope to understand…
The objects I’ll be talking about in each programme tell us what people were doing, what they were thinking, how they lived and why they did what they did…
Along the way we look at the connections and contacts between societies that show how the story of the world is the story of the whole world.

As well as items from the British Museum’s collections there are items from other museums across the UK and the public are also encouraged to add their own objects to the website as well as commenting on objects. You can search objects by location, theme, culture, size, material and even colour. Today’s object was a carving of two swimming reindeer that is about 13,000 years-old.

Apart from the history angle (and I’ll confess to being a bit of a history geek) this presents a fascinating example of the kind of far-reaching, multi-dimensional, multi-partner project that we’re beginning to see particularly coming out of the UK. There’s just so many aspects to it: