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The Victoria & Albert Museum

The Victoria & Albert Museum isn’t really a transgender place at all. It’s a shrine to the heights of civilisation! Actually there are three of them, but the main one is in South Kensington, London. This is how they describe themselves:

The purpose of the Victoria and Albert Museum is to enable everyone to enjoy its collections and explore the cultures that created them; and to inspire those who shape contemporary design.

By that, the Victoria & Albert holds vast collections of cultural items and Nicci and I decided to pay it a visit for it’s clothing area. Let’s face it, we’re passionate about style! Here was a great opportunity to see close up the whole history of fashion and style from 17th century to modern times and as a special bonus, Queen Maud, who’s discerning tastes became part Royal history had a special exhibit on. This would be something to savour.

The Victoria & Albert is easily reached by Tube and arriving at it’s huge imposing doorway we had our first surprise – it’s completely free! Pleasantly surprised, we meandered in only to realise that this was a much larger building than we had expected. And we weren’t the only ones going looking! Amongst the crowd were all types of women from high class housewives to punk rock fashion students.

The Victoria and Albert Museum has collected both dress and textiles since its earliest days. The collection covers fashionable dress from the 17th century to the present day, with the emphasis on progressive and influential designs from the major fashion centres of Europe. It’s collections also includes accessories such as jewellery, gloves and handbags – there’s over 63,000 items in total just in it's 1960's collection. Now that’s my idea of a wardrobe!

Walking around the circular fashion exhibition hall, you really begin to develop a deeper perspective on how we dress and the vast variety of choices available to us today. From the 17th century exhibits you could see the formality of dress. Gender roles were far more defined back then and were reinforced through clothing. There are exhibits showing the most excruciating waspie corsets to the wire frame undergarmets women would wear to make their dresses bell shaped. That said I do think the bum pads they wear to give a real “eat your heart out J-Lo” derrière was a neat idea. But whatever did their husband think when they got their wives undressed and realised their waist was fat, their bum no existent and their knobbly knees showed! I guess it was too late by then…

During Queen Victoria’s time, if you had it, you didn’t flaunt it! Everything was covered often in clothes that looked apt for a funeral. I wonder if the options available put off TGirls of the time? More likely the death penalty for being gay did. Don’t you just love living in the 21st century?

Finally the collection comes into the last century, where we see the influence that the second World War had on fashion. The sheer death toll had meant that women could no longer be stay at home pets; to keep the country running they were needed to take on roles that previously only men had done. And that meant evolving the boundaries of fashion as the clothing of past years that had been designed subjugate women and keep them controlled needed to be thrown off. Much of it you could hardly walk in, let alone do a full working day in! For the first time trousers were available for women.

The French of course with their flair for cut and design and impeccable taste had been leading the way for some time in fashion and I think that’s something that marks them as highly civilised – they’ve gone further from animal skin loin cloths that anyone else into clothing that was not only functional, it was a true work of art.

Kavanagh
This cream silk zibeline cocktail suit designed by John Cavanagh in the early 60s is a Couture classic styling

The Italians weren’t far behind and had been building their textile industries since the ‘30s and by the 1960s we saw sweeping changes in clothing. The clothes of French designers like Balenciaga and Dior represented sophisticated elegance and were worn by women in high society – this was known as Couture. Public figures like Jacquie Kennedy began to favour less formal items such as shorter skirts. Fewer people now wore accessories like hats and gloves.

Cardin
Cardin was a trail blazer for unisex wear and took the staunch manliness out of his menswear as well as using men's style cuts on women. This is a man's outfit and the almost skirt like jacket with hip defining belt and collarless neck shows the start of softer styling for men.

The Italians had had a thing for smart, sleek looks, particularly in men’s suits for some time and this was also similar to the Mods in Britain who insisted on tailor made high impact cuts. Demand was growing for more affordable and less traditional attire and so haute couture began a reversal of the trend up until then of the poor wearing that of the rich and exclusive by launching popular clothing ranges. Courrèges, Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent were among those who adapted brilliantly to these new circumstances by creating off the peg ranges of designer clothes available through department stores.

Couregges
Cotton and machine embroidered organza mini dress by Courrèges of Paris

At the same time young people had higher incomes than ever and boutiques, like Mary Quant's Bazaar and Barbara Hulanicki's Biba provided inexpensively made clothing suited to a busy, urban lifestyle. Instead of buying outfits designed for specific occasions or times of the day, people preferred separates which they could combine in different ways.

Biba
This very short dress by Barbara Hulanicki for Biba has a scoop neck with a frilly collar. It was designed to be worn with pale opaque tights and bar shoes. The bishop style sleeves are cut tight at the armholes then flared at the wrists where they are gathered with ties.

The miniskirt was the most eye-catching garment of the decade, designed for an ideally skinny female form. Women wore pale foundation and emphasised their eyes with kohl, mascara and false eyelashes. Hair was long and straight or worn in a shaped bob or wedge, as invented by the hairdresser Vidal Sassoon.

Designers of clothes and textiles celebrated modernity. Space-age silver was mixed with primary coloured prints taken from Pop and Op Art. Novel fashion materials were introduced, including shiny, wet-look PVC, easy-care acrylics and polyesters. It was an explosion of creativity that has given us the wealth of choice we have today.

Valentino Short Dress
A 1968 diamonte encrusted Valentino velvet cocktail dress inspired by Greek and Roman finery

The hub of the fashion revolution was of course driven by the French, the Italians and the British, but America wasn’t to be left out! Counter culture, particularly during the Vietnam war years became a rejection of materialist and capitalist ideals and manifest itself in a return to ethnic styles from the East and from the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Equally design houses started their attempts to rival the majestic beauty of the French and Italian designers, most notably from New York with the likes of Valentino and more recently Donna Karan.

The whole tour taught me a lot about how easy we have it today. In the past it was the norm for the affluent to have daywear and evening wear, thoroughly accessorised with hats, scarves and gloves. Clothes were seen as a distinction between man and beast and the finery with which adorned oneself marked how far up the social hierarchy one had progressed. And at the top of the ladder was Royalty.

Queen Maud was a British Princess who became Queen Consort of Norway in 1905 and her wardrobe is the stuff of TV dreams! Renowned for her fashionable style, her clothes document an extraordinary era of fashion history, from the decorative but elaborate dress of the Victorian era to the streamlined chic of the 1930s. Take a look at the following photos to see what I mean:

evening dress
One of Queen Maud's evening gowns - truly exquisite!

Queen Maud's Coronation gown
Queen Maud's Coronation Gown - when you see the detail you will be amazed

Accessories
Oh my heart turns green with envy! Such beautiful accessories... a poor girl like me has but one hat, three handbags and five pairs of shoes, one of which are just grubby clubbing trainers. *sigh*

To me, the Victoria & Albert is a fantastic institution, chronicling the development of civilisation through how we outwardly express our inner worlds – fashion, style and design. As a free resource it is well worth the effort to see as it made me consider more deeply how I dress and what it says about me. It’s a free education on the finery of life that every girl loves.

Victoria & Albert Museum Review:

  • Type: Museum devoted to fashion, style and design
  • Location: South Kensington, London
  • Entry: Completely free
  • Facilities: Thousands of items displayed in areas such as fashion, design, architecture. Tours, refreshments and souvenirs
  • Plus Points: Extremely educational with the largest collections in the UK and time limited exhibitions
  • Minus Points: No parking locally. So much to see you want to make sure you wear comfortable shoes
  • Overall Rating: 7 out of 10
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