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Issue 35 June-August 1997 RSS

The Cutting Edge: 50 Years of British Fashion

Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

Curated by Amy de la Haye, this large exhibition and accompanying book reviews British designer-level fashion from the V&A collection. It takes 1947 as its starting point, presumably because of the high profile given to couture following Dior’s New Look. The exhibition does not claim to be an exhaustive exploration of 50 years of British fashion, and its focus inevitably highlights what is missing from the historical narrative, which is, of course, the French, American, Italian and Japanese influences that have determined post-war British fashion ­ even the ‘Beatles jacket’ came from Pierre Cardin. But British fashion, international hybrid that it is, and the empire being what it was, reveals a global range of foreign influences, whether in the appropriation of styles and techniques or in the diverse ethnic origins of many British or British-based designers.

While the weakness of the book is in its failure to engage in the prevailing debates of fashion theory, the exhibition, equally free of didactic pretensions, could have relished more the fashions as art objects. However, the display is elegantly lit with mirrored walls and generous sofas which encourage visitors to preen and loll about and perhaps plan a bit of interactive fashion consumption in conveniently close Knightsbridge. Jamie Croft’s specially commissioned soundtrack fuses unobtrusive contextual sounds, such as handbags snapping shut, with conventional instruments. The clothes are, unusually, not behind glass and, well within touching distance, they offer a rare and welcome insight into the beauty of fine fabrics, the craft of technique and construction without the intervention of a megalomaniac fashion photographer or stylist.

Apart from a special tribute to the understated perfection of Jean Muir (1928-1995), the clothes were grouped thematically: ‘Women’s Tailoring’; ‘Men’s Tailoring’; ‘Romantic’; ‘Bohemian’; and, of course, ‘Country’. Knitwear, hats, bags, shoes and underwear were not conceptually linked. Though somewhat clichéd, the themes do make sense of British dress codes: the preoccupation with social class and the British fashion industry’s endeavours to remain economically viable through marketing that juxtaposes utility and ‘tradition’ (which, as de la Haye reminds us, was largely invented at the end of the 19th century). There are several examples of this mix, such as John Galliano’s bizarre suits from his ‘Fallen Angels’ collection, A/W 88 ­ Saville Row bespoke tailoring under attack from the playful wilfulness engendered by his British art school training ­ or Antoni Berardi’s subtle updating of the classic ‘English rose’. These themes, reflecting British social mores, tell only part of the story. The addition of another section examining the influence of designer-level couture on street style would have been interesting, particularly in a show entitled ‘The Cutting Edge’. As Marion Hume’s essay charting men’s tailoring from de-mob suit to corporate raider points out, the post war Neo-Edwardian look moved from West End to East End to became the ‘Ted’ style of Britain’s first post-war subculture. These freshly-created working class heroes became the new arbiters of taste, fashionable sex symbols establishing the continuing hegemony of pop culture.

By way of contrast, the formal values of British court/couture evening dress were epitomised in post-war Britain by Norman Hartnell’s bejewelled Flowers of France state evening gown (1957). Though these sartorial conventions were ruthlessly rejected by Mary Quant in the 60s, they were revived by Princess Diana in the 80s ­ or parodied by Joe Casely Hayford’s Farewell Sweet Liberty metal-rivet studded, ivory silk wedding dress (1992-3).

Classified as ‘Romantic’, Vivienne Westwood’s sumptuous Watteau evening gown (1996) in emerald silk shot with lilac taffeta is a fine garment to ‘front’ the exhibition. Westwood’s fashion and clothing philosophy encompasses many of the exhibition’s concepts. A skilled tailor, she deploys historical references and issues of gender and class in ways both provocative yet lauded by the industry. Fashion is surely the archetypal icon for achieving dreams through consumption, and thus the Watteau gown speaks volumes beyond its classification as ‘Romantic’ ­ even its classification as ‘fashion’ ­ to pronounce upon the very meaning of ‘romantic’ in 1997 Britain.

Susan-Marie Best

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First published in
Issue 35, June-August 1997

by Susan-Marie Best

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