'The Concise Dictionary of Dress’ is an exhibition cuckoo nesting in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Blythe House stores. For two months small groups are being led through 11 installations that the fashion curator Judith Clark and the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips have slotted into the sprawling troves contained within this late-19th-century building. Formerly the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank, the sound track of the show is clanging gates, clicking keys and the odd stray emergency alarm.
Among the most vexed questions arising between Clark and Phillips and their hosts, the V&A’s curators, was the distinction between storage and display. Within the world of the museum the business of archiving and preserving is quite different to that of exposing and explaining. This discussion might seem arcane, but once inside Blythe House the thrill of trespass is palpable. What you are led past competes with what you are led to – a state of affairs presumably anticipated by Clark and Phillips. Near a pile of tatty 1970s board games, the label of an old Arts Council file advertises ‘Ethnic miscellaneous – pre-1985’, and in the slightly sweet-smelling furniture stores an instruction fixed to a rolling rack offers advice on the treatment of ‘fragile gilt’.
As the title suggests, the exhibition is built on the conceit of a dictionary. Clark and Phillips have drawn up a hyper-concise lexicon of 11 terms – running from ‘Armoured’ to ‘Tight’ – each of which relates to a particular installation. Considering the word ‘Measured’, the exhibit is a beautifully crafted but entirely fantastical diamond-grid storage unit, open in three places to reveal a kid glove and two small porcelain figures that, in tandem with the diamond motif, relate to the decoration traced on the glove’s fabric. The objects, all 19th-century French, are borrowed from the V&A’s collection. Alongside are written definitions including ‘calculated excess’, ‘the fitted as fitting’ and ‘contained by the idea of containment’. The effect is circular: the words describe the objects, the objects make sense of the words and the words also, as in conventional dictionaries, define one another. Further along, ‘Fashionable’ is represented by a cabinet of contemporary and historical headwear, some of it made especially for the display. Among the term’s elaborations are ‘excited impatience with the body’, ‘the past in new clothes’ and ‘an experiment with pleasure, without proof.’
In some cases the installations and definitions tend more toward issues around hwow clothes are worn and stored in a personal sense and, in others, the institutional questions of archiving and exhibiting hold sway. But the link between the two – and the overriding concern of the project – is the tension between the hidden and the revealed. It would be a spoiler to describe the conjunction of object and image associated with ‘Tight’, but one of the word’s definitions ‘restriction as exposure’ could be used to sum up the exhibition as a whole.
Leaving the building, the last display is associated with the term ‘Creased’. In an arched coal bunker off a narrow alley, a recumbent linen and canvas conservation pillow wears an elaborately ruffled Junya Watanabe dress brought to eye-level on a Princess-and-the-Pea stack of mattresses. Open to the elements, and only guarded by bars that a hand could pass without trouble, it seems heartbreakingly defenseless, particularly so in light of the conservatorial caution that is the driving force of Blythe House. The catalogue reveals that the dress, designed in 1992, is made from weatherproof fabric and was first shown in a stream of water, yet the parting shot of Clark and Phillip’s spellbinding adventure in wonder storage is the chill of vulnerability.