Utrecht’s Centraal Museum is celebrating it was the first museum to employ a paid fashion curator. It celebrates in style: an impressive fashion exhibition numbering over one hundred items can be visited till the 22nd of October 2017. The exhibition title “Out of Fashion” is of course a small joke, but also hints at how items are displayed.
Flowers everywhere: swirling in wonderful patterns and brilliant colours which will delight you. You are shown 16th century bedspreads, printed fabrics, clothes, accessories, a centuries old kimono, a modern tent. Videos explain traditional methods, used to produce prints. Or they show how centuries old methods, which are slowly disappearing, can be used to create modern art. This wonderful exhibition revolves around … chintz!
The Gemeente Museum in The Hague has done it again. Another fabulous fashion exhibition to drool over by fashionistas, film lovers, fans young and old. This time, fashion created by Mr Hubert de Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn – and others – can be admired. The exhibition was created with the assistance of Mr de Givenchy himself.
The Rijksmuseum is an altogether more professional and smooth-running operation than the van Gogh. If visitors need to queue outside one of the entrances into the museum, at least the museum shelters them from the worst of the Dutch weather – though the wind can howl freely through the tunnel underneath the building.
One enters this exhibition by brushing through a row of long petticoats. This seems rather odd. All is explained at the start of the fshion exhibition “Crinolines & cie”, at the Brussels Costume and Lace Museum.
After watching the biographical film Yves SL last year, as well as a few documentaries about French fashion designers launching collections, “Dior and I” was left on the back-burner. Too much fashion, too much style, too many people spending astonishing amounts of money on non-stylish haute couture can be too much. There were also a lot of interesting films released at the same time. But finally, it was time for “Dior and I”.
Before visiting the costume exhibition at the The Hague Gemeente Museum (see “Mr Darcy”), I attended a symposium organised by the Dutch Costume Society. Of course, their symposium focussed on the exhibition.
Introduction to the exhibition
After registration and coffee at the wonderful Gember café, the first series of lectures started at the Gemeente Museum. Curator ms Hohé, gave an overview of the exhibition and changes in fashion during the era it covers. The contrast between fashion just before and after the French Revolution is already striking. But watching how fashion changed from Jane Austen’s time till the early 20th century, is dazzling.
Some problems faced when preserving and restoring costumes
In the second lecture, Mr Rodiguez Salinas talked about restoration problems museums face, when preserving costumes, cloth, accessories, for posterity.
Cloth is cut and stitched, accessories used, costumes worn, altered and show signs of wear and tear. Some fibres are stronger than others.
Until recently, cleaning was a problem. There were no washing machines, no dryers, no dry-cleaning. So dirt, fungi, insects can cause damage.
Chemical dyes were a fairly new invention. Dying can damage materials. Some chemical components are quite aggressive, even poisonous.
Then there is the combination of various materials, with one for instance not lasting as long as the other one. All in all, it was clear that many clothes simply cannot be preserved for posterity.
Nineteenth century inconveniences
Ms Montijn talked about the dreadful business of etiquette, customs, social obligations, and similar inconveniences which were part of 19th century everyday life. Some stories were hilarious, others heart-breaking.
People did not earn much money and did not own many clothes. Ever asked an elderly family member about hand-me-downs? If not, try nineteen century literature. As shown in this exhibition, bridal wear had to be practical so not white. This dress would not be worn once to church but many times. Or it was altered to serve as a maternity dress. Which reader remembers that during Dickens’ time, it were not just women who wore corsets.
During this lecture, stories from novels, biographies, and other writings were read out. One author wrote about his father, a poor shoe-maker, making a pair of hand-made boots to small. Another pair had to be made, but the faulty pair was too expensive to throw away. When they proved unsellable, the boy wore them. Fortunately, he had not yet started primary school: they were girl’s boots
Arsenic and old lace
After lunch, there followed a lecture on the “new” chemical dyes used in nineteenth century cloth. Quite a few of these new dyes are so brilliant, one is still tempted to put on sunglasses to look at costumes in which the cloth is used.
The lecture did not focus on brilliance though. It was about the use of dyes containing arsenic to colour tarlatan. One of the dresses shown in the exhibition will never be restored. The amount of arsenic used in its green dye is too high!
In the nineteenth century, people were not oblivious to this. There were plenty documented cases from the early nineteenth century onwards and in various countries throughout Europe. Such cases were reported in newspapers. But the substance was sold under a variety of names. The list shown by mr Mertens was impressive.
Even when the first sewing machines started to be used, much was still done by hand. One of the cases cited concerned the wearer of a ball gown becoming ill during a ball. On investigation, it turned out needle women who had worked on the dress also showed signs of arsenic poisoning. But as with similar twentieth century chemical and pharmaceutical cases, it took decades for this dangerous colour to be banned.
Costumes: inside – out
The most fascinating part of this symposium was the “look behind the scene”. Museum staff and volunteers showed over 20 depot pieces, from cover to bottom as well as inside.
Each nineteenth century costume – ranging from underwear, children’s clothes, day and evening wear for men and women – lay on a table. Each table was numbered. Guests were split in groups of about ten people. Each group had 10 minutes at each table, before moving on to the next costume.
Enthusiastic volunteers and staff told groups about the costume, allowing close-up views. Alterations were shown, damage was pointed out, inside stitching techniques were discussed, changes from day to evening wear revealed.
This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime “behind the scene” event. It was a real privilege to be shown these depot pieces in such a manner.
Of course this symposium finished with a visit to the wonderful exhibition. This temporary exhibition can be visited in the The Hague Gemeentemuseum till March 2015. For more information about ticket prices, check the museum website.
Just after lunch, one of the guests asked for information about series of special guild “quilts”. Mrs Beukers, former magazine editor, was looking for information about knitted Guild samplers from Poland and the Alsace region. Apparently, there are only about 20 of these left worldwide. Three seem to be in American museums and a few have been located in other museums.
Nobody in the audience could help, so feel free to contact me if you have any information which might help locate these special Polish and Alsace knitted Guild works, or can provide information related to these.
After visiting the The Hague Gemeente Museum’s current costume exhibition (see “Mr Darcy meets Eline Vere”), of course a visit to the Brussels’ Costume and Lace Museum came next. Where the The Hague exhibition ends with the First World War, the Brussels one focusses on the late 1920s and the 1930s. This exhibition runs till the 1st of February 2015.
The museum is close to Brussel’s Grand Place, in the Rue de la Violette. On paying the four Euro entrance fee, one receives a guide of the exhibition. The exhibition sprawls over three floors. The top floor also has a small permanent exhibition on lace. Young children can try out costumes there as well. But throughout this exhibition, there are also plenty activities to keep them occupied.
At ground floor level, the exhibition starts with a display case containing two costumes: one from the twenties, the other one from the thirties. The contrasts between the decade just after WWI and the decade just before WWII is striking. The twenties are the era of the generation which survived a dreadful war. It is the age of the “flappers”, “The Sun Also Rises”, “The Great Gatsby”. It is followed by a decade of great unemployment and poverty, social and political unrest, the rise of nationalism and ultimately another World War.
Throughout the exhibition, there are also creations by modern designers who are still influenced by fashion from these two decades. Not surprising, as the needle craft and design skills shown in all the exhibited period costumes, are impressive and of a very high quality.
The dress-code is also striking. A “fashionista” needed dresses for every hour of the day. There are pyjamas and house suits. There are morning dresses and day dresses. There are afternoon as well as tea-dresses. There are summer and winter suits. There is holiday gear. There are evening dresses, party dresses, teddies and night shifts.
It does not stop there, for the exhibition also shows accessories. Depending on the occasion and time of day; shoes, gloves, hats, bags change. This exhibition does not forget underwear: silk stockings, figure shaping support and such items are also on show.
Children’s fashion is not forgotten, but unlike at the The Hague exhibition, examples of male fashion are missing. What the Brussels exhibition does show, are quite a few dresses and hats designed by local fashion designers. But there are also creations by Chanel, Schiaparelli, and even third generation Worth.
Quite interesting are two bridal dresses. One is from the late twenties; the other one from the thirties. They perfectly illustrate the differences between the decades, as explained at the start of this exhibition.
The display cabinet which shows fashion magazines is interesting as well. It contains early Vogues and other magazines. the front cover of the last magazine shows a woman dressed in a suit based on military outfits. It’s from 1939: the Second World War had started.
If you visit this museum, do not forget to have a look at the examples of lace and lace bobbing. On the ground floor is also a separate room containing four marvellous embroidered tapestries. They show the four seasons.
For the museum’s website: Musée du Costume et de la Dentelle
During the past weekend, I visited one of the temporary exhibitions at the The Hague Gemeente Museum. This interesting museum, which was the temporary home of part of the Mauritshuis collection till that reopened (see review Mauritshuis), regularly hosts fashion exhibitions. A previous one focussed on Coco Chanel. The current exhibition is even more impressive and is called “Romantic fashions: Mr Darcy meets Eline Vere”.
Who is Eline Vere? Like Mr Darcy, she is a character from a novel. The novel bearing her name was written by the The Hague author Louis Couperus. Some Dutch literary critics call Eline the “Madame Bovary” of Dutch literature. It’s not that good, but while Mr Darcy and Jane Austen lived around 1800, Eline Vere and Mr Couperus lived around 1900. The exhibition roughly covers this period.
It starts with the thin, practically see-through gowns which were post-French-Revolution fashion statements worn by the likes of Madame Recamier, Empress Josephine, Queen Hortense, Jane Austen – and characters from her novels. Quite a few women abolished corsets. Some scandalized contemporaries claimed a few women wore nothing under their gowns – oh la-la!
A room further and things change. Skirts are worn over petticoats, sleeves become longer. Sleeves ultimately become so large, they need to be pinned up to prevent them wiping food off dishes during meals. Later they will change into the so-called leg o’mutton ones. Corsets were also firmly back in fashion. A few exhibited dresses further, the first crinolines appear: female fashion goes “Gone with the Wind”.
After Scarlet O’Hara’s crinolines reach a kind of max size, fashion changes yet again. Think of dresses worn in films based on novels by Henry James, which draw the eye to the female back.
At least one of James’ heroines mentions she cannot possibly return to New York without a dress created by Worth. What a contrast with the sporty “Bloomer” girl who – horror of horrors – dumped petticoats, crinolines, what not, to cycle in an early female trouser-suit!
Of course, the exhibition also covers male fashion. The French revolution abolished elaborately embroidered, colourful suits. Male fashion became a dull and sober affair. Changes were not as spectacular as in female fashion and by the end of the 19th century, the male suit already looks a lot like our bland affair. Though modern dandies no longer wear corsets, which 19th century men used to create the manly shape so “en-vogue” during the Victorian era.
Most of the preserved clothes in museums once belonged to wealthy people. The poor would have altered, repaired, handed down and patched-up their clothes till these were only fit to be cut up and used for patchwork and quilts. However, the dress in the middle of the Tartan section did belong to a servant girl. Many women married in a best dress, which usually was not our “wear only once, white affair”. The exhibition shows a few best dresses, altered so they could be worn during pregnancies.
The exhibition starts with costumes from the BBC tv-series “Pride and Prejudice”, including a suit and the famous shirt worn by Colin Firth. It ends with costumes from another extremely popular BBC tv-series “Downtown Abbey”. Curator ms Hohé and others thought it more logical to not terminate the exhibition at exactly 1900. The Great War not only cost an appalling number of lives. It changed society for ever and also forms a watershed in fashion. One might say: Worth went out; Chanel arrived.”
“Romantic Fashions: Mr Darcy meets Eline Vere” can be seen at the Haags Gemeente Museum till March 2015.
Louis Couperus’ novel “Eline Vere” is available in an English translation.