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MoM recommends: Fashion Museum

The Fashion Museum, in Bath, is one of those museums that could not be located in a better place. Bang in the middle of the city, and only a short walk from other attractions such as the famous Roman Baths, it gets away with charging £9 for a standard adult ticket. Rather a costly sum for most, especially in a family-touristy area, but I can tell you I was glad that I paid it.

The museum is located inside the old Assembly Rooms, built in 1769, for the Georgian social elite. This of course lends a certain added meaning to the collection on display in the museum, as each piece is of exquisite quality, just like the Assembly Rooms themselves. The museum’s main exhibition, A History of Fashion in 100 objects, has been nestled into the building’s basement, with some perfectly purpose-fitted display cases. The galleries aren’t particular large, and in fact I imagine it would get a bit claustrophobic if it was very busy. Instead its somewhat cosy, and requires you to follow the perimeter of the rooms in chronological order.

The first gallery, 1660-1770s.

The historic costumes are beautifully displayed with what appears like minimal effort. Of course we know that in fact a lot of time and design went into this, but it appears so effortless and effective. I was more than glad that they had opted to use headless mannequins to display the garments, one of my pet hates is old-style creepy mannequins (often old shop stock) so often seen in older, underfunded museums.

We were also given an audio guide, free of charge, and incredibly easy to use, and which gave us a little description for each object on display. Although the audio guide wasn’t overly informative, only a snippet of interesting background for each, it really did help me to engage with the many chronological garments. As well as this, the signs for the objects were located towards the ground, and so it limited the amount of times you had to bend your head up and down between object and interpretation.

Collection of C17th gloves with archival boxes

The majority of items on display were dresses, suits, or other quite formal items of clothing. But there were also items of underwear, hats, and shoes on display. There was also a small collection of fans and some fantastic gloves in the first gallery. Some of the gloves on display dated from the period of Shakespeare, making an excellent start to the exhibition. But from the viewpoint of a museum professional, I absolutely loved the design of the glove display. The use of archival boxes in exhibitions is fairly common these days, but its so effective. Usually freely available from your own collection, and with the added benefit of being aesthetically simple yet effective, they’re a great way to create a modern looking display without using lots of extra funds.

A macaroni’s outfit

It was made clear that each piece of clothing was selected as example of clear changes in fashion history. For example, a suit dating from the 1780s is described by the museum as an example of the kind of clothing sported by Macaronis. I’ve an endless fascination with the escapades of C.18th gentleman, especially the Grand Tour undertaken by many a young man in the making. Macaronis symbolised everything fashionable and epicene. Macaronis, kind of fops, were essentially a precursor to the more known and rather more masculine dandies of the later C.18th. As the audio guide was explaining the outfit to the right, the clothes were far narrower and more well fitted than previously more conservative styles. Another little display design I liked went with this item in the form of an C.18th caricature included next to the signage text. I always like extra interpretive material, especially if it grounds an object in the historical context it is trying to convey. C.18th caricatures have an almost innate way of being able to interpret another self-reflective perspective of an event/object/society, as they are themselves a direct product of the attitudes of the time. This allows both curators and visitors a window to engage with the object’s past in a humorous way.

Macaroni caricature


Another fascinating element to the exhibition was how you were encouraged to see the change in women’s history through their dress habits. The first gallery included some beautifully crafted dresses, with examples of various dress types, such as the open dress. It also showed various parts of a woman’s dress, including the horribly named ‘stomacher’, a piece of v-shaped stiff fabric placed across the stomach and chest in the inside of an open dress. It was great to see an attempt to describe the separate elements to these complicated garments, in contrast to the easier, more convenient styles later on.

The exhibition design in terms of lighting was also excellent, with signage being well lit from within, a great addition for visitors with depleted eyesight. Each garment was beautifully lit, not letting any detail get lost in shadow.

Though the Fashion Museum may not be to everyone’s tastes, I can guarantee that there is a garment for everyone here. The exhibition’s use of the ‘100 objects’ framework lends an accessibility to those without any kind of previous fashion knowledge, and yet remains fascinating and very enjoyable.

Now here’s a bonus picture:


A Rapid Response


Copyright V&A Museum. V&A’s first accessioned app.


So this is not breaking news any more, I am more than slightly late for the party, but I think the V&A’s decision to adopt a new strategy of ‘Rapid Response Collecting’ is very cool. This was introduced in 2014, and it isn’t a ‘new’ idea per se, institutions have been collecting contemporary items for years, but the V&A have deliberately made it their business to immediately collect items from breaking events from around the world. For example, they accessioned their first phone app, Flappy Bird, after it’s creator made the mildly controversial decision to remove it for sale when the public got a little too obsessed with it. I don’t know how they plan to conserve the app, but it is nevertheless a valuable asset to a museum that focuses upon design and its impact upon society.


Rana Plaza Building after collapse. Photo from The Telegraph Online.

My favourite, however, is the pair of cheap and dull trousers from Primark. An item that is so easily collected that anyone could do it. But what makes this item collection-worthy is the shared experience of thousands of factory workers employed at the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh to make Primark clothing, and also a building that collapsed in 24th April 2013 killing 1133 employees and injuring thousands more. This event brought to light the dangerous working conditions of those employed, just so Britain could purchase cheap garments. Also, the tragedy highlighted the rapid changing of clothing trends, and the need of the market to keep up, much to the detriment of large communities of people.

It is hard not to be awed by the complex history of a simple pair of trousers. The way that the V&A have constructed this new strategy allows them to respond quickly to modern events without the paperwork and committees needed for new acquisitions. In turn this also allows them to collect in the moment, theoretically meaning that the item chosen will have a stronger historical connection in a few decades.

Museums are no longer places that solely put the past on display, and no longer do the public take interpretation as gospel. Museums are evolving into spaces for reflection on current events, and although the public engage more critically with what they’re seeing, museums have a unique advantage in that people still trust them as an institution.

museums are not just bystanders or “witnesses to history”, they are becoming a voice and a force in shaping the social future. Museums are looking to create emotional experiences that inspire visitors to take action.”¹


Life jackets on display. Image from http://www.unitedagainstracism.org.

This unique trust should be put to good use, and adopting a rapid collection strategy allows museums to keep up to date with social and political changes, local or global, it doesn’t matter, just engaging with their visitors. This does require a LOT of guts, many local museums perhaps do not have that levity to risk rocking the boat with local communities, as many people do still see museums in the classic, traditional framework.

Museums are also becoming more transparent in their operations and processes, involving the public more and more with the complete ‘museum process’, would this not be a brilliant time to invite visitors to discuss issues in a increasingly transparent society? The People’s History Museum in Manchester, for example, created a wooden ‘EU tunnel’ in their gallery as a place for visitors to discuss the EU Referendum. Another example, perhaps more troubling, is the installation of life jackets worn by refugees, and the stories of those who wore them, in an exhibition called Call me by my name: stories from Calais and beyond by the Migration Museum Project. The project leaders saw the opportunity to purchase these life jackets and ship them to Britain for the exhibition, and thought it would be a compelling collection of items that would challenge how visitors view migrants and refugees.


On an more local museum scale, the M Shed in Bristol has a permanent exhibition about the Occupy Bristol protests in 2011. included in the exhibition are items such as a radio, placards, and other objects collected from the protest camp site. The M Shed actually opened a few months later, showing that the decision to accession these items matched the thoughts of the V&A’s Rapid Response strategy, but on a local scale.

Museums are, at heart, democratic. They should be “by rule of the commoners” and the freedom for the public to expect, and demand, exhibitions and events that reflect the rapid way in which we experience the world should be adopted as at least a ‘way-of-thinking’ in each museum. Working it into museum policy would be even better.

¹ Brown, Clare, ‘Future of Museums: Social Impact + UX + PHYGITAL’ from http://www.museum-id.com/idea-detail.asp?id=283


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