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 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.
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.
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.
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: