My Bath journey would not have been complete without spending a bit of time with one of its most fashion-aware residents, the esteemed fashion journalist and former London club kid, Iain R. Webb, who now lives in Bath. I thought I would get the first thing out of the way and just say that all things Blitz are going to be coming your way what with the onslaught of 80s London underground club culture surfacing on the exhibition and book front. In July, the Victoria & Albert Museum will be bringing us the Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s exhibition. Before that though, Webb’s newly penned tome entitled As Seen In Blitz: Fashioning ’80s Style will emerge, charting the history of the magazine Blitz, where Webb was fashion editor from 1982-87. Unlike its contemporaries like The Face and i-D, which have survived though nostalgia tinted scans and as a still-active publication respectively, images from Blitz are certainly hard to get a hold of, save for scant scans on The Blitz Kids website, a confusing image warren of all things London and 80s. The book will have a hundred BLITZ fashion stories, unseen archive content and images as well as indepth interviews with a familiar cast of characters – Boy Geore, Leigh Bowery, Anna Piaggi, David LaChapelle as well as designers such as Stephen Jones, Bodymap, Judy Blame and more. A thirty second flick through the book already got me excited. I’ll hold off on the ecstatic praise until I get hold of a copy, and maybe head down to the ICA where there will be a Blitz weekend in May and dive the blog head first into that headonistic period.
One intrinsically important character as part of that 80s London club set is the inimitable Princess Julia and she was down in Bath to have a discussion with Webb, reminiscing about their days of working on Blitz magazine together, applying their make-do-and-mend, DIY an thoroughly haphazard approach to shoots and editorials. The engaging banter and image appraisal session left me with one question: can today’s generation of fashion enthusiasts ever free themselves of the shackles of how great yesteryear was and go about the task of uninhibited publishing that will be as impactful as Blitz/The Face? Both Webb and Julia were positive that this was already happening.
Most hilarious flashback moment was this spread featuring Hamish Bowles trussed up in his personal collection of Chanel.
In addition to giving his weight and support to the Bath in Fashion activities, Webb also acts as a consultant at the Fashion Museum in Bath, a place where I especially have fond memories of. School trip to Bath. Aged 14. We were tasked to draw some of the frocks that were on display at the Fashion Museum and it was only the second museum, after the V&A where I got to experience fashion history at such close proximity. The teacher practically had to tear me away after our one-hour alotted visiting time. “But that 18th century court mantua was AMAZING!” I exclaimed at the time. To my classmates, it was a ridiculous hip-padded shackle of a costume. To me, these dresses made me want to absorb every single minute detail about them. To learn all of those names, cuts, eras and learn them well.
Therefore it felt tingly to revisit the Fashion Museum in Bath, a gem of a costume resource in this country that was recently listed in CNN’s round-up of fashion museums in the world, holding its own against the likes of the Costume Institute at the Met in New York or Les Arts Decoratifs in Paris. The current year long exhibition is a simple concept – 50 Fabulous Frocks, to celebrate the museum’s 50th anniversary. The definition of frock is used in its originating form - name for an article of clothing for men and women – but by and large we have come to know the word to denote a flamboyant dress so the exhibition complies with that definition. In amongst the frocks, the names jump out at you - Schiaparelli, Poiret, Vionnet, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and more recent additions from Burberry and Erdem – but more to the point, Webb, together with principal curator Rosemary Harden, have chosen pieces for aesthetic merit, showcasing the museum’s strength of gathering perfect condition garments that date back to the 17th century. There’s my beloved court mantua but also oddities such as a Veuve Clicquot fancy dress costume from the early 20th century or a 1930s silk crepe dress embroidered with the original Mickey Mouse head. Pieces by Charles Frederick Worth, Versace, and unknown designers all mingle together because they’re all well… equally fabulous.
The permanent collections of the museum are also on display, showcasing again the museum’s extensive collection of period pieces.
Gung ho visitors are also given the opportunity to dress up in Victorian garb… these French kids were overly eager to get frocked-up.
The Victorian collections are displayed behind glass in the manner of an open archive with the garment boxes piled high, to illustrate the sheer amount that the museum has, as well as the idea of garment storage.
The 20th century daywear garments are styled up on mannequins, mixing up decades and styles to give them editorial verve and avoiding the fashion museum cliche of each garment existing only within the confines of its chronology.
The Glamour section is a bank of colour-cordinated eveningwear that gets female frock lovers very excited.
Since the first year of the museum’s opening, a member of the fashion industry has selected a Dress of the Year to represent their time period. This is in line with the museum’s desire to want to continue reflecting their current times. The rollcall of names of journalists, editors and stylists and their selected designers over the years is a great overview of the changes within the fashion industry over the past five decades. This year, Vanessa Friedman of the Financial Times has selected this strapless ballgown with cigarette trousers from Raf Simons’ haute couture’ debut for Christian Dior as the Dress of the Year.
“This dress, or rather this evolution of the dress, from Raf Simons’s first couture show for Christian Dior, represents not just a generational shift in fashion ‚Äì the moment when a new designer took over at the ultimate French couture house ‚Äì but also an aesthetic new direction. It signals a move away from the most escapist, extreme garments of the fin de siecle and toward a new 21st century, post-recession balance that blends functionality with fantasy, while at the same time returning to the essential values of the couture: making women’s lives easier.”
Finally, the museum houses a section called Top Trends, which is yet another way of connecting the museum’s archives with the present day by mixing and matching yesteryear pieces to evoke the spring summer 2013 trends such as excessive rococco as seen at Meadham Kirchhoff and ruffles as seen at Givenchy and Chloe.
Webb and Harden’s collective work for the museum has produced a vibrant and imaginative way of showcasing the history of fashion. It’s far livelier than the dim lit rooms of chronological fashion display that I remember from my first visit of my youth and frankly makes me want to plan regular annual returns to the museum just to see what other changes they might instill to reinvigorate the collections.
Webb then took me on to the Holburne Museum, another fine institution in Bath, which begins with an imposing Bath stone late 18th century facade and at the back has been extended with a modern glass structure. The focal point at the front currently though is one of illustrator and artist Julie Verhoeven‘s ladies. Sponsored by the School of Art and Design at the Bath Spa University, Verhoeven has created an installation called ‘Ladies, Let’s Rip!’ that runs throughout the museum. Inspired by the grandiose 18th century portraiture by the likes of Thomas Gainsborough and in particular a 1758 potrait of Alicia and Jane Clarke by Arthur Devis, Verhoeven lets it rip with her own theatrical ladies adorned with finery and fakery. They’re brilliant interrupted canvases decorated in patchwork chintz, frippery and ribbondry as well as with Verhoeven’s signature illustrations and they contrast hilariously with the museum’s paintings as well as raising an eyebrow or two down in the gentile museum cafe and garden. Many of Holburne Museum goers are for want of a better word well-to-do elderly folkand I found it quite funny that they might be looking at Verhoeven’s installation with a more than quizzical eye.