A Year At Clothworkers Pt.1

A Year At Clothworkers Pt.1

You may remember I spent an inspiring afternoon at the V&A Clothworkers Centre a couple of months ago, poring over items of knitwear with a magnifying glass. I was so intrigued by the goings-on at Blythe House that I signed up to a special day of talks, ‘A Year at Clothworkers’, which took place yesterday in the stunning Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre (pictured above). It didn’t disappoint, the day was full of fascinating insights into the collection itself, and how the V&A archives provide an invaluable resource for students, designers, authors … and even retired dentists! This is the first of two parts for those of you with short attention spans (I include myself in that category).

So first some stats, courtesy of Clothworkers Centre Manager Suzanne Smith who kickstarted the day. The Centre opened in October 2013 and over the last year they received 2,700 visitors, who viewed 7,000 objects (not each obviously). The majority of visitors come for study and research purposes, either as individuals or in groups, for reasons such as film costume research, genealogy, study and re-enactment events.


Christian Dior’s ‘Bar’ Suit (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

An average of 6-10 items were viewed per visit – the Centre requires a 3-4 week lead time before before an appointment can take place, expecting the visitor to have a firm idea of what they’d like to view prior to the visit. An archive of 1,147,581 objects can be found on the V&A website’s online database which is an ongoing project in itself – only 25% of items have an accompanying image! The majority of the items were requested only once, with 20th century fashion being the most popular subject. Some items proved more popular than others, so the Elsa Schiaparelli/Salvador Dali surreal ’30s collaboration ‘Tears Dress’ was requested 16 times, while Dior’s classic ’50s New Look ‘Bar’ suit came in a close second at 14. Tangent alert: I was lucky enough to see the latter in my last visit to the Centre, all laid out ready for some lucky researcher to examine more closely – the waist really does appear tiny, but it’s only when you see it close up that you realise the padding not only at the shoulders but also at the jacket peplum and top of the skirt really do emphasise that area.

One of the most inspiring things about the Centre was how much the exchange of knowledge flows both ways – when visitors request an item it also gives the V&A staff a chance to examine the piece more closely, and often things come to light which hadn’t been noted before, giving them a chance to update their records. As an example, Suzanne recounted the visit of a retired dentist who wanted to see  an elderly tapestry. She was curious about his motive until a detail of the tapestry revealed St Apollonia, Patron Saint of Dentistry, brandishing a pair of pliers gripping a large molar!

The public areas at Clothworkers are large and bright, and the point was re-inforced throughout the day that this is an outstanding space for research, with the individual researchers themselves often offering valuable insights into the pieces which are fed back into the V&A database. The visits even offer opportunities for staff to take those all-important missing images for items lacking them.


Next up were Oriole Cullen and Anna Jackson, discussing the influence of 18th century Chinese ‘dragon robes’ on the designer Dries Van Noten’s Autumn/Winter 2012 collection. Again, this stressed not only the relevance of the museum collection, but also how widespread the influence of the V&A collection is, with many designers incorporating details into their modern interpretations. Van Noten was very open about his influences for this particular collection, and by reproducing a detail from the hem of the robe pictured top left, gave it a new lease of life as a detail in one of his own garments (bottom left). For the V&A, this continues a legacy of Chinese and Japanese design influence begun in the late 19th century. At that time Japanese textiles became a big influence on British interiors, and kimonos became a popular form of bohemian dress. Ellen Terry, popular actress of the time, was rather partial to a kimono herself and it signalled her avant-garde approach to her art. The influence would extend beyond the turn of the century into the 1920s with the shape (and often details) of the flapper dress.


A selection of qipaos, 1960-1970 (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Sarah Cheang and Elizabeth Kramer took us through the emergence of the popular Chinese qipao in the 20th century. To wear the dress mid-century was the epitome of what it meant to be a modern Chinese woman – it retained the traditional collar and side opening of earlier garments, but introduced western details and structures. They also looked at how the cultural boundaries are being crossed in modern western fashion, and how there is a fluidity around the traditional elements and terms – for example, the popularity of the term ‘kimono’ amongst recent high street fashion retailers rarely relates to the actual article. I think this was a polite way of saying that the term is being completely mis-used most of the time in the name of fashion, and reminded me of Kate Davies’ blogpost about ‘Knitwear and Cultural Relativism’. It also allowed us a giggle at Kramer’s newly-coined term, the ‘kimoncho’, a cross between a kimono and a poncho!

tynanThe next topic took us into a more theoretical and forensic look at the life of a garment, or more specifically, about the person who wears it and breathes life into it. Ben Whyman, a student at the London College of Fashion, talked about how clothing is imbued – psychologically and physically – with the DNA of the wearer, how the proximity of the clothes to the body gives us “tangible evidence of lives lived”. He talked about cloth as being a kind of memory, or at least having memories imprinted on it – the wrinkles, the wear marks etc. Most of all, he is interested in the everyday objects which give us so many clues to the owner, these objects are the “most universal and yet most unique”.  Whyman studied garments at the Clothworkers worn by theatre critic Kenneth Tynan and came across his wallet, complete with photographic US driving licence and other items, inside one of the jacket pockets.  This, along with the ever-narrowing notches on his belt, give us a glimpse into Tynan’s physical health over the last couple of years of his life – he died in 1980, 2 years after the driving licence photo was taken.

And on that cheery note … should I stop there? We’re only halfway and there’s still a lot to go, so I think it might be time for lunch. Have a breather, stretch your legs,  and I’ll expect to see you back in your seats soon.

Still to come: Contemporary Moroccan Fashion, Indian Textiles, Persian Carpets, Garment Construction and London Couture.

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