A Year at Clothworkers Pt.2

A Year at Clothworkers Pt.2

All refreshed? Stretched your legs? Here’s the second part of my experience at the V&A conference ‘A Year at Clothworkers’. In Part 1 I talked about the introduction to the Centre, Dries Van Noten and Dragon Robes, Some Chinese Things and a material and cultural analysis of Kenneth Tynan’s wardrobe, but there were more treats to come …

I must admit that Moroccan Contemporary Fashion is something which has only subliminally registered on my radar, but I was shocked to find out that seems to be the case universally. Angela Jansen currently seems to be the only person seriously researching this growing fashion sector – up until now the main source of information has been the images of Jean Besancenot (1904–1992), a photographer and anthropologist who took a collection of photographs recording traditional Moroccan costume and jewellery in the 1930s. As Jansen pointed out, this is problematic in itself as he was a) male; b) French (Morocco at this stage was still considered an imperial French outpost). Angela took us through the cocepts of historical Moroccan dress and the transition for women from the traditional haik to the kaftan via the djellaba, a garment previously worn only by men.


Paul and Talitha Ghetty by Patrick Lichfield for a Moroccan 1969 Vogue shoot

A free flow of design ideas ensued between Morocco and France; designers such as Paul Poiret were heavily influenced by Moroccan styles and details, while Moroccan style started to see more of a western influence in its more streamlined silhouettes. One of the main turning points came when Vogue Editor-in-Chief Diana Vreeland (whose son was the U.S. Moroccan Ambassador) began a love affair with the country, particularly during the ’60s, and really put Moroccan style on the map with her championing of the kaftan. Several stylish Vogue shoots later, style icons such as Catherine Deneuve and the Queen of the Netherlands were regularly seen in public sporting kaftans and Moroccan-style clothing. During the ’60s new Moroccan designers began to emerge, less familiar names than western designers of the time such as Naima Bennis, Zina Guessous, Tamy Tazi and Zhor Sebti. The usual flow of design influences took place, and Yves Saint Laurent (who had a house in Marrakesh) included many Moroccan details in his 1970s collections. The mid-1990s saw another Moroccan fashion resurgence with names such as Albert Oiknine and Mohamed Lakhdar coming to the fore.  The talk ended with a look at where we are now with a better-known 3rd-generation crop of designers: Noureddine Amir, Armina Aqueznay and Said Mahrouf to name a few. The latter is interesting as he was brought up in Holland from the age of 3, but returned to Morocco as his career was taking off which begs the question is he a Moroccan or a Dutch designer? This question of cross cultural influences and identities is one which keeps cropping up.


Silk tapestry weave, Burma, mid-late C19th (part of Forbes Watson’s collection) (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Next was Sonia Ashmore talking about the Indian Textiles Cataloguing Project. The museum houses 10,000 objects in the South and South East Asian collections, more than half of which came from the Indian Museum (originally run by the East India Company) in approximately 1879-1880. There were so many objects that they couldn’t all be catalogued at the time, but finally the V&A are finally getting the opportunity to do so. When the Indian Museum closed down in 1861, much of the collection went to a site in Whitehall, and then onto the South Kensington Museum in 1880 (you can read more about the history of the exhibits on the V&A website). Many of the items still have their original description tags in varying degrees of legibility and translation and going through the collection for the exhibition is throwing up some unusual finds, including a 5.9m wide pair of trousers!

Over half of the textile exhibits are incomplete – in an effort to broaden the knowledge about the variety of textiles he found, John Forbes Watson (Reporter for the Products of India at the India Office) published The Collections of the Textile Manufactures of India in 1866, eighteen volumes of mounted and classified samples of Indian textiles containing seven hundred examples in all. This explains the amount of textiles which now exist as remnants, snipped and cut into for Forbes Watson’s collections. The Harris Museum, Preston is home to two of these books (the museum is also currently running a great exhibition ‘A Dyer’s Journey Through Art and Fashion’ until end November) , and you can find out much more information about the books on the Textile Manufactures of India website.


Floor spread, late C17th-early C18th (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

On the back of that discussion we were lucky enough to get a sneak peak into The Fabric of India Exhibition, an upcoming V&A exhibition showcasing the history of Indian Textiles which will run from September 2015 – January 2016. Exhibits will include folk embroideries, mogul silk hangings and contemporary fashion … I’m drooling at the thought; the glimpses we saw included stunning embroideries decorated with iridescent beetle wings and mica. The show will cover materials, dyes, weaving and printing methods, and the reasons for the fabrics being made (such as religious purposes).

Moya Carey discussed the collection of Persian carpets held by the museum, including the magnificent ‘Ardabil’ carpet on display in the Jameel Gallery. In order to preserve the colours, the Ardabil can only be lit in 10-minute stints twice an hour; light is generally the enemy of textile conservation, but Carey discussed how valuable the space at the Clothworkers has been for enabling the opportunity to examine carpets close up for short periods in the daylight, allowing researchers to view tiny details and shimmering silks in a different context.


Anatomy of a Corset

Which again led neatly to the next topic (you’d almost think this had been planned), a fascinating talk about ‘Daylight and X-ray Vision: The Pattern book series at Clothworkers’. Fans of the Norah Waugh and Janet Arnold series of books which deconstruct historical dress patterns will love to know that their legacy is being continued with the help of the excellent School of Historical Dress. By using x-ray technology, researchers are able to look through the fabric to study the structure, stitching and fabric contents themselves, producing some stunning images in their own right. As an example, Susan North showed us a picture of a whalebone corset and discussed how there had been doubt over whether or not the whalebone had been stitched through, or whether that was even possible. The x-ray images proved that it had indeed been stitched through, and they were able to work out the method on that basis. Using these methods of research, the book authors are able to make small scale toiles to pin down the construction techniques and produce a beautifully detailed and clear sequence of drawings and diagrams, including lace trimmings.


Part of the V&A ‘Couturier Scheme’ utility wear collection

The final main segment of the day was about London Couture 1923-1975. Edwina Ehrman focused on the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, an organisation set up in 1942 to promote British textiles and fashion designers. The aim of the society was to encourage exports during the war (primarily to the U.S.), and boasted names such as Hardy Amies, Norman Hartnell and Edward Molyneux at the helm. Coming at this from a look at handknitting point of view, this was a period when yarns were heavily rationed and hard to get hold of, so this is a different angle on the textile industry at the time – the fact that the country was still able to manufacture and export haute couture clothing is astonishing in itself. The Society contributed to the Utility Clothing Scheme with its ‘Couturier Scheme’, an effort to show how high-fashion elegant designs could be produced within strict production guidelines. 34 utility clothing items were produced under the Scheme, although the designers’ names were not associated with the items for fear of the fashion-starved public rushing to buy a piece of haute couture rather than an essential piece of clothing! I went to see some of the items which are still on display at the V&A (see image left), and it’s hard to imagine them being produced under such austere conditions.

We had a look at how the elegant female tailored suit was considered an essential piece in your wardrobe, something so versatile that you could dress it up or down for day or evening wear. I have many, many examples of hand-knit tailored suit patterns in my collection which is another example of how high fashion translated into handknits mid-20th century (I feel another blogpost coming on). Ehrman showed us two suits side by side, one by Charles Creed and one by Michael Donéllan, as an example of how different designers put their own touches into their designers. Creed was from a military tailoring family and it very much showed in his signature pieces, essentially feminising a masculine tradition, whereas Michael was more of an international flavoured designer, incorporating elegant touches – not for nothing was he known as the Balenciaga of London.

The Society was dissolved in 1975, having limped along since 1969 suffering from high taxes and overheads and increasing competition.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this lengthy look into a rather special organisation. This might all sound like an advert for the V&A, but I think it’s easy to forget or even to be unaware of the amazing resources that our museums and collections offer. We’re incredibly lucky to have access to the riches within these museums, and often at no cost to ourselves – it’s down to us to seek them out.



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