Museum Celebrates Zandra Rhodes' Life In Textiles

By Kristen Bailey | 11 February 2005
Shows a photograph of two women wearing punk style dresses made out of jersey material. One is purple and includes a black sash attached with safety pins, the other two shades of green.

Zandra Rhodes' career has taken in many phases of fashion, including punk as seen here. © Clive Arrowsmith 1977.

Kristen Bailey is in the pink at the first British retrospective of the work of textile and fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, on at the Fashion and Textile Museum until June 25 2005.

As you enter the exhibition, a giant photo of Zandra Rhodes gives you a taste of what’s to come. She has fuchsia pink hair adorned with glittery yellow and blue feathers, turquoise eye shadow and pink lipstick. Minimalists beware! (Mind you, they probably ran for it when they saw the museum building – a symphony in bright pink and orange.)

The show takes you through Zandra Rhodes’ work from the past 40 years, and demonstrates every part of her design process – from initial sketches to printing, pattern cutting and the finished item. Garments are displayed on elaborately made-up mannequins, accessorised with Andrew Logan’s sparkling, oversized jewellery in coloured mirrored glass.

Shows a photograph of Zandra Rhodes against a red background. She has a dress with an oriental-style pattern on it and pink hair, balanced on top of which is a hat consisting of a small square block with a twisted tube with tassles attached coming out of it.

The designer herself. Zandra shows off her trademark style. © Robyn Beeche 1979.

A graduate of the Royal College of Art, Rhodes never intended to make clothes herself. She describes taking her textile prints to designers and being told they were either ‘too big or too extreme’. So she did things her own way.

Print layouts drawn onto huge pieces of card show how the final dress pattern conforms to the shapes within the original print – the complete opposite of how pattern cutting usually happens. A stunning example of this is a 1971 quilted jacket made from a cream and pink shell print satin. It’s hung over a length of the fabric it is made from, next to two of the silk screens used to print it.

A beautiful dress from 1970, edged with pieces of chiffon printed and cut out to look and move like feathers, is hung flat against the wall. The whole thing ripples softly in the breeze from the air conditioning.

There’s a breathtaking display of delicate, printed silk chiffon dresses from the late 1960s and early 70s. I gaze at them dreamily for a moment, but then a practicality hits me. They’re see-through - what does one wear underneath? (The mannequins have nothing to save their blushes.)

Shows a photograph of a woman wearing a Zandra Rhodes dress and posing against an open door in a room lit only by the glare of of a light that is out of shot.

© Clive Arrowsmith 1976.

Dress ‘73/44’ is a hugely popular design which has been produced in a wide variety of colours and prints. With its deep ‘V’ neck, long flowing sleeves and wide satin sash, it brings to mind Penelope Keith’s character Margot Leadbetter swishing about theatrically in 1970s sitcom The Good Life.

By contrast are the punk stylings of Rhodes’ late 70s designs. There’s a silk chiffon dress with a print of safety-pins, chains and tears, and a black jersey top which has holes cut in it, held together with bejewelled safety pins. There’s even a punk wedding dress.

The designer’s inspiration comes from all over the world - including Native American and South Asian dress, and back through history – Ancient Egypt and Greece, and Medieval Europe. Particularly eye-catching is an Egyptian-inspired tunic in lapis blue, beaded with a historic ‘wing’ design, which glistens endlessly under the spotlights. Rhodes has sited influences as diverse as Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies and Elizabeth I.

A row of display cases are crammed full of fascinating Zandra Rhodes ephemera – half-used pots of printing ink, sketchbook pages, magazine clippings, photos, swatches, stage directions for fashion shows - even a hard hat covered in pink glitter. A copy of the Three Degrees’ New Dimension LP shows the disco divas wearing matching pale blue printed Rhodes dresses.

Shows a photograph of a model walking down a catwalk and being photographed by various photographers in the background. She is wearing a long green dress in an oriental-style pattern with a deep V neck, long flowing sleeves and wide satin sash.

Dress 73/44, a la Margot! © Robyn Beeche 1982.

It’s great to see Andrew Logan’s 1989 glass mosaic bust of Zandra Rhodes, usually resident in the National Portrait Gallery, here alongside a collection of portrait paintings and photographs of her. There is also a row of promotional photos from Rhodes’ fashion collections, in which the models (often Rhodes herself) wear exotic, outlandish make-up, jewellery and hairstyles.

She’s designed stage costumes for T-Rex and Freddie Mercury, and outfits for Princess Diane, Princess Anne and Zsa Zsa Gabor. More recently she has dressed Kylie Minogue, Kate Moss and Kelly Osbourne.

Zandra Rhodes is first and foremost a textile designer. Speaking at the exhibition’s press launch, she said: “Textile printing is an art form and I don’t think people appreciate it. The rest of the world cuts your work up and you don’t get any credit.”

But she’s optimistic that a change is coming. Designers like Eley Kishimoto, Ashish and Jonathan Saunders are once again filling the catwalks with striking print designs. Rhodes herself is producing collections for high street fashion giant Topshop. “The world is aware of textiles again,” she said.

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