Obligatory Adidas trainers. Courtesy Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.
Kristen Bailey peers through the seams at Brighton Museum's vast fashion and textiles archive.
Fatboy Slim’s shirt, King George’s breeches and a rather nice pair of Jimmy Choos – all on show in the Fashion & Style gallery at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. But what’s on display is just a small fraction of the costume archive.
Now, a new storage facility gives members of the public easier access to items from the collection, which are not normally on display.
The collection consists of around 10,000 items of dress and accessories, dating from the 17th century to the present day – including garments by Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake and Biba, as well as other artefacts and documents relevant to the collection, such as watercolour prints of (former Brighton resident) George IV’s coronation.
T-shirt by Toptee, 1988, worn by B-Boy. Donated by Tom Bartnell. Courtesy Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.
“We specifically collect things which have a link to Brighton and Hove,” says Eleanor Thompson, Curator of Costume and Textiles. “So either they've been made here, or they've got a link to a wearer who's from the city. Whenever we receive an item, we collect as much information about the donor and the object as possible.”
Until recently, the collection was in a temporary store, which was neither environmentally controlled nor accessible to the public. However, a brand new facility has just been fitted out and the collection is now accessible to the public by appointment.
“Over the next few years we will be documenting the costume collection, item by item, on the museum’s website – with a photograph and a short description, then further layers of information,” Eleanor explains.
“Eventually that will build up into a very public catalogue of the collection, so people see what there is and make an appointment to see a particular item.”
The archive doesn't just celebrate the old masters - modern street style is very much part of the collection. Courtesy Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.
She’s thrilled with the new costume store. “It’s got roller racking, which saves space. The mixture of rails and shelving is also flexible, so as the collection grows, we can rearrange it. We’ve got rolls for large textiles like quilts and banners, and plan chests, which are good for clothes like beaded dresses, which are so heavy they must remain flat.”
The collection requires regular maintenance. Mention moths and Eleanor lets out a gasp – winged pests are enemy number one.
“Preventative conservation is key. Bugs feed on natural waste products - skin, hair, fur, dust - so it’s top priority to prevent those things being in the environment in the first place, and make sure the clothes are surface cleaned with a low-suction conservation vacuum cleaner to gently remove those elements. Fur or feather items are frozen to kill insect eggs.”
So what parts of the collection is she particularly proud of? “The ‘Renegade' collection is a gem for me,” she says. “It’s clothing linked to subcultures with a very strong link to Brighton, with a supporting archive of oral histories, magazines, photographs and patterns. It’s unique to us. People really react very strongly - it’s living history.”
Dress by Irfe c.1927, worn by Anne, Countess of Rosse. © Nicholas Sinclair. On loan from Lord Rosse and Lord Snowdon.
The curator and her team are currently preparing a big exhibition of the Messel dress collection - Fashion & Fancy Dress: The Messel Family Dress Collection 1865-2005 – which will open in October.
The collection consists of garments from six generations of Lord Snowdon and Lord Rosse’s family, which have been on long-term loan to the museum from the family and Linley Sambourne House Museum for the last 20 years.
“The Messel Collection has really beautiful examples of couture from 1865 to the present day,” says Eleanor. “It really reflects their social development and the artistic eye that runs through those generations.”
The first donations came from Snowdon’s mother, Lady Rosse (Anne Messel), who was living locally at Nymans. Eleanor believes Lady Rosse “had a great sense of the importance of her collection.”
Dress by Charles James c.1938, worn by Anne, Countess of Rosse. © Nicholas Sinclair.
The exhibition will display previously unseen Messel family items from Brighton Museum’s collection, as well as items loaned from Birr Castle in Ireland (the Rosse ancestral home).
It offers a tantalising glimpse into a century in the lives and wardrobes of a wealthy upper class family of artists, designers and socialites; and promises to brighten up next winter with a hefty dose of glamour.
Researchers wishing to make an appointment to view items in the collections should contact Eleanor Thompson on 01273 292767 giving two weeks’ notice.
Fashion & Fancy Dress: The Messel Family Dress Collection 1865-2005 is at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery from October 22 2005 – March 1 2006.