Spectres - When Fashion Turns Back At The V&A

By Kristen Bailey | 25 April 2005

Christian Dior black silk dress, 1955.

Photo: Ronald Stoops. Courtesy the Fashion Museum (MOMU), Antwerp

Kristen Bailey is spooked by Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back, a free exhibition of historical and contemporary fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 8 May 2005.

Spectres explores how fashion design from the past continues to influence the cutting edge designers of today, looking at how themes and details recur constantly throughout fashion history. Curator and exhibition designer Judith Clark said, “Fashion has always had a love affair with history, old themes worn as new details.”

Fashion Machine.
Ruben Toledo, December 2003

Dimly lit and full of the mechanical sounds of wooden cogwheels turning, walking through the exhibition is like exploring an abandoned fairground.

Mannequins with chopped-off limbs wear crystal-encrusted prosthetics by British jeweller Naomi Filmer, and cult Cuban illustrator Ruben Toledo has produced surreal black and white illustrations and giant 3D cut-outs of female fashion silhouettes, which tower over you, casting sinister shadows.

Check dress: Mary Quant, 1964Striped dress: Bernard Wilhelm Autumn Winter 2002-3

Photo: Ronald Stoops. Courtesy the Fashion Museum (MOMU), Antwerp

A scaffold, a merry-go-round and a marionette theatre act as displays for garments. Some are viewed through a wall of portholes glazed with distorting lenses. You get the feeling that ghosts are watching you.

There’s no explanatory text, but an accompanying leaflet is available, giving you the choice of reading it as you walk through, or waiting till later - letting your imagination fill in the gaps for you.

View of the Labyrinth section of the exhibition featuring illustrations by Ruben Toledo.

Photo: Ronald Stoops. Courtesy the Fashion Museum (MOMU), Antwerp

Outfits by Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli, Pierre Cardin and Mary Quant can be viewed alongside the work of modern designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Comme des Garçons and Helmut Lang.

The exhibition was initiated by ModeMuseum in Antwerp (MoMu), and there is a particular focus on Belgian designers, including Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela and Véronique Branquinho.

Remixing It: The Past in Pieces. Installation view.

Photo: Ronald Stoops. Courtesy the Fashion Museum (MOMU), Antwerp

Garments from different eras are grouped in themes such as Victorian, Tartan, Designs for Dresses, Bohemia, Futuristic and Flags. Sometimes the links are not immediately apparent, and this makes you look closer, until eventually you see the connection. This in turn makes you look with fresh eyes at the historical influences in the design of your own clothing.

In the section entitled ‘Distress’ is one of the most beautiful garments in the exhibition - an unconserved 19th century wedding dress, now fraying and stained. It’s a powerful reminder that our clothes may well last longer than we do.

For more information on the exhibition, visit the V&A’s Spectres microsite.

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