The stories our clothes tell

Rita Hayworth smouldering in The Lady from Shanghai wearing Jean Louis

Recently I read that Patou now sells clothes with a QR code for the customer to scan to discover the story behind the item. I am clearly not the only person who enjoys a tale with my threads. Commercially this has to be a good move. On a practical level, it can help to satisfy our concern to live sustainably by assuring us about how our clothes were made and who made them. But the urge to tell stories about our clothes runs deeper than that to questions of not only how but why.

As a long-term vintage shopper, I have become accustomed to conducting my own research into the stories of clothes I buy. The last dress I bought was a consigned Miu Miu piece that I traced to the A/W 2011 collection. Vogue called this collection ‘a modern vintage collection that transported us back to World War II era Paris’ and ‘one of the most elegant Miu Miu collections.’

The collection was featured in UK Vogue in a sublimely beautiful shoot, styled by Lucinda Chambers, modelled by Kate Moss and photographed by Mario Testino. I clearly remember seeing these images when they first came out and being deeply affected by the elegance of the clothes.

This recent acquisition prompted a 1940s film binge: Now Voyager, Laura and then The Lady from Shanghai in which I found Rita Hayworth wearing an ensemble that was strikingly similar to some of the catwalk images from that Miu Miu collection (see top image). Was this the source of the inspiration? The costume designer for the film was Jean Louis who worked with Hayworth on Gilda and on Pal Joey.

So my recently acquired dress seemed to have come to me from 1940s Hollywood, via Milan. Having been captivated by the Miu Miu collection on sight, back in 2011 I had finally found my dream item nine years later and it is one of those pieces you instinctively recognise as being ‘you’. Discovering the context of its original presentation within a Miu Miu collection and a possible source of the inspiration for that collection, only go to make a lovely dress even more special to me.

There are powerful commercial reasons to tap into this vein but there’s something else here too. The more special we feel our purchases are, the more we will value them, cherish them and use them. The more we all do this, the less need we will have to discard badly judged and unloved items. Many items in my wardrobe are decades old and I fully expect this dress to measure its lifetime with me in a similar frame. Rita Hayworth knew a good thing when she saw it and who am I to argue?

Bright young things, old bags, exotica and erotica – a year of exploration

Spring is in the air and this means (amongst other things) some enticing new exhibitions in London and Paris. 

Top of my list is the long-awaited re-opening of the Palais Galliera, Paris’s museum of fashion and perhaps the greatest of its kind in the world.  If, like me you have been following the tantalising glimpses of the basement refurbishment on Miren Arzalluz’s and the Galliera’s own instagram, then you’ll be champing at the bit to know what delights they have in store.  Watch this space.

Meanwhile, back in London I’m looking forward to comparing the arcane monochrome drawings of Aubrey Beardsley with the equally monochrome early portrait photography of Cecil Beaton.  Beardsley’s drawings were considered shocking in the late nineteenth century and still pack something of a punch today.  Similarly Beaton’s early work was influenced by surrealism and, even whilst documenting London’s social whirl in the roaring twenties, his anecdotes teetered on the edge of wicked wit, always managing to stay just the right side to deliver teasing flattery.  Aubrey Beardsley is at Tate Britain from 4 March until 25 May and Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things is at the National Portrait Gallery from 12 March until 7 June.

I’m intending to try to see both on the same day as I think it will offer an interesting comparison.  I might also try to fit in a third show to complement Beardsley’s orientalism as the V&A are mounting a show about the kimono.

This garment offers an interesting perspective on fashion as one of the occasions when an article of national dress, and not a terribly practical one at that, has become embedded in mainstream fashion.  Anyone who saw Elizabeth Debicki in The Night Manager will remember the beautiful kimono she wore (sourced from the glorious Fuji Kimono) as beach apparel, but it remains a form of dress that continues in use in its original form.   

This show spans the kimono in all its incarnations and promises to be a fascinating cultural insight.   See Kimono: Kyoto to catwalk at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 29 February to 21 June. 

Who doesn’t love an accessory? The Fashion Museum Bath offers us a whole year of shoes with their Shoephoria from 28 March 2020 until the 31 March 2021.  If I were a Bath resident, I’d be tempted to enjoy a daily dose of shoe love for the whole year.  With a collection of over 3,000 pairs and dating back to the late seventeenth century, this promises to be a show that will tug on my heartstrings and require some serious restraint to keep me from bursting through the glass.

Staying with the theme, the V&A will offer us Bags: inside and out from 25 April until 31 January 2021.  I have high hopes of this one as the V&A seem to be interested in tapping into the mystery of the handbag and its contents as well as its aesthetic and practical design.  All life exists (sometimes literally) in a handbag and this makes them endlessly fascinating.  From Ernest Worthington’s infant abandonment (‘A Handbag?’) to Grace Kelly’s famous adoption of the Hermes handbag to hide her pregnancy, they are with us every step of the way.

Finally, if the clash between fashion and culture of the 1960s and 70s is more your thing then you will be pleased to know that London’s Fashion and Textile Museum is offering Beautiful People: the boutique in 1960s counterculture from 3 July until 4 October.  If you can’t wait until then, Paris’s Musee Yves Saint Laurent is offering a glimpse of just one of those beauties with a show focusing on YSL’s muse, Betty Catroux, Yves Saint Laurent feminin singulair from 3 March until 11 October.

The endless fascination of fashion is the way that we all use it to communicate and express personality, or as Beaton himself put it, ‘we all have enough of the peacock in us not to be able to dismiss it entirely.’  These shows promise to hold up the looking glass to ways in which fashion has shaped and been shaped by society.  There is an exciting year of discovery ahead.