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.

A yarn to be proud of: Manos del Uruguay

There is a new anxiety in my life.  It lurks quietly in the background before ambushing me and inducing panic.  ‘Lack-of-project’ is the name I’m giving it but it really needs something more terrifying than that.  It struck me recently as I came to the end of knitting a cowl and suddenly realised I had nothing planned next.  Luckily a stripey scarf came to save me – the classic use for left-over yarn and that is coming along nicely.  For a newbie, it is a good test of accuracy and consistency to knit row after row of ribbing in alternate yarns , trying to keep good straight lines and not allowing the stitches to run out of order on a new line.  So this project is keeping me in line and it is satisfying to see the scarf growing and the colours blending.

I am conscious too that I need to be learning more and so I have booked another of Tribe Yarns’s excellent courses to knit a ‘top-down’ cardigan.  It is always exciting to be facing a new challenge but I am feeling particularly inspired by the yarn this time.  I have chosen Manos del Uruguay’s Maxima merino in Grapevine and already, whilst knitting my test swatch, I’ve been captivated by watching the colour of the yarn change as I move through a row.  The overall effect is almost like a tie-dye.  A chunky merino yarn, it is easy to work with, doesn’t split and is wonderfully soft and tactile.

When I checked out Manos del Uruguay I was even more impressed.  The yarns are hand dyed and hand spun by artisan women living in small villages in Uruguay.  Formed in 1968 by women for women, to improve quality of life for those living in remote rural areas, it remains a non-profit organisation with workshops in 12 co-operatives.  Each skein of yarn comes with a label showing the name and location of the artisan who made it, and being a handmade product, every one is unique.  So thank you, Fatima, for enriching my life with your beautiful merino yarn. This is a very special product and I am going to make sure that I do it justice.

Dos a la mode – back in fashion at the Musee Galliera

Yohji Yamamoto RTW AW 96/97

The Palais Galliera is back (in all senses of the word) at the Musee Bourdelle for another thoughtful and inspiring exhibition, showing statuesque ensembles inside a sculptor’s studio. This time the theme is the back of the garment: for the most inventive designers the perfect place to show off virtuosic dressmaking and for the wearer the ultimate in making an exit. From the formality of court and bridal trains to structures that seem animal or bird-like, the Galliera considers the back from all angles.

The show mixes dress from the eighteenth century to the present, shown alongside stone and bronze sculptures that echo or contrast with the lines of draped and seamed cloth. 

The genius is in the mix: a Maggy Rouff bridal gown alongside a Jean Paul Gaultier ‘trench coat’ evening dress; Yohji Yamamoto’s deconstructed black and white felt dress (see top image) alongside an antique gold embroidered court train. It is thought-provoking and awe-inspiring. Some of the most interesting exhibits are slightly unsettling: two antique straight-jackets are displayed alongside a Jean Paul Gaultier lace corset (see below).

Some of the pieces on show defy photography – a Martin Margiela jumpsuit/gown is so sculptural it has to be seen in 3D to be appreciated. Also notable was the preponderance of black in the show – with clothes this structural, colour and pattern seem superfluous. Without doubt the piece I would take home with me if I could was an Alexander McQueen for Givenchy Haute Couture (SS 2001) jumpsuit ensemble, featuring a fierce black leather corset from which emerged a pair of opulently embroidered – what? Fins? Wings? You decide. A truly stunning piece.

Alexander McQueen for Givenchy Haute Couture SS 2001

It is another tour de force from Musee Galliera: sensual, thoughtful, artistic, disturbing and atmospheric. I left feeling gorged on beauty, my head spinning with ideas about my own wardobe and clothing choices. I’ll think carefully about the clothes I put on my back in future. 

See Dos a la Mode at Musee Bourdelle, 18 rue Antoine Bourdelle 75015 Paris and at #BackSide until 17 November 2019.

Manolo Blahnik at the Wallace Collection: An Enquiring Mind

The Wallace Collection’s current display of Manolo Blahnik’s shoes – An Enquiring Mind – is a show of pure genius.  The magnificent collection of paintings, furniture and ceramics is the perfect setting to highlight the breadth and depth of this shoemaking genius’s inspiration.Most impressive of all is the sensitive and careful placing of each style of shoe to form perfect clusters to complement the art around them.  The notes to the exhibition enlarge on this and the outcome is that there is something to delight the eye whichever way you direct your gaze.

In the East Drawing room, under the magnificent painting, The Riches of Autumn (Jacob Jordaens, 1593-1678) we find a collection of shoes and boots in the richest black velvet , luscious golden satin, beaded and feathered and displaying all the abundance of the season.

The Great Gallery features a teal lace stiletto picking up the colour of the peacock’s tail in Peacock and other Birds (M d Hondecoeter, 1636-1695).  A cluster of pastel satin shoes and mules, delicately laced with pearls and rosettes is the perfect companion to The Infanta Margarita Maria (after Velazquez, 1599-1660), picking up the silk of her gown and her jewels.

There is humour too.  What better to accompany Frans Hals’s Laughing Cavalier (1584-1666) than a reinterpreted cavalier’s boot, its cuff dropped from knee to ankle.  The positioning of boot and painting suggests the subject is enjoying the joke too.

The high point of the display is the Oval Drawing room – a small room of Fragonard and Boucher paintings that houses a selection of shoes made for Sophia Coppola’s film, Marie Antoinette.  Here, Boucher’s Madame de Pompadour (1703-1770) presides over shoes that look as light and fanciful as macaroons.  Though Pompadour lived a generation before Marie Antoinette (and seems to have been significantly more politically astute), she would surely have appreciated the power of these shoes to maintain court hierarchies.

Thank you, Wallace Collection for a beautifully conceived show, perfectly juxtaposing painting and craftsmanship.  It is thought-provoking for sure but it also manages to capture the sheer joie de vivre of the art of artisanship, seasoned with a dash of wit.  This is the perfect way to show fashion and we need more like this.  And I need some more Manolos…..

Styled by Design – textiles (and tractors) as fine art


A tractor on a silk scarf is an unlikely mixture: the industrial expressed as luxury. And it’s a woman driving the tractor.  The scarf is on exhibition at Gray MCA’s latest fashion-inspired exhibition, Styled by Design and I couldn’t take my eyes off it.  I loved the irony, I loved the modernist design but I really loved the colours – a rich mixture of oranges and teals.  Although it was in a glass frame, I was longing to wind it around my neck.

Inspired to find out more about the designer, Olga Nikich, I tracked down her website and found more exquisite designs.  They take inspiration from the soviet industrial ideal but infused with nostalgia.  So we have typewriters deconstructed with keys popping out of their case; a sparkling bullet train roars right out of the scarf; twinkling stars in the Moscow sky recall military decorations.  The colours are also wonderful – bright and vibrant and set in striking combinations of purples and teals and oranges.  I wanted them all.  Then I found to my absolute surprise and dismay that this talented artist has no London shops carrying her work. Find her instead on her own website at

Once again Gray MCA has succeeded in putting together a thought-provoking exhibition that gives us the best of fashion inspiration, draws us out ahead of the curve and reminds us what it looks like when fashion and art collide to bring us the truly exceptional but functional object. Alongside designs from contemporary artists there are historic pieces by Picasso, Henry Moore, Calder and Cocteau.

Gray MCA’s Styled by Design exhibition runs until Saturday 7 October at Gallery 8, 8 Duke Street St James’ in London.  I highly recommend a view: it will transform your perspective on textile art.

A transatlantic embroiderer’s treat


Woman’s ceremonial robe, Metropolitan Museum, New York


New York’s Metropolitan Museum and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum are each providing a feast for an embroiderer’s (tired) eyes.   London’s V&A is celebrating the Opus Anglicanum – perhaps one of the earliest examples of national branding of a commercial product in which the collective skill of England’s medieval embroidery industry was focused on the production of ecclesiastical vestments and chivalric devices.  It is truly a wonder, not only of art and artisanship but also that so many of these fragile pieces have survived through the centuries.  See it in London or online before it closes on 5 February 2017.

The New York Met offers us a complete contrast with the Secret Life of Textiles, a tiny gem of a display in a single room (gallery 599 until 20 February 2017) that shows us some of the earliest examples of the lavish embroidery, voided velvets and brocades that are currently gracing every fashion publication for the autumn-winter season.

We see an exquisite Chinese ceremonial robe (above, Quing dynasty, nineteenth century) in a bright blue silk, trimmed with cat fur as a cheaper alternative to sable, ermine mink or fox.   Despite economising on the fur, the silk is lavishly embroidered (see below).

Also from the Quing dynasty but an earlier eighteenth century piece is this badge of rank (below), executed in satin embroidered with silk, peacock feathers and gold thread.  It shows a bear as the insignia of military rank.  The elevation of the rank is underlined by the use of peacock feathers that also give the piece an iridescent glow, offsetting the gold embroidery perfectly.


Chinese, Qing Dynasty badge of military rank, Metropolitan Museum New York


There is also European work on display, including a cut voided velvet in a lush midnight blue satin fabric.  This is just the kind of fabric that inspired the young Fortuny.  In fact, a contemporary, Henri de Regnier, described the scene:

‘Mother and daughter open a massive chest in the corner of the room….The first appears: a fine piece of dark blue velvet made in the fifteenth century, goffered with stylish arabesques.  The shade is strange, deep and pure, like the colour of night.’ (Peacock and Vine, A.S.Byatt (2016) p52-3)


Voided velvet fragment from fifteenth century Italy, Metropolitan Museum New York


If you can, see both these wonderful exhibitions and marvel at these early examples of exquisite artisanship and technical skill.

Is there enough velvet in your life?

Kim Basinger smoulders in the film LA Confidential

Velvet – isn’t it just the height of glamour? Always chic but especially on-trend this winter, with Prada’s luxe midnight velvet hiking boots, Gucci’s gorgeous teal velvet bag and Demna Gvasalia’s strapless gowns for Balenciaga.

Why do we love it so? Its extreme softness and delicacy has made it a luxury down the centuries. Elizabeth I actually made it illegal for any subject below the rank of knight to wear velvet, so concerned was she about devaluing its currency as a mark of nobility.

Collection of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris

She need not have worried: velvet has maintained it luxury edge down the centuries. When Charles Worth, the man widely credited with creating the first haute couture fashion house, opened his design salon in 1858, he quickly became known for lavish fabrics and embellishment. This richly beaded velvet jacket from Worth even draws clear inspiration from tudor style with its structure and puffed sleeves.

Velvet seems to have originated in Baghdad in the 9th century.  It reached Europe in the middle ages through Venice, the main thoroughfare for the spice route between Asia and Europe.  The city has maintained a close association with velvet through the ages, culminating in Mario Fortuny’s exquisite devore and printed velvet cloaks, coats and tunics, produced in the city in the early twentieth century, and recently celebrated by A S Byatt’s excellent book, Peacock and Vine. Fortuny was an inventor and an artist – fashion was only one of his talents which also extended to lighting and theatre set design. To this day, no one has managed to discover the process he invented (and patented in 1909) to create his signature creased and crushed silk “Delphos” dresses. Lucky ladies 20161001_154021buying the dresses received them rolled and wound in boxes.

Velvet can be made from cotton and linen – typically heavier textiles – as well as in lighter silk or silk/rayon mixes. The fabric lends itself to a range of textural effects, from devore, in which the velvet is burnt with acid to create a pattern, to crushed velvet (see left). It can also be woven in combinations of colours to make it appear iridescent.

Since the start of the twentieth century velvet has featured strongly in every decade’s fashion. In the Jazz Age of the 1920s flappers wore lustrous embroidered velvet opera coats, referenced by John Galliano in his 1998 haute couture collection for Christian Dior (below).

Art deco of the 1930s brought a more minimalist feel in which colour and design were pared back to bring out the beauty of luxury fabrics themselves, as seen below in a panne black velvet necktie trimmed with ermine.

The 1940s and 50s saw the return of colour and pattern, especially in hats as velvet was used for percher hats and half-hats. The shimmer of the fabric highlights and flatters skin tone (see above).

Balenciaga green velvet opera coat from the collection of the Fashion and Textile Museum, London

The greatest couturiers of those decades, Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga, also used velvet frequently in their collections. Dior’s H-line collection (Autumn-Winter 1954-55) was inspired by tudor court dress, while Balenciaga manipulated green velvet into a pattern mimicking astrakhan fur for this opera coat.

The 1960s saw the rise of perhaps one of the greatest designers to use velvet in his collections: Yves Saint Laurent. Who can forget his black velvet flamenco hat from the iconic portrait of Lou Lou de la Falaise by Steven Meisel? Black velvet was a staple ingredient of his evening dresses and featured strongly in some of his most famous collections – as bodices in the “Russian” collection of 1976 and as knickerbockers in the “Chinese” collection of the following year.

And what better lesson for us all in how to wear it than to study Lou Lou above? Velvet needs attitude for sure but it also needs a little disrespect. Pair it with jeans for Parisienne glamour, with leather for a rock chick edge, vamp it up with black jet to reference Victoriana, or go classical with contrasting white satin.  No wardrobe is complete without it.

This post first appeared as a guest blog for The Gathering Goddess



Drawing on Style – fashion illustration from heaven

Jane Bixby Weller (1926- ) Balenciaga Hat

Drawing on Style is a gorgeous celebration of fashion illustration and specialist gallery Gray MCA’s contribution to the London Fashion Week schedule. It sets work from some of the masters of twentieth century fashion illustration – Christian Berard (1902-1949), Rene Bouche (1905-1963), Rene Gruau (1909-2004) – alongside beautiful pieces by today’s artists, Bill Donovan, Jack Potter and Conrad Roset and work from Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio.

Most striking of all is the way these drawings all add a context to the clothing they depict. Whether it is creating an atmosphere of languor, glamour or serenity; or whether it is communicating energy and verve through the brevity of a brushstroke, they transport the viewer into another existence.

Carl ‘Eric’ Erickson (1891-1958) Paris 1948

The image above is a perfect example of the power of fashion illustration. We see a female wearing a plain green jacket with a long checked skirt and some very sensible looking shoes. The outfit itself is unremarkable, even dowdy. It is unlikely that this lady would attract our attention in the street. As an illustration though, it draws the eye as she hitches up her skirt into a waterfall ruffle, revealing a well-shaped leg. She is calm and satisfied with her look, relaxed with the air of a person who does not know they are being watched, and so we have the sense of spying on an unguarded moment.

If illustration can do this for a nondescript skirt and jacket, what can it do for truly fabulous clothing?

Rene Bouche (1905-1963) Red Suit, Conde Nast January 1950

Rene Bouche and Rene Gruau will be forever associated with the titans of post-war haute couture, Givenchy, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, Lanvin and, for Gruau, Christian Dior and the New Look.  These pictures ignite as much desire today as they did for a post-war world, exhausted with austerity and rationing.

Christian Berard (1902-1949) Model in Evening Dress

It is also very exciting to see a work by Christian ‘Bebe’ Berard. In her memoir, ‘DV’, Diana Vreeland noted his enormous design talent: ‘Where he put his hand was like the golden touch’ whether that was scenery and costumes for the theatre or fashion illustration for Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jean Patou and Nina Ricci.  His work also appeared regularly in Vogue and Harpers Bazaar.  Most touching is Vreeland’s amazement that her maid had identified him in a New York street having never set eyes on him before: ‘But, madame, he is just as you described him – a little man, a dancer, with pointed shoes, and his face turned toward heaven.’ And isn’t that exactly what each of these gifted illustrators do for the fashion lover – turn our faces heavenwards, just for a moment?

If you’re in London before 20 September don’t miss this wonderful show: 10am-6.30pm at Gallery 8, 8 Duke Street, St James, London.  A daily talk on the history of fashion illustration takes place from 1.30-2.30pm and you can see the whole collection at

Peacock and Vine

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Fortuny Delphos gown, Musee des Arts Decoratifs Paris, Fashion Forward, 3 Siecles de mode (1715-2016) Exhibition



A perennial fashion question is whether male designers really like women. Some clearly do. In Wim Wenders’s splendid 1989 documentary about Yohji Yamamoto, Notebook on cities and clothes, the Japanese designer speaks direct to camera about how, through his design, he is asking women “How can I help you?”. Yves Saint Laurent made similar comments in interviews and is remembered now as the designer who made trousers for women widely acceptable as a glamourous option, not just workwear.

It is a 20160817_193833strong theme in Peacock and Vine, A.S. Byatt’s eloquent and beautiful book about the work of William Morris and Mario Fortuny: both designers were powerfully inspired by the women in their lives. The two make an interesting contrast. Morris, a left-leaning Brit, was inspired to create stunningly beautiful applied arts by a childhood of forest-exploration that led to a lifelong love of nature. Fortuny, an aristocratic Spaniard, whose family moved to Venice because of his childhood asthma, derived his natural inspiration from light and its reflection and refraction.

Any fashion fan will associate Fortuny with the Delphos gown – the sublimation into apparel of light itself through a still-undiscovered silk pleating technique that caresses the female curve, flattering and highlighting as the light hits it. The gowns still occasionally come up for auction and are as wearable today as they were when they were first patented in 1909. What is really fascinating in this book is the insight into the scope of Fortuny’s amazingly inventive mind: textiles and clothing were just one aspect of a range of art, craft and technological skill focused almost obsessively on capturing and transmitting light.

There were other influences too. Greek mythology and archaeology influenced the classical and sculptural style of the Delphos gown. Fortuny’s travel in Greece and North Africa inspired painted and etched patterns in velvet and silk featuring lush forests of leaves, fruits and flowers. These are the exotic counterparts to Morris’s very British honeysuckles, thrushes and willows.

The women? Morris’s story was a sad one. He is said to have commented of his beloved wife, Jane, “I cannot paint you, but I love you”. Jane loved Morris’s contemporary and sometime collaborator, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the two conducted an open affair, causing Morris great pain. Fortuny’s marriage to Henriette came later in his life (due to family disapproval) but seems to have been happier and more stable, Henriette working alongside him in the workshop. His mother, Cecilia de Madrazo came from a family of artists and architects and amassed an enviable collection of antique textiles. One can easily imagine a young Fortuny marvelling at medieval embellished velvets and silks, storing away memories for later use.

This lovely book will give you a new perspective on two profoundly influential designers but it is also an exceptionally beautiful read in itself. I’m already re-reading it and it has gone straight into my list of the greatest fashion books ever written (see it here).

Shortly after reading this, I came face-to-face with a Delphos gown at Paris’s Musee des Arts Decoratifs during their recent exhibition, Fashion Forward, 3 siècles de mode (1715-2016). It shimmered as if it was its own light source, so tactile that it was almost impossible to resist reaching out to stroke it. With the light that shone from its curves, it was also transmitting an air of relaxation, comfort and quiet but powerful confidence. What greater help could a designer offer to a woman?

Royal milliners on the big screen: Frederick Fox

Diana Rigg demonstrating advanced hat insouciance in Evil under the Sun


Walking around Buckingham Palace’s excellent ‘Fashioning a Reign’ exhibition of the Queen’s wardrobe, I was particularly struck by the variety of hats on show.  A long display case arranged chronologically, charts the evolution of the Queen’s style with changing fashions and changes to the Royal Warrant holders over the decades.  There are some really stunning hats on show but my personal favourites were some of the earliest examples, made by Aage Thaarup in the 1940s and 50s and those from the 1980s made by Frederick Fox.

Aage Thaarup was a Danish milliner, working in London from the 1930s to the 70s.  A talent for styling rather than formal millinery training was the foundation of his success.  He supplied hats to the Queen Mother and then to the Queen herself in the 40s and 50s, gaining his royal warrant from the Queen until 1961.

Frederick Fox was an Australian who had begun designing hats from his early childhood before becoming established as a couture milliner after his move to the UK in 1958.  His Royal Warrant followed in 1974 and became one the queen’s longest-serving milliners, supplying around 350 hats for the queen as well as for numerous other members of the royal family, including Diana, Princess of Wales. 20160806_220327

 Both milliners produced hats for films and their very glamorous and sometimes flamboyant styles really appealed to me.  It also sent me back to watch, again, the 1982 film of Agatha Christie’s ‘Evil under the Sun’ for which Fox designed the hats.  Though I’d never thought of it before as being a ‘fashion’ film, it is a movie that displays some amazing 1930s style and virtually no scene in which hats don’t take a starring role.

F20160806_204232ox shows himself to be the master of a swooping-brimmed capeline, a jauntily-angled trilby, and a super-glam beach turban.  There is also a beautiful range of men’s straw hats on show, with James Mason elegant in a classic boater, Denis Quilley in a dashing panama and Peter Ustinov matching Poirot’s Edwardian spats with a chronologically-appropriate up-turned brim style Panama typical of that age.  A great visual treat for all sorts of reasons.

Costume designer for the film, Anthony Powell 20160806_204803won a well-deserved Oscar in 1979 for his work on ‘Death on the Nile’ but inexplicably not for this film too.  If his work and name looks familiar, then it may be because he is the cousin of Sandy Powell, who recently delivered the incredibly beautiful wardobes for the film Carol.