We're reporting on each of the events in the RA's free salon series for GSK Contemporary - Aware. Last in the series is A Life Through Fashion: The Biographical Wardrobe. Featuring designer Tonia Bastyan, fashion icon Daphne Guinness, and curator Beatrice Behlen (Museum of London).
Tonight's event saw us step into the world of secrets, stories and social history hidden within our own wardrobes and those of others.
Tonia Bastyan and Beatrice Behlen Social fabric
The RA’s Alison Bracker kicked off proceedings with a question to Beatrice Behlen of the Museum of London. The museum has an internationally recognised dress collection that aims to show the significance of London’s role in the fashion industry as well as reflecting London life. How do we read clothes as historical documents?
Behlen explained that the museum’s 100 year old costume collection includes not only artefacts but also everyday dress.
Early collections came from a variety of sources, from the Royal family (“Queen Mary was a bit of a hoarder”) to props from artists’ studios, or even dealers. In these cases they often don’t know the wearer and they are used more as examples of design, to talk about the makers and sellers of these garments.
“But more recently, I don’t think I’ve taken anything in where I didn’t know the wearer. I’m very obsessed about this, maybe more so than other curators. For me, that’s often the most important thing, I think it gives so much more to an item of clothing.
“If you look at the blog then you’ll notice that for about three months I’ve been obsessed with the life of a palm reader, a bit of a con artist of the early twentieth century. We have some of her clothing and it shows how it can lead you astray.
“The clothing gave me this idea of a very brash kind of woman and then as I discovered more about her I found the clothing had led me in slightly the wrong direction.
“We are a social history museum, we’re not a design museum like the V&A, so for us the life of Londoners and the life of the city are very important.”
Bracker connected this to a reoccurring theme of the salons: that often extravagant or flamboyant clothing is used to mask somebody’s shyness and that clothing alone can give a misleading impression of someone's personality.
Behlen explained how the museum's collection reflected social history, using the recently opened galleries of Modern London as a case in point.
“We want to look at how people experienced London life, what kind of things they bought and wore. We’re looking at the working history, London’s connection with the outside and at designers as well, because that’s a big part of London’s history; we’re trying to give a broader picture.”
Bracker asked how our understanding of social history through clothes changes if we know who the wearer was.
Behlen: “A recent donation was of a 1920s ladies cycling outfit. It’s a cotton outfit with a nice cap from Gamages in Holborn, so I can say a lot about cycling and women taking up sport and I can talk about Gamages, cotton production, lots of things, but if I was to know who the person was, and where she lived and that she and her husband were keen cyclists, I think that adds another dimension.”
A passion for collecting
Bracker brought up the idea of collections. Daphne Guinness is a collector of couture while Tonia Bastyan collects vintage clothing.
Bastyan: “I’ve always collected, even as a small child. My grandmother was a great collector, and hoarder probably, and my great-grandmother too. Even when I went to art college I collected hats. Every day I’d be wearing a different hat, some ridiculous huge thing, depending on what mood I was in. That’s continued, so maybe each decade I’ve collected something that I loved.
“Vintage was very easy for me because I’ve always loved beautiful clothes. I grew up with a dressing up box that had things in from the ’60s and pieces that were my grandmother’s. When I was fifteen I was given two Victorian petticoats from my great aunt. I started wearing those in the eighties when the big skirt was in, with a patent leather belt. It felt very normal for me to mix vintage in with my every day clothes. For me collecting is something that has always been in my life.”
Daphne Guinness explained the appeal of couture: “the craftsmanship involved is really so much better. Ten years ago there were two ladies who could create this special kind of lace and once they died that was gone, finished. And it’s sad that that’s died out. For me that’s what collecting couture is about, it’s more personal, it’s less disposable, more effort and more love went into it. It just feels different.”
Tonia Bastyan explained that a previous label she ran (Tonia Bastyan and Deadly Nightshade) was very much vintage inspired. “I took all the vintage I had and recreated it out in India where they could do all the hand techniques and the 1920s techniques. It’s that idea of bringing things back to life again.”
Beatrice Behlen, far left, and Daphne Guinness, far right
Bracker asked whether Guinness had any specific plans for her collection?
Guinness: “Not really, I haven’t really thought about it. I’ve already given some of it away for charity. But you’ve got to let things you really love go; you can’t just get rid of your old, tatty things.”
Bracker asked Daphne to talk about her decision to buy the Isabella Blow collection mentioning the article that Daphne wrote for the Financial Times about this.
Guinness: “I found out very late that the collection was going up for sale. She was one of my best friends and would’ve just been so horrified at the idea of someone going through her things…it just seemed wrong.
“For me, it’s quite difficult to look at that collection because it smells of her, it is her. I didn’t buy it to wear it. It’s the narrative of her life, it’s her diary.“
Keeping the collection whole was a priority: “You couldn’t just go in there and say ‘I want this or that’…It was part of who she was, because she was an incredible artist and she recognized artists”
Behlen: “I think that’s so rare. At the museum we always get snippets of lives, we get a lot of wedding dresses or sometimes when someone had a special moment, it’s really interesting to have a longer period.”
Alison Bracker and Daphne Guinness Guinness: I just wanted to make sure it was safe. It’s going to be a great tool for students of fashion. I have to decide what to do with it. A museum maybe, or an online museum, I have to figure out a way of making it accessible.”
Bracker asked how we can trace someone’s biography through their clothes.
Bastyan told us about the clothes her grandmother handed down, from a 1930s wedding dress to a little jacket from the ’40s.
“My father’s christening gown is there as well and fox furs and a coat which is actually real tiger, which is awful, that she had made when they were out in India.
“Because she died when I was only 12 they say something to me. I have photographs of her wearing some of those pieces so for me it’s the story of her life.”
An audience member said that she recently spent six months cataloguing Alexander McQueen’s collection for the Metropolitan Museum. "Although they weren’t clothes that he wore they still told a story of his life. The details were so magical, just little hints like the zip with an indentation of his thumb print in it.”
Guinness: “There’s clothing and then there’s art and he was an artist. If he had chosen to paint he would have been the best in the world…he could have done anything.
“He thought in five dimensions. That’s what’s so important about his clothes: they are sort of magical. He could look at something and just do that and it would change.”
An audience member talked about the collections he produced, how the sets, shoes, hair and make-up always worked so well together in the shows.
Guinness: “He created a piece of theatre. He was a perfectionist. His shows were mind blowing.”
Seams of change
Behlen explained that in the museum they find that some areas of society are under-represented. “A lot of ordinary day wear, poorer people, is not there, and similarly with sub-cultural styles.
“I should really go out to people and say ‘Tell me what you’re wearing and can I have it?’.”
Bracker opened up the idea of how your wardrobe changes over time. Does it parallel changes that you yourself have gone through?
Behlen raised the example of Princess Diana’s dresses, which she worked on while she was a curator at Kensington Palace. “A lot of her formal clothes are still around. Looking at photographs you can very much see a change there, from wearing what was important or appropriate for her role to something that was important and appropriate for herself. You could say quite a lot from that even if you didn’t know anything about her,…which is hard to imagine.
“In the early years, her casual wear, when she was watching Charles playing polo, was quite similar to what I would have had in my wardrobe. Then you see her at an important official event and she looks about 20 years older. Just seeing these two things from the same period you could see that there was something bizarre going on.
“In museums you very rarely have the luxury of having someone completely documented. We have this one person who hoarded stuff all her life, she was alive from 1895 to 1972 and when she died she had 4,000 pairs of knickers in her house, but obviously she never wore them all.
“She bought a lot by mail order and sometimes didn’t even unpack it. That’s very interesting not only for her own story but also for the story of what else is around. You hardly ever get a whole spread where you can demonstrate how things change.”
In 2005 Behlen co-curated an exhibition at Kensington Palace of both and dresses and photographs, including those taken by Mario Testino in her last fashion shoot before her death. Bracker asked about the Palace’s influence on the presentation of Diana’s clothes.
Behlen: “At Kensington palace, it’s a relatively small collection so they’re shown in a different context each time. The Testino thing came about when I realized that a lot of the dresses we had were worn in the famous pictures and I saw that was another angle one could take. The main message was about her using English designers in her formal role and also about her personality.”
What makes a collection?
Defying gravity: Daphne Guinness' shoes An audience member asked about styling. How does this affect the items of clothing and the understanding of personal style?
Behlen: “For me that is a major nightmare. I really like it that we have this woman’s clothing from the 80s and 90s because she says to me, I wore this with this with this and sometimes we even have the whole outfit.
“But we don’t know always how things were put together, and sometimes we can do it with photographs. You can have the same outfit on 10 people and it will look completely different each time, and mean something different each time.”
An exhibition of around 100 pieces from Guinness’ personal collection is opening at the Fashion Institute of Technology in September and is co-curated by Guinness and Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT.
Guinness explained: “At FIT I think the only way to show it is to dress myself, then dress the mannequin. I think that’s the only way I can go about it. Because otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s quite daunting really.”
Behlen asked Guinness how she feels about people reading into the things she wears. “Do you mind or do you just put it out there?”
Guinness: “I try not to think about it too much. My friends dress in the same way, you don’t realise that you’re dressing differently. It’s not a conscious decision to be flamboyant. I suppose when I was at school it was probably about attention...”
Bastyan opened up the discussion to the audience, about the collections within our wardrobes, whether it be shoes or jeans or couture. When does a wardrobe become a collection?
Behlen: “I don’t collect anything but there are a few pieces that I look at every year and think ‘I’m going to throw them out’ and I just can’t.
“But in terms of the validation, people are so proud for things to come to the museum, even if they can’t be displayed.“
Tonia Bastyan and Beatrice Behlen The discussion moved on to the notion of discarding: How do we edit our own collections?
An audience member raised the issue of the throw-away society, of fast fashion. She questioned why we do this; that you could buy three tops that will fall apart or you could buy one nice thing.
Behlen explained the affect this has on understanding our own social history.
“I’ve been reading about the ’60s recently and there’s a quote from the Daily Mail incensed because a young guy had three suits and two pairs of shoes and that was just far too much for a young guy to have.
“The amount of stuff people and young people have, especially now. Before, if you took one dress then you had quite a good idea of a person. But now, because we have so much and such a wide range, one dress is not an accurate representation of a person.”
An audience member said if you took the nicest things from her wardrobe these would not be a true representation of what she wears day to day.
Behlen argued that pictures are now a valuable resource for further historians
Lastly, an audience member commented on how individual style changes as people change, that clothes reflect how people want to portray themselves.
Supported by Bastyan.