A fitting tribute to fashion

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A fitting tribute to fashionApr 7 (THE HINDU)
So what if the corsets are rib-cracking? The outfits at the Fashion Museum in this spa town bring alive an era that was..

“Ohhhh, what a tiny waist!” exclaimed two little awe-struck girls, the younger one cinching her waist with her small hands, as if to size-up her titchy one with the mannequin’s miniscule mid-riff. “Yes, isn’t it absolutely tiny?” sighed their mother, casting wistful looks at the mannequins. The girls, however, had moved on — to the shoes. “Mamma!” they squealed, pointing at the neat rows of exquisitely-trimmed satin footwear. “How come we never get to wear our party shoes anywhere?” they demanded crossly, but before I could hear their harassed mom’s reply, I was summoned by some frantic squealing from my daughter. “Can you please give me a hand? How are you supposed to get this corset off?” she asked, all hot and bothered. “And, the size of this skirt — could they even move wearing these?”

Helping her step out of those cumbersome old-fashioned clothes taught me two things — it couldn’t have been much fun getting laced into those wretched, rib-cracking corsets, let alone flirt with dandies when one could barely breathe; whoever set up the Fashion Museum in Bath was clearly very clever; not only have they documented, through their engaging, and thought-provoking exhibits key trends from the past, they’ve also kindly and very thoughtfully provided the visitors with enough material to let their imagination fly!

Located inside the splendid Assembly Rooms in Bath — the U.K.’s famous spa town — the Fashion Museum, as the name suggests, is a fitting, lasting tribute to what was once the most fashionable town in Britain. Thanks to the royal patronage (Queen Anne’s visits during the late 17th and early 18th Century), Bath, until then merely the home of the imbued-with-healing-powers mineral spring became “the premier resort of frivolity and fashion”. Catapulted to fame, and playing seasonal host to the landed gentry and haughty aristocrats, the town became the epicentre of fashion, a sort of Milan / Paris of yore. People from far and wide, naturally, flocked to see what the rich, famous and wannabes were wearing, and happily emulated designs that were ridiculously fussy or remarkably complicated, and often, both.

With waists pulled in to measure under 20 inches (psst — that’s considerably smaller than Size Zero), and skirts worn very, very wide, Georgian times were, perhaps, not best known for comfortable outfits. In fact, the city — today a superbly frozen snapshot of Georgian Britain — was designed to accommodate these vagaries of high fashion, the sweeping promenades purpose-built to accommodate women walking about in their preposterously over-sized skirts!

Several voluminous dresses from that era are now displayed in the Museum, their outstanding workmanship and intricate detailing especially eye-catching.

A fine silver-tissue dress — the oldest treasure in the Museum, from 1660 — is elegantly decorated with parchment and silk-bobbin lace; a cream and gold court-dress, with an enormous four-foot wide hemline, dating from the 1700s, is painstakingly and completely worked with silk and gold thread.

Meticulously embroidered gloves — the ‘rarest surviving historic fashions in any museum anywhere in the world’ — many from the 17th Century, have whole display cases given over to them, each piece a work of art, vying with the next in splendour and grandeur, and quite easily transporting the viewer back to a grand, vastly formal time!

After all that magnificent bling, the well laid-out contemporary fashion — featuring past and present world-class designers and defining, show-stopping outfits — seemed, sorry to say, a tad less impressive.

Men (yes, there were plenty), women and children walked through quickly to the well-appointed dressing-up area and after amusing themselves sufficiently with the corsets and capes, through to the storerooms.

Interestingly, this was the most gripping section; with its eclectic collection of bonnets and parasols, satin shoes and silk gowns, the vast ‘behind the scenes’ displays demystified hooped petticoats and whalebone corsets, and held our attention for a very long time.

Glamorous puff-ball gowns and sober mourning dresses, generously scooped-out necklines and modestly high collars, they were all there, along with empire waist lines, and their surprisingly narrow a-line skirts.

With excellent narratives gleaned from books set in Bath — Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey — they held an honest mirror to Georgian society. One commentary remains particularly etched in my memory — Fanny Price (in Northanger Abbey), it said, was not welcomed by local society ‘ladies’, since she ‘neither played on the pianoforte, nor wore fine pelisses’, the most up-to-minute, must-have garment of the day! And to think I’ve believed all along that it was only today’s fashionistas who were unnecessarily cruel…

DON’T MISS IT: Bath can easily be reached by train from London (90 minutes from Paddington Station). Opt for the combined saver tickets for the Roman Baths and Fashion Museum. Free audio guides are available for the Assembly Rooms

The Fashion Museum holds regular exhibitions. The latest one (‘What will she wear?’) features fetching wedding gowns, cashing in on Britain’s big event this year — the Royal Wedding

Suggested read — Georgette Heyer’s Regency romance Bath Tangle. Don’t miss Mrs. Floore, a witty character who worries about looking like a ‘sack of meal, with a string tied around it’ if she were to ‘stuff myself into one of these newfangled gowns you all wear nowadays, with a waist under my armpits’

Posted by on Thursday, April 7th, 2011. Filed under Fashion, Life Style. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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