LONDON—We love when serious museums turn their curatorial eyes to fashion, but all too often, the rigid display protocols and protective measures can make style exhibitions as stiff as a mannequin’s port de bras.
So it was with a mix of excitement and curiosity that we headed to Kensington’s Blythe House for The Concise Dictionary of Dress, a special collaborative fashion exhibition concocted by a costume curator and a psychologist.
The exhibition is organized around eleven ‘definitions’ (more like evocative associations) of the words armored, comfortable, conformist, creased, pretentious, fashionable, tight, measured, essential, plain and loose. Guides lead small groups on an hour-long journey through the building, pausing at installations that illustrate each word.
We began on the roof and spent the next hour descending through the floors.
Blythe House, a rambling asylum of a Victorian building, is the V&A’s archive facility, and it’s very much a character in the exhibition. Curators Judith Clark and Adam Phillips draw unexpected juxtapositions between fashion pieces and items in storage, as with a cast metal belt buckle displayed within a sword cupboard.
The tour consisted of strung-together moments of surprise and drama—at one stop, a stack rolled open to reveal a toile of an evening gown with a fragment of a William Morris pattern on the back. Then, just when it looked like we would move on to the next word, the guide rolled another stack aside to reveal the most incredible wall of archival couture pieces—a bias cut mustard velvet dress that turned out to be Chanel, a black silk dancing dress with jet bead embellishment (Madeleine Vionnet), a white silk chiffon goddess gown (Madame Gres), and more.
Our guide remained aloof from the group, hesitating or altogether declining to answer questions about designers and garment provenance. It made the experience mystical, but a bit opaque.
I asked co-curator Judith Clark whether secrecy was an important aspect of the experience.
“It was important to us to hand the experience back to the visitor. We didn’t want to immediately shut the visitor’s experience down with a caption—we didn’t want to say, all you need to know about this dress is that it’s Chanel and it was made in 1922,” she said. “We thought, if we’re doing something that does have a psychological dimension, it would be a shame to force the visitor’s interpretation.”
I emerged from Blythe House with more a sense of having invited a haunting than a cohesive exhibition experience. Still, over the next days my thoughts turned back to the dresses in the cupboard, the belt buckle amidst the swords, the menacing Commes in the coal cellar, the layered meaning of clothes as objects of art and memory. It’s rare to see such special pieces so innovatively and thought-provokingly displayed. Anyone in London, take note: this one is definitely worth a trip.
The Concise Dictionary of Dress is an Artangel commission with the support of the V&A. The exhibition runs through June 27. Tickets are available here. And you can find the illustrated book accompanying the exhibition here.