A history of fashion in 100 objects

Bath Fashion Museum’s Rosemary Harden talks us through key pieces from a new exhibition

“Fashion is not art. Never,” said French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier to The New York Times back in 2001, “Fashion is a reflection of the times.” This is an idea that the Fashion Museum in Bath brings into technicolor glory with it’s exhibit A History of Fashion in 100 Objects that runs until 2019. It takes after the British Museum’s comprehensive The History of the World in 100 Objects utilising the set-up to tell an extensive story in a succinct yet stimulating way.

Yes, the ornaments are on display as you would present works of art. But they are always linked to how and where they stand in societal history and what people in that time were wearing. The superficial combined with what Fashion Museum manager Rosemary Harden calls the “history of human endeavour” as shown through fashion.

The Fashion Museum holds a collection of 100,000 objects with which the exhibit had to whittle down to the 100 presented. “You start from the collection and you start from visitors expectations,” Harden says on selecting the items for the exhibit, “and you slowly work so you marry those two together.” The Fashion Museum’s collection is mostly geared towards womenswear which sees 80 items in the exhibit with 20 reserved for the men.

However, not to be outdone, the selected pieces of menswear tell an alluring story. We have selected six of the finest pieces from which Harden guides us through the history of not only men’s fashion but cultural movements from the 18th century through to the modern day.

Men’s black and red Nike Air Jordan trainers, 1990s

We chose 10 shoe moments for the exhibition. This is the final shoe moment. Shoe number one is a pair of 18th century woven silk shoes worn by a woman. You could argue that there is a unisex idea here. That these trainers are worn by men and women. They lace-up. The silk shoes would have been worn with a buckle. In a sense, you could say that there is a similarity because the silk in the 18th century was a fabric and also a synthetic fabric from which the trainers were made is also a fabric, so you've kind of missed out leather. 

They’re also branded both in terms of the maker and the association with a celebrity.

The first branded item in the exhibition is a lady's dress from the late 1880s which was made by a Mrs Nicholson who was a dressmaker in Camden. In fact, in history dresses tend not to be branded. You tend not to get a maker’s name till around the 1870s. Then the first big name in the exhibition, is round about item 52, which is by Worth. He is always known as the father of haute couture.

Electric blue long cotton shirt and plastic quilted jacket ensembles, Craig Green

The last five pieces are the most recent selections of our Dress of the Year scheme. This is a scheme that has been going since we've been here at Bath since 1963, and each year we ask a fashion expert to choose an outfit from the international collection that is the most exciting piece of the moment. So object 100 when we first put the show on was always going to be Craig Green, which is the most recent selection. We asked Gordon Richardson who is chief designer at Topman to choose it and he mentored and supported Craig. I think to have menswear as a grand finale of the History of Fashion in 100 objects was something we were really pleased to do because there are far fewer examples of menswear. 

It is the first time that only menswear has been chosen for the dress of the year scheme but the lovely twist is that it is menswear as worn by women. So we asked Craig to donate two pieces and we styled one on a man’s mannequin and one on a women's mannequin. That to me was a very strong finish for the show because we feel very strongly that fashion in a sense holds a mirror up to society and reflects back who we are. There was so much noise and discussion about gender fluidity in 2016 and I think to actually just alluding to that through dress shows how fashion is always part of the zeitgeist. Fashion is always a product of it's time. I think the exciting thing is for us to be able to record what these amazing, talented, creative individuals have done and how they interpret the zeitgeist through fashion.

That particular collection that Craig produced actually moved fashion editors to tears. It was so pure and so strong. I think it shows how museum collections are alive and well and looking to the now and the future.

Men’s black wool double-breasted jacket with jewelled sleeves. Jean-Paul Gaultier, 1991

I very much wanted to choose a piece by Gaultier because I think he's a really interesting designer. He is steeped in the French tradition which is quite different than the British tradition but on the other hand he found his inspiration in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the London club scene. I think that the marrying of those two influences produced extraordinary, groundbreaking examples of fashion both in his womenswear and in his menswear. 

There was so much about the increasing visibility of a gay awareness. When fashion history is written in 50 years time, fashion has an important role to play in that respect in society and I think this is all consumed within this piece.

Those sleeves are so heavy. I think it's probably the heaviest garment in the collection and we had to engineer it so those sleeves didn't droop down. Basically its little diamantes that are about an inch square all individually sewn on and they're all surrounded in metal. It's like glittery chain-mail.

Men’s purple hopsack jacket, by Mr Fish, famously worn by Noel Coward, 1968

Colour went out of menswear around the mid-19th century although waistcoats from the 1830s and 1840s were incredibly ornate. 

In the late 1960s, Michael Fish founded this shop called Mr. Fish in Mayfair, London. It was an absolute centre of brightly coloured menswear. For the first time in many years bright colours and patterns were accepted and became part of the establishment. It wasn't just subcultural.

I think that colour really comes back into fashion in the 1960s. It’s about fashion being part of its time. Look at what was going on visually in women's clothing in the late 1960s. Going from the mid-1960s and a quite monochrome pattern, suddenly there was colour and the sense that men could adopt that type of dress as well.

Men’s red woven velvet coat and breeches, 1750s

It's very Poldark. It is familiar but unfamiliar. What was so exciting about this piece is there is this idea that in the 18th century men were ornate. Men's dress was ornate. This would have been a very costly piece because velvet was a luxury. It was complex, costly to produce and completely of the moment. It was the fashion object for men in the mid 1700s. It's got a fabulous shape. Those beautifully stiffened pleats really created the wonderful shape that was so typical of men in that century.

A previous show we did here called Georgians: 18th Century dress for polite society in 2014, we borrowed some pieces from contemporary stylists, looking at how contemporary designers re-channel an 18th century aesthetic. We borrowed a wonderful frock coat that Sarah Burton had done for Alexander McQueen, which to me is a bit later than this mid-18th century piece. It doesn't have that kind of swing but nonetheless it has that stiffness and joy in tailoring and augmentation.

Man’s woollen trousers, worn with figured silk waistcoat, 1820s

The first 20 years of the 19th century was a revolution in what men were wearing on their bottom half. It was a change from breeches i.e. something that stopped at the knee to this full length trouser which is something that continues to this day. These particular trousers are so sharp and they go up beautiful at the back and they're this very sort of pale colour.

Very few things are ever invented in fashion. There is always a transitional change and movement. A lot of the time, ideas come from workwear. That happens time and time again. There is an argument that trousers that became fashionable in the 1820s and the 1830s were based on sailor’s wear. 

The first trousers were incredibly skin tight and light coloured. They weren't practical. A lot of the early trousers have straps underneath the instep which pulled them really taut. We have some in the collection that are leather but not practical at all. I think it's fashion. The moment you get to one particular style you want to push it to see where else it can go and I think that's definitely what happened with men’s trousers.