50 Fabulous Frocks [exhibition]

Andre Courreges dress, 1960s, worn
then by Ernestine Carter, Fashion Editor
for the Sunday Times

Who doesn't love a nice dress? There might be a few people, but they are WRONG, and this exhibition currently running at the Fashion Museum in Bath could be just the thing to change their minds. Mr Robot's off at Twickenham watching the rugby today, so I took the opportunity to go into Bath on the train and look at beautiful clothes.

The Fashion Museum has an extensive collection, and not all of it's on show at any one time. They have a new exhibition every year, and this year's is '50 Fabulous Frocks'. It's less focussed on the story behind the dresses than some of the ones they've held in the past, and makes the dresses themselves the absolute stars. These dresses all shine in their own right; you don't need to know who wore them, when or why. (Although there is an audioguide available, and boards all round the walls telling you the history and context of each garment.)

Stunning 1950s Victor Stiebel. You can see
the silver Restoration dress behind it.
I'm not sure how the order of the dresses was chosen. The first one, an Edwardian fancy dress costume made to look like a bottle of Veuve Cliquot is obvious, as the exhibition celebrates the museum's 50th anniversary. A striped Vivienne Westwood stands alongside similarly full-skirted designs from the Restoration (a gorgeous silver dress that's the oldest frock in the museum's collection) and 19th century and a Victor Stiebel with similar colours, so there's clearly a bit of thematic matching at that point. The exhibition still didn't quite come together for me as a whole, but the dresses are every bit as fabulous as you could want, and I spent an awfully long time in there.

This mid-20s Callot Soeurs dress was
owned by the Rani of Pudukkotai.

That said... it's not the only themed display at the museum, and I have to confess, I much preferred 'Glamour', which is a wonderful rainbow of party dresses. They're all from the last 100 years, mixed up in time, and arranged in colour order. It doesn't matter which time you love clothes from, they're all mouthwatering, every single one. Satin, lace, brocade, sequins: if it's luxe, it's in there. And there are SHOES too, shoes of unspeakable beauty. Had there been tiaras also, the cleaning staff would be finding me clinging to the cabinets at closing time!

Like a numpty I didn't note the designer of
this fab 1950s dress from the 'Glamour' exhibit...
The layout of the museum has changed since I last went there, and it seemed they were fitting more in. There's a 'behind the scenes display where they take you on a tour of garments from the late 1700s to early 1900s. As well as showing dresses, shoes and bonnets, and quotes on clothes from novels of the age (Mansfield Park, The Portrait of a Lady) the displays show how all these things are stored, and how they're kept in a way that means the fragile materials are disturbed as little as possible – shawls, for example, are laid out and moved on acid-free paper, so only the paper is touched, and hats are stuffed and kept in well-labelled boxes so when the staff need to find a particular hat there's no need to do any damaging rummaging. I tried taking some photos in there for my steampunk chums, but it was too dark for my camera to cope. (Obviously, the museum is a flash-free zone. Light is not kind to dyes and fibres.)

My favourite exhibition I've seen at the Fashion Museum is still the one of the Queen's dresses, which were marvels in both craftsmanship and diplomacy. '50 Fabulous Frocks' is well worth visiting, nonetheless. I might have to go back in July, when they've got a special Laura Ashley exhibition running.


  1. The 1950's Glamour dress is really lovely. I like the Victor Stiebel too. I've only been to the museum once, and I had a great time - I'll have to go again.

  2. one to add to the list of things to do I think!

  3. I would love to visit that museum! To see such stunning dresses up close would just make my day!



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