A few Fridays ago, my boyfriend and I went to see the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory, near London Bridge (despite the name, and to my disappointment, it is no longer a working chocolate factory. Good thing I swung by Konditor and Cook to stock up on brownies beforehand). Because it has reached the point where I feel like a lousy blogger if I go into Central and don’t visit a museum, I decided I might as well head into town early and find somewhere new to check out, but that was easier said than done. Even though London has a crapload of museums, I’ve worked my way through most of them since starting Diverting Journeys. However, thanks to Google maps, I was reminded that there is a Fashion and Textile Museum, also near London Bridge, that I had never been to, with exhibitions on knitwear and wallpaper, both of which were ending that weekend. Being a fan of quirky jumpers and Victorian wallpaper, it seemed like the perfect time to check it out (though not really the perfect time to blog about it, since neither of these exhibits are there now. Oh well, just think of this blog as a sort of time capsule).
I think the £8.80 admission fee had probably deterred me from visiting in the past, but sometimes these things are unavoidable, so I parted with the cash (I kind of hate myself for using the British pronunciation of adult when I buy tickets to things, but I do it anyway because I’m scared they’ll look at me funny otherwise. I need to get over my social anxiety). The museum was apparently started by Zandra Rhodes (who freaks me out a bit), and doesn’t have a permanent collection; rather, it is made up of ever-changing temporary exhibitions, in keeping with the transient nature of fashion (plus a shop and cafe). “Visionary Knitwear” was the larger of the exhibits by far, filling almost all the gallery space, save one small room. It contained items from the collection of Mark and Cleo Butterfield (no idea who they are, the museum seemed to imply that I should already know), which covered the Edwardian era through the 1980s.
Weirdly, for something so artistically orientated, you weren’t allowed to take photographs (and they were really emphatic about it too, with slashed out camera signs hanging every few feet, just in case you forgot I guess), so I can’t actually show you any of these styles, but there were definitely some beautiful items of clothing there. The Edwardian “golf sweaters” were gorgeous, and I really liked some of the folk and Fair Isle knits from the 1930s, plus the “novelty knits” from the ’60s and ’70s, especially the ice cream sundae and the eagle (I have a thing for stupid animal sweaters. I only have an orangutan, fox, and puffin so far, but I’m always looking to add to the collection. I’m not a hipster though, I swear!). I was less happy with the signage, which seemed aimed at people familiar with the fashion industry and its terminology. It was more about the construction of the garments than the history behind them (there was some history on the larger introductory signs, but not enough for my liking), and used a lot of terms I didn’t even really understand, not being a knitter or someone who works in fashion (I used to work in a department store, but Kohl’s is really not that fancy, and required no technical knowledge of the clothing industry).
The wallpaper exhibit, confined to the aforementioned back room, was possibly of more interest simply because they really did go into the history of the Watts firm and the many historic homes that contain their wallpapers. The company was started by “Middle Scott” (son of George Gilbert Scott, who designed St. Pancras, and father of Giles Gilbert Scott, who was responsible for Battersea Power Station and the iconic red telephone booth) and several of his architect friends – because gentlemen weren’t supposed to sully their good names by being involved in trade in those times, they chose Watts as a sort of pun, as in, “What’s in a name?” Because they were architects, rather than just designers, they took a different perspective on wallpaper design than their competitor William Morris, and thus made paper that took into consideration the exterior of the building as well as the interior (they also seemed to have a larger range of choices than William Morris, as you could have any of their designs made up in whatever colours you liked).
They certainly won me over with their papers, which tended to be two-tone, and were thus much less busy than William Morris’s papers (I think they might be my new choice for my hypothetical Victorian parlour, maybe the Sunflower or Pear Tree patterns, no offence to William Morris, but I get enough of him at the local history project I volunteer with). Whilst the knitwear exhibit suffered from having too little text, I think the wallpaper one almost had too much, as I didn’t really need to hear what various posh people thought of their wallpapers, or a list of every stately home they appear in. Still, too much is better than not enough, though in the words of Caroline Ingalls, “enough is as good as a feast.”
The shop sold some Zandra Rhodes designs, as well as a lot of random jewellery and other crap, but all I left with was a postcard of my favourite ice cream jumper. I feel like admission was steep for what was actually there and how long it took me to see it (under an hour). I’m glad I finally checked it out, but I don’t think I’m interested enough in 20th century fashion to go back, especially with the lack of historical detail for many of the pieces. 2.5/5.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about that play, it was very good (despite the predictable historical inaccuracies)! I love presidential history, so I was really excited when I heard Assassins was coming back to London, and aside from the ever-annoying Catherine Tate, I thought the cast did a really nice job (highlights were Aaron Tveit as John Wilkes Booth and Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau. Also the guy who played Franklin Delano Romanowski in Seinfeld was playing Samuel Byck, which is exciting if you’ve watched Seinfeld as many times as I have). Two caveats, if you decide to go see it yourself: Seats F7 and F8 have a restricted view, something we were not informed of when we bought the tickets, which were the same price as tickets with an unrestricted view. Unless you enjoy not being able to see a third of the stage, avoid those. Also, the play is set in a carnival, so there are a lot of giant creepy-ass clown heads in there; depending on your degree of coulrophobia, that may be something else to avoid. Like all sensible people, I hate clowns, but I managed fine even with its horrible light-up eyes staring at me the whole time, so you might be ok too…just thought I’d throw the warning out there!