London: Chintz @ the Fashion and Textile Museum

Last week’s post was my 500th! I didn’t actually realise until WordPress told me after it was posted, or I would have picked a better topic than the disappointing Watts Gallery, but it’s still exciting that I’ve finally made it to 500, especially with struggling a bit with getting back on a regular schedule after my sporadic posting earlier this year. And now, on with post number 501!

I went to the Fashion and Textile Museum once back in 2015, and I was rather underwhelmed by the experience, so I haven’t made it much of a priority to go back. However, I’ve been very museum keen the past couple of months since things have reopened, especially since getting my second jab back in July, and having seen most of the major exhibitions in London and wanting to go to Borough Market that day anyway, I turned back to the Fashion and Textile Museum, which is located a shortish walk away from London Bridge Station, and decided to see their chintz exhibition. The museum (which I believe is where or near to where they used to film The Great British Sewing Bee), does not have a permanent collection, just temporary displays, and “Chintz: Cotton in Bloom”, which runs until 12 September, was the only thing there at the time of my visit. Tickets are a rather expensive £12.50, or a mere £6.25 with Art Pass, which seemed much more reasonable, and I was able to book tickets the day of the exhibition (Marcus and I were pretty much the only people in there).

  

We headed in to explore the world of chintz, a type of colourful printed cotton that was invented in India in the 16th century, and first imported into Europe in the 17th. It was initially super expensive, but as more of it flooded the market, it became so popular that England and France actually banned its import for fear it would take business away from their own cloth factories, which did not know how to make chintz until the mid-18th century. However, it remained consistently popular in the Netherlands throughout this period, and the collection on display at the Fashion and Textile Museum is actually borrowed from a Dutch museum, the Fries Museum, which I’m sure is pronounced more like “freeze” but my brain absolutely wants to say “fries”, as in chips. (There is actually a frites museum in Belgium that I visited some years ago, but I’m always down to hear more about (and eat) chips.)

 

The clothing on display was mostly 18th century, and it’s amazing that it survived in such good condition, though as the exhibition pointed out, it was a well-made, hard-wearing cloth, and the pieces on display belonged mainly to rich families who wouldn’t have put too much wear and tear on the clothing in the first place. There was a video inside showing how chintz is traditionally made in India, and it is a very lengthy ten-step process that begins with washing the starch out of the cotton so it will hold the ink (I initially wondered why they didn’t just order unstarched cloth, as they seemed to be getting it direct from the factories, but they explained they needed to treat it anyway to help the fabric retain colours better, so I guess it doesn’t really matter if they have to wash it regardless). They then have to make wooden stamps by hand with their chosen design, and the colouring process itself also involves a number of steps, including hand painting, which looks fun if you only had to do a small amount, but incredibly tedious in bulk.

  

I think my main complaint about the Fashion and Textile Museum last time was that they didn’t provide enough information about most of the pieces on display, and that held true in this exhibition as well. They did explain the history of chintz and how it was made, but most of the pieces on display had labels simply stating the year they were made and the materials they were made from, which was not that helpful. I mean, obviously I can see if it was a dress or a jacket or a hat, but I want to know more about who it was made for, the occasions where it was worn, etc. The exhibition did a slightly better job of this in the upstairs gallery, but the downstairs one was pretty sparse in terms of signage.

 

I’ve definitely mentioned in another post how those life-size wooden panels painted to look like people freak me out a bit ever since I read Silent Companions, so I was not super thrilled to find one greeting me in the exhibition, but it is Dutch, of the time period, and wearing chintz, so I understand why it was there (I wouldn’t want to be alone with it at night though). In addition to the freaky silent companion, there were also some unsettling dolls here, though I would have killed for the handmade wardrobe of the one pictured here (she had a killer hat collection just out of shot) to stick on my Felicity American Girl doll when I was a kid (I also had Samantha and one of the custom ones that was meant to look like me, because my grandma spoiled me rotten, but Felicity would be the most era-appropriate). The dresses here were undoubtedly beautiful, but due to the nature of chintz, which tends to feature floral prints, fairly samey.

  

I was way more interested in the upper floor, which was about fashions in chintz in different parts of the Netherlands. In Friesland, women traditionally wore flat straw hats when they went outside to protect themselves from the sun, which is reasonable enough, but over the years, the hats grew to such epic proportions (as seen above) that women were forced to hold on to a ribbon to steady their ridiculous hats, meaning they never had their hands free, which sounds incredibly annoying and restrictive. Just wear a smaller damn hat! There was also a tradition in the city of Hindeloopen of wearing different coloured chintz for different occasions, e.g. blue and white chintz for mourning, red and white chintz for brides, and multicoloured chintz for festive occasions. So, it might have been a mourning outfit, but I think the blue and white coat (above right) was the prettiest one on display. I think I’d defy tradition and wear it to my wedding (which I guess is sort of what I did in real life, since I got married in a black dress).

 

At the end of this gallery, there were some contemporary chintz fabrics made by various designers, and I loved these, especially the one with a hand holding a pen (prints with hands in them always feel vaguely fortune tellery to me, which I’m into). There also appeared to be a small gallery off to one side with more contemporary fabrics, but it was closed for a workshop, even though no one was in there during our visit.

 

The final section, back downstairs, was on the revival of chintz by British manufacturers in the Victorian era, when basically all interiors were absolutely coated in chintz. Even though chintz had gone out of fashion a bit when it started to be produced domestically and could be bought cheaply, it exploded again in the 19th century, primarily the more expensive hand-blocked variety for those who could afford it. There was a photo of the dressing room in Osborne House decorated for Alexandra after her wedding to the future Edward VII, and it was definitely busy (maybe the poor woman needed some distraction from the obese old lech, though he wasn’t actually that obese or old as a newlywed. Still a lech though). Because it was so common in stately homes of the era, when the houses started to get sold off and become museums in the mid-20th century, fabric companies had to start making chintz again so that these houses could be restored, leading to another surge in its popularity in the 1980s when National Trust memberships increased and going to stately homes became a regular middle class weekend activity.

 

After seeing the exhibition and learning about chintz, I agree that its history is interesting, and some of the 18th century pieces were certainly attractive, but unless I can get my hands on some of that rad hand and pen print, I’m unlikely to suddenly start wearing loads of it myself. I tend to be a bit more quirky in my choice of prints – I suppose I do own a couple of dresses with chintz inspired prints, though definitely not made in the time-consuming traditional way, judging by what I paid for them. As I said earlier, if there had been more information about the individual pieces, I think I would have gotten more out of the exhibition. As it was, we only spent about half an hour there, but since I only paid half price, I was more satisfied with my second visit than my first. 3/5.

4 comments

  1. Holy smokes – 500 (or rather 501)! Congratulations!
    Funny, I just watched an old Time Team episode where they excavated one of the Victorian factories that made chintz fabrics. They tried to duplicate the process and it DID look tedious. Seems a special skill or talent to just line up the blocks so the print is even. Gave me a new appreciation for the stuff which, honestly, I’ve never been too keen on for some reason. Probably because the colours I’ve seen tend to be muted and I’m usually drawn to stuff that’s bright and bold. But like you, I’m quite fond of that blue and white coat – I wouldn’t mind having one like that either.
    Oh yeah, that wood-woman is icky! Her expressions says she’s been expecting you and I am not a fan of that at all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.