London: Undressed; a Brief History of Underwear @ the V&A

Man, this exhibit was pants. Well, not actually (truthfully,”pants” is not even a slang term I’d use in that sense, not being British), but the subject matter of this exhibit is ripe for punning. The V&A do it themselves in the exhibit title, as you may have noticed.

Undressed just started a few weeks ago, and is running at the V&A until March 2017, so I’ve left you plenty of time to see it for once, as of the time of publication.  Full price admission is £12, but you can get in for £6 with a National Art Fund Pass, or a National Rail 2-for-1, which I highly recommend doing, because there ain’t no way a bunch of undies are worth 12 quid.  The exhibit is inside the “fashion temporary exhibit space,” which I genuinely don’t think I’d ever been inside before (to be honest, this might be the first temporary exhibit I’ve paid to see at the V&A, though I’ve enjoyed their permanent (free) galleries on many an occasion).  It’s hidden inside the middle of the British fashion through history hall (or whatever it’s actually called) which itself is an area of the museum I’ve only been in once or twice.  I guess I tend to spend most of my time in the early modern galleries or over in the India section gazing at the excellent Tipu’s Tiger (I have a Staffordshire knock-off of a knock-off version of it, but it’s nowhere near as impressive as the original).

Anyway, in terms of crowding, which is always a concern with these temporary exhibitions, it wasn’t too bad.  We were allowed immediate entry with the timed tickets, and though it was pretty busy inside, generally people seemed to move along so you weren’t straining to read captions over shoulders the whole time.  Of course, this was about 2 o’clock on a Wednesday, so I would imagine weekends are a whole other experience altogether.  You probably have to buy tickets early in the day then to even have a hope of getting in without extreme crowds. The exhibit is set up on two floors, which did help some, as the upstairs was more spread out, and therefore not as crowded, and the downstairs space was set up into two concentric circles, so we were able to do the least busy loop first and then head back around once the other side had cleared out a bit, so bra-vo to the V&A for decent organisation (see what I did there?).

No pictures were allowed, which is why you get this very boring, text heavy post, but there was some bra-illiant undies in here.  I suppose the exhibit was trying to trace historical developments in underthings, but it wasn’t strictly in chronological order; at least, the middle circle was kind of all over the place.  There was of course much emphasis on corsetry and other uncomfortable innovations in women’s underwear, right up to the present day, including this horrible butt-lifting device that went around each cheek and came to a thong down the middle (I mean, really, it looked so hideously uncomfortable. You’d be better off just doing some squats so your butt is actually lifted, if you’re concerned enough about it to wear torture device undergarments).  I wouldn’t say I’m part of the anti-bra brigade or anything (I mean, I never wear them when I’m just sitting around my house (or jeans or anything. My jimjams go on the second I walk in the door) but sometimes I need the support.  Mainly when working out), but my primary concern is comfort, and I can’t really understand why people would do these things to themselves.  And, it’s not just women, they also had a selection of male girdles (popular with Regency-era dandies),and weird crotch-bulge enhancing boxers (not sure of the point of those.  If your pants are tight enough that people can see the outline of your junk, surely they’re too tight to wear underwear at all.  I mean, I’m pretty confident all those rock stars in the ’70s weren’t wearing a whole lot under their jeans.

I was actually quite into the ’30s fashions.  Getting to wear pajamas on the beach might actually convince me to go to the beach (see my aforementioned devotion to pjs), and there was a beautiful nightgown embroidered with a pair of turtle doves and accompanied with an ostrich feather wrap that I would totally wear outside.  They also had some lingerie inspired dresses worn by famous people, but most of them were hella ugly.  Speaking of famous people, there was a corset worn by Queen Victoria’s mother (she was a hell of a lot slimmer than Victoria), and a bunch of Queen Alexandra’s stockings and such, which was good because famous historical figures are of far more interest to me than celebrities.

It was definitely a female-centric exhibition (both in terms of the people attending the exhibit, and in the underwear on display, though my boyfriend happily accompanied me to it, which is fortunate, since I don’t really have any female friends here), but they did have a few display cases on Y-fronts and these charming pink Disney themed boxers that were apparently all the rage in the gay community in the ’60s.  I guess women’s underwear has just changed more dramatically over time, plus there’s all the drama of deformed organs and bones that you get with corsetry and the other more restrictive forms of undergarments. They even included X-rays of women wearing corsets, so you could see the damage they did (the stereoscopic images of women passing out because of their corsets were delightful as well.  I also liked all the cartoons featuring skeletons, because tightly laced corsets mean death!).

Overall, I think we were in there for about forty minutes, which was plenty of time to see and read everything (nothing interactive here, but the cartoons provided a touch of whimsy), which to me, is not worth 12 quid, so I was happy we’d only paid half price.  I do think £6 was probably ok, because it was very well put together, and fairly interesting.  I used to go to fashion exhibitions pretty regularly growing up (the Western Reserve Historical Society had a fashion gallery, with constantly changing exhibitions), but it’s been a while since I’ve been to one as an adult (probably not since I went to the Kent State Fashion Museum a couple years ago), probably due to the aforementioned lack of female friends (not to stereotype, but it definitely does seem like a more female-centric activity, probably in large part because most men’s clothing is boring.  Except spats and two-tone shoes), and it was nice to have a poke around the world of Victorian fashion again, perils of corsets and crinolines and all (I definitely have a soft spot for hoop skirts and bustles because of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her detailed descriptions of her clothing in These Happy Golden Years). The captions were informative and just long (john) enough, and I think in general, it was a nicely put-together exhibit, just not quite worth the admission price.  3.5/5.

Oh, and as a side note, I’ll be travelling around New Zealand and Australia for the next month or so (pretty cool, right?!), so if I take longer than usual to approve or respond to your comments, that is the reason why.  I’ll of course be posting about all my adventures eventually (and have scheduled weekly posts like this one to go up whilst I’m away), but in the meantime, you can follow me on Instagram @jsajovie (or just click the link in the sidebar) where I’ll be regularly posting photos from my travels!

London: The Fashion and Textile Museum


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!


Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Fashion Museum

In what will be a sadly picture-free post (no photography allowed!), I’d like to discuss my recent visit to Kent’s fashion museum.  Although I love looking at old clothes, I’d never been to Kent’s museum before.  In fact, I went to university as an undergrad in Akron, and therefore haven’t spent much time on Kent’s campus at all, even though there is frozen custard to be had just down the road (if you’re there during the “summer” season, head over to Stoddard’s for a delicious ice cream).  Thursday’s are the museum’s late night, when it’s open until 8:45 (it closes at 4:45 every other day, except Monday and Tuesday, when it is shut entirely), and there’s convenient free parking right next to it.  Admission is $5.

I just missed the special fan exhibition, which was no biggie since I’ve of course been to the Greenwich Fan Museum, but there were a few other temporary exhibitions on, and I believe even the permanent galleries have their contents rotated out from time to time, as Kent keeps quite a lot in storage.  The place had some annoyingly giggly students in when I was there, but was otherwise empty.  I began with an exhibit on pleats, and honestly, I never knew there were so many different types!  Even though the signage was very limited, I found a helpful booklet on the back wall that listed the dates and designers of all the clothes, in addition to describing the pleat styles, and how they were made.  My favourite was the lovely pale blue Delphos gown from 1946, with Fortuny pleats, but I was also intrigued by the dresses with horizontal pleating (which has to be sewn to hold it in place). The dresses ranged in age from the 18th-20th centuries, and there was also a collection of hats, many of them from local department stores, like Higbee’s and Halle’s (my grandmother had a great hat collection back in the day, I think many of which came from Halle’s, so I like to think she may have worn some similar styles in the ’40s or ’50s).  Upon reflection, I believe this was the exhibit I enjoyed the most at this museum.

The permanent exhibit is a “timeline of fashion,” featuring dresses again from the 18th-20th centuries, as those make up the bulk of Kent’s collection.  There were also some gorgeous dresses in here, and although I think walking around in a Victorian number might be a bit much, there was a stunning floral print silk from the ’30s that I’d be happy to wear today if someone offered it to me!  I actually love ’30s and ’40s style dresses; I think they hang well, and are form-fitting without being overly clingy.  Anyway, the “timeline” segued into a room holding a small glass collection of mostly carnival glass, and there were also a few display cases in the hallway back to the entrance full of hats and shoes (lots of Laura Ingalls-era bonnets to inspect!).

Up the staircase I went, to the special “Vestments” exhibit, which was obviously loads of ornate Catholic priest-wear. Religious stuff isn’t really my thing (I got enough of looking at vestments when I was a child.  I was even an altar girl for a few years, so I got to wear those little robes that tied with the coloured cord.  I’m sure they have a specific name, but I can’t remember all that Catholic terminology), so I kind of skimmed over this, and once again, there wasn’t much information on the objects; you had to search on the computer they provided for more details.

The final exhibit was called “Shifting Paradigms” and was about the intersection of fashion and technology.  Again, I am a history nerd, and was really mainly there to look at all the Victorian and early-to-mid 20th century clothes, so weirdly moulded shoes that looked unwearable, and computer-designed clothing didn’t really do much for me, but I did pick up a free zine on the art of tying t-shirts (unfortunately, instructions weren’t provided, only pictures of the finished products).

Finally, the museum has a shop, reminiscent of the V&A shop on a much smaller scale, with jewellery and clothing by up-and-coming designers, which is worth a look if you’re into that sort of thing.  The Kent Museum was described to me as being very small, and perhaps they’ve added on since then, because although it certainly wasn’t huge, it was definitely bigger than I was expecting, with the capacity for at least 5 different galleries. Whilst it wasn’t the most amazing fashion collection I’ve seen, and I would have appreciated more detail on the signs, it wasn’t terrible either, and I think I probably would have enjoyed it even more if I’d visited during a more appealing special exhibit.  They had ones last year on bathing costumes, Civil War fashions, and undergarments, all of which looked neat; unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to check them out at the time, but I’d definitely return in future for a different historically themed exhibition.  3/5