20th Century Chic: 100 Years of Women's Fashion
at Sudley House.

Evening dress 1955-1960Fashion Endeavouring to keep up with all cultural events, I’m attempting to fill my Monday’s with art and the like and so to sunny Sudley House last week-beginning for their new fashion show, 20th Century Chic: 100 years of women's fashion. Sudley has a display area on the top floor especially for these semi-permanent exhibition space for clothes and costumes. Sometimes this is overflow from a much larger exhibition, but the twelve objects here are selected to discretely demonstrate the development of women’s clothing across the last century.

Sudley’s website has images of six of them (and flickr eight), beginning with this evening dress of silk satin, lace and diamanté decoration from about 1911-1913 through this skirt of nylon spandex made by Moschino, Italy and presented in 1998 at the other end of the period. My favourite of the collection is here too, the evening dress of rayon taffeta made by Elizabeth Henry Ltd in about 1955-1960, its purple fabric all the more richly regal in the safety lighting of the space. As with every other form of artistic expression other than photography, photography can’t really capture the experience of seeing them up close.

The accompany advertising text suggests the exhibition is meant to reflect “the monumental changes in the role of women during the twentieth century. The changing styles, materials and colours of the garments echo wider social changes and represent key periods in women’s history.” Most of the pieces very much evoke period, especially the one piece smock affair from the 1970s once owned by Glenda Jackson and which looks like it could also have supported Alison Steadman’s performance in Abigail’s Party.

But what strikes my untrained "man at Asda" eye is the extent to which in this post-modern era, few of the dresses would be out of place in some social settings now. You could imagine Romola Garai turning up for the Olivier Awards in something approximating the Elizabeth Henry. There’s a polka dotted Jean Varon from the 1960s which resembles one of Zooey Deschanel’s typical modes of dress. The average very good street style and fashion blog potentially offers much the same variety of styles, albeit with probably more trousers of which this has none.

Does this mean fashion development has stopped? Of course not. As Sudley’s previous major costume display which featured examples from 1790 to 1850 demonstrated, there’s always been an element of costume to some extent looking backwards to earlier periods in order to produce something new or to find something to reflect or deflect against. In those days this manifested itself in increasingly elaborate stitching and plunging necklines (it's notable that the necklines in this collection become more conservative across time rather than less, the near opposite of before).

Another thing: before seeing 20th Century Chic, I think I would have been able to picture what the fashions would be like in each of the mentioned periods, thanks to years spent watching period dramas.  But I can’t especially say what our contemporary fashions are like, what their defining qualities are. It seems to me that as with everything else and with the exception of some wedding related social occasions, female fashions seem to be, even more than ever, about the individual, even within so-called subcultural groups.

Is this just because of my untrained "man at Asda" eye again?  If it is, I'm willing to learn, if someone wants to offer some pointers. It’s also possible that our age is also reflecting the early 1800s in that we’re making clothes last longer than before to save money and so that’s inevitably led to a necessary lengthening of fashion’s artificial seasons and that’s simply confusing me too. But one of the problems with being the kind of person who simply wears roughly the same clothes all of the time is that you do lose touch with what happens for people who, well, don’t.

Which all strays away from offering an opinion of Sudley’s exhibition which is well worth seeing if you’re in the area, as long as you’re well warned that what you’re seeing is just twelve dresses, albeit just twelve dresses of extraordinary quality.  Apart from anything else this is tangible social history of the kind which can't help giving me some pangs of jealousy.  One of the reasons I am man at Asda is because men's fashions seems so boring by comparison, especially for someone with my frame which is probably why I've all but given up.  Now, if we had an appropriate equivalent for the Elizabeth Henry ... well ....

 20th Century Chic: 100 years of women's fashion at Sudley House is on until, well, I’m not sure when it’s due to close – the website has TBA. There are some tours of the show advertised for September and as late as November (which might be the best way to see it) so you have at least until then.  Admission free.

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