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Victoria & Albert Museum, 500 Years of Fashion

From couture to mass production, from fashion design rules to leading trends.

The 20th century, What interesting times!

I recently visited the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, along with my daughters, one just graduated college in fashion design and the other has a well-developed sense of design, so it was great fun. This is a huge museum; it is not possible to absorb all its abundance at once. Along with the Metropolitan in New York, they both in addition to art, place an emphasis on fashion, (the Met Gala was only a few weeks ago). It is reflected in events, permanent exhibitions and special exhibitions. I Must highly recommend a great temporary exhibition now on display at Victoria and Albert (until mid-January 2022) "Bags from the inside out", well worth a visit.

This time I decided to concentrate on the permanent exhibition, 500 years of fashion. This is a huge collection of which some of the items have been donated by private individuals like famous society women (an amazing thing in itself), and contains mostly European fashion for men and women. It also exhibits important nineteenth century items like high society women dresses from India, China and Japan. The collection also contains a large selection of fashion accessories like hats, bags and shoes.

The exhibition is rich and varied and I will not be able to write here about it entirety. I chose to sample a number of designers who worked in the twentieth century, and were revolutionaries in their field, and had a great impact on fashion. I will talk about them through their clothes on display at the exhibition.

Charles James - a strangely mathematical approach to design

Charles James, was an Anglo-American designer, (1906-1978). He was one of the most influential designers of the twentieth century, was engaged in elite sewing and created complicated, sculptural shapes through masterful cutting and seaming. He explored ancient patterns and collaborated with artists from the Surrealist movement. Pictured is a green evening gown with a mask painting made by artist Jean Cocteau. This is one of the rare works not made in a smooth fabric, like most of Charles' works.

The collaboration between fashion designers and the Surrealist movement in art, has been particularly fruitful in the 1930s, Salvador Dali also created patterns for fabrics like “Tears” for an evening gown designed by Elsa Schiaparelli (also in the museum collection).

Evening dress of printed silk, designed by Charles James, probably made in Paris, 1938.
Evening Green Silk Dress

Elsa Schiaparelli hated by Fashion Designers but Loved by Artists

Elsa Schiaparelli, (1890-1973) is the next designer I would like to talk about, one of the most prominent and interesting. The 1st piece is a white organza dress with purple velvet embellishments and a purple silk belt, it is part of a collection called the "Parachute Collection" because the shape of the skirt is reminiscent of a parachute or a flower. The dress was part of the summer collection of 1936. Schiaparelli was inspired by the collection of Leonardo de Vinci's parachute paintings, from a paratroopers’ show she watched in Moscow and, from her childhood memories, when she jumped from high places with an umbrella and imagined herself falling.

Her second piece I would like to present is a long black coat with a rose pattern on the top back. This design is a good example of the fruitful collaboration with the artist Jean Cocteau, She used the painting he made for her to design this long and spectacular evening coat for the fall 1937. The rose pattern can be looked at from two directions and you can see a different picture. This dual option was very popular with artists from the Surrealist stream.

Elsa Schiaparelli was considered an “artistic designer” and was exceptional in the designer landscape of her time. She was liked by artists and society influencers, but designers saw blasphemy in her humorous and light-hearted approach to fashion and therefore did not like her.

In her witty works, she starred in humor and fantasy that resulted in sophisticated fashion designs. She included in her works intellectual references that could turn clothes into something else, while applying the artistic methods used by the Surrealists. Schiaparelli was actually a close friend of artists like Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali, with whom she used to collaborate for her works, while designing textiles and offering ideas for designing clothes.

Silk jersey, with gold thread and silk embroidery and applied decoration in silk      Summer evening dress, white organdie, trimmed with purple velvet and satin, Schiaparelli, Paris, 1936.
Black silk coat with roses The Parachute dress

Coco Chanel, The visionary, "Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance."

And last but not least, the woman who was considered her rival, the one and only Coco Chanel (1883-1971), a revolutionary and a huge influencer on fashion. In 1916, towards the end of the First World War, “La Bel Epoch” ended - which was characterized by boastful female fashion that included corsets, long dresses and heavy fabrics. Chanel was the designer who led the change in fashion from the “La Bel Epoch” era to the modern era. She realized that post-war clothing women consumers preferred comfort over flattery, so she designed clothes accordingly, practical and comfortable clothes. Chanel is famous for her suits and chic day wear; perhaps less well known are her glamorous evening ensembles. This sophisticated and striking evening ensemble consists of short, tailored bolero jacket and loose, straight trousers, both entirely covered with vertical rows of overlapping sequins. It was worn with a delicate lace and chiffon blouse which fastens with pearl buttons.

In adopting the trouser suit Chanel anticipated the direction that fashion would take in the 1960s and 1970s towards an androgynous look. However, the masculine lines of this outfit are tempered by the luxurious finish. Chanel said ‘Much seriousness is required to achieve the frivolous.’ The outfit was worn by Diana Vreeland that was editor in chief

The outfit was worn by Diana Vreeland with a black ribbon around her neck into which she tucked a red rose. Diana worked for Harper's Bazaar for 27 years and became editor-in-chief and remained with Vogue until 1971. Her colleagues admired her originality and commitment to fashion.


The twentieth century was characterized by many changes in the social sphere and changes in the status of women. There were two world wars in which women played civilian roles that changed the course of their lives. The clothes became more comfortable and lighter and changed to fit women who from governors only in the home, became involved in activities in other areas outside the home. The cumbersome and multi-layered dresses, which covered every piece of skin, became shorter, lighter, and with much less layers, it allowed women moving easily. These trends were led by fashion designers but there were some who were ahead of their time. Nowadays, fashion designers work according to forecasts and trends. The popular Highstreet companies embrace some of the trends observed in the fashion week runways, translating them into comfortable and wearable clothing. It is up to us to decide which trends we want to fully embrace, embrace partially, or ignore them altogether and stick to our own preferences. I think it is important that each woman adopts what is right for her, and suits her and develops a personal style of her own!

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