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The V&A 2023 Fashion Tour: A closer look into the collection’s most pivotal pieces

The V&A is internationally renowned for its extensive collection of fashion and clothing from across the globe, spanning the origins of not only Western style but both Asian and African dress. The 2023 Fashion Tour, held daily at 12:30, provides a stunning display and informative guide to some of the most spectacular pieces that have shaped the V&A, reflecting changes in style across five centuries.

The tour begins in Room 45: Japan. The first piece shown to onlookers is the prize outer Kimono, otherwise known as an Uchikake, as part of the Toshiba Gallery, estimated to have originated from 1870-1890. The piece is noted for the impressive detailing portrayed on the back. Using silk and gold thread, the piece depicts the penultimate scene of a Kabuki play, with two mythical dog-like creatures, known as Shi Shi from Okinawan mythology, fighting over a bridge, thus indicating its prestigious previous owner. Ornately embellished with an array of flowers, the piece also highlighted the Japanese tradition of Mon, created with resit-dyed marks to identify the owner of the piece. Similarly, the practical use of fabric in traditional Japanese clothing was acknowledged with the four distinct panels used to construct the Kimono, including the sleeves.

Though still Japanese, the second piece on the tour showed a great contrast in Japanese style with the ‘Sweet Lolita Dress’. Originating from Harajuku, this piece highlighted the radical protest dress that has been adopted by women in Japan as a subversive street style to battle the patriarchy. Whilst its feminine nature and doll-like features do not often appear synonymous with Western perceptions of anti-patriarchal fashion, the Lolita movement in Japan is seen as a reaction against the adoption of gender roles forced upon young adults in traditional Japanese society. This can be clearly seen in the hints at French Rococo and Edwardian children’s clothing.

The following room, South Asia, introduced us to the impact of India on 17th-century English fashion with a Chintz gown. Chintz was an imported hand-dyed fabric which could only be made in India. The gown also highlighted the popularity of the pleated sack-back style, further distinguishing the expense of the gown along with the fabric. One important detail to note, however, was the upcycling of the original fabric to create a neo-classical high waistline, popular around 1790, entirely reshaping the dress.

Remaining in India, the following piece was a men’s Jama from Rajasthan made of muslin. The sleeves were rolled to show the fineness of the material, which was later reinforced to us as we were shown a sheet of Muslin in a textile display. Perhaps the most stunning part of this piece was the cases of jewelled beetles fastened onto the shoulder pads and breastplates amongst more gold detailing, indicating not only the tireless hours spent on the piece’s creation but the innovation found in 19th-century Indian clothing.

The next part of the tour brings you to the West with a neoclassical English dress from 1810. The dress itself is made of white silk with a net overlay that appears at first to be embroidered with gold thread but is instead embellished with real corn. The theme continues throughout the dress with a wheat sheaf motif (try saying that five times fast) repeating above the hem of the skirt and blown glass beads full of yellow wax to imitate wheat grains. This dress was incredibly provoking, not just by its construction, but as it is thought to symbolize the start of Western women’s fashion. After the French Revolution, fashion began to see faster changes, but one of the first trends was to wear white cotton, where the colour imitated classical antiquity and implied a virginal purity whilst the fabric choice symbolized the egalitarian nature of the new Republic. This dress in particular, with its agricultural detailing, is thought to have been a copy of Empress Josephine Bonaparte’s dress in her 1812 portrait by Jean-Baptiste Paulin Geurin. The combination of historical significance and brilliant textile management landed this piece as my favourite part of the tour.

The following pieces were from the V&A’s permanent collection, starting with a glamorous satin Charles James dress from 1934. Commissioned by Cecil Beaton for his socialite younger sister ‘Baba’ Beaton, the dress illustrates the pivotal shift from 1920s to 1930s fashion and figure trends. Using Madeline Vionnet’s bias cut and architectural techniques, Charles James created a dress that gave Baba a fuller bust, wider hips and a smaller waist, much unlike the ‘boyish’ figure popular just a decade before.

The succeeding dress, from 1938, was also a Charles James creation. The evening dress, made for Jennifer Jones, similarly highlights Charles James’ innovation with the piece displaying a complex cross-over bodice and keyhole design. Inspired by the surrealist movement, the piece also exhibits a pattern designed by Jean Cocteau, depicting illustrations of his face and the face of his lover Jean Marais.

The penultimate dress was made famous at Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel. The white silk ensemble, designed by Mila Schon, displayed a myriad of hand-stitched silver sequins across a shift dress and adjoining Matelassé coat. The dress was worn by Princess Lee Radziwill, sister of Jackie Kennedy, who had loaned the dress to the V&A in 1971 for Cecil Beaton’s Fashion: An Anthology. This piece came close second to being my favourite due to its captivating elegance and its role in creating the “pinnacle of New York’s social history”​ (Nowell 2004)​.

The final item shown in the tour was from the Contemporary Menswear collection: Harry Style’s Cardigan from 2019. Designed by JW Anderson, the cardigan was made significant when it was recreated during the 2020 Lockdown by Liv Huffman, which generated over 40 million searches across various social media platforms. In the V&A, JW Anderson had provided a QR code to access the crochet pattern of the original cardigan, inspired by the way in which Huffman had freely provided her own. The tour guide smoothly rounded the tour off in an introspective manner, arching back to the practical use of panel construction in both the Kimono and the cardigan, whilst inviting visitors of the V&A to look forward to the development of newer pieces awaiting a home in the collection.

It was certainly a thought-provoking end to the tour, leaving us questioning whether the future of fashion will continue to reflect this fusion with technology and a globalised accessibility to creating one’s own clothes. It can be argued that this newfound sense of global accessibility presents a controversial debate. On the one hand, it is incredibly positive, allowing many more people to navigate the world of fashion than previously ever possible as a result of widespread internet access. On the other, it presents a significant issue of oversaturation within the fashion industry, making it endlessly more difficult to build a fashion brand or generate exposure for an individual's design ideas amongst the sea of content on every social media outlet. Similarly, the intersection of fashion and technology continues to provide further discourse. Will the use of newer technological developments, such as AI, stifle human expression and creativity? Or will technology expand the capability of human design beyond what was fathomable even just a decade ago? I am excited to see the way in which technology could provide interesting solutions to the disjunction between the fashion industry and the global climate. With fast fashion creating 92 million tonnes of textile waste each year and 10% of annual carbon emissions, I am optimistic that technological innovation may end the nightmare that the fashion industry currently poses on the environment.

Overall, the tour was a fantastic experience providing great detail into the construction of incredibly significant pieces of fashion history and the sociocultural context behind each work. It was very enlightening and greatly accessible for anyone with a range of knowledge about fashion, providing an insightful start to exploring the vastness of the V&A museum.

Edited by Megan Shears, Fashion Editor


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