Hartnell to Amie’s, Couture by Royal Appointment,
The Fashion and Textile Museum
16th November 2012 – 23rd February 2012
Situated in the very charming and trendy streets of Bermondsey Village, The Fashion and Textile Museum is a highly- coloured and conspicuous building that undoubtedly brings the humble South London street to life. Creating a modern day approach from the outset, the Hartnell and Amie’s exhibition simultaneously diverts you into the history of British Couture. With the museums intention to ‘offer inspiration to a new generation of creatives’, this builds upon certain expectations before the Royal Appointment even commences. However, as you enter the exhibition, those thoughts are distinguished and each display room unquestionably lends out encouraging creativity.
Welcoming the audience into each space is the soft sound of 1950’s piano music. Unfolding time, the gentle tune charms the attention of exhibition visitors. With a great insight into the success of Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amie’s, the exhibition informs and celebrates two outstanding designers that gave British fashion a high profile following the Second World War. On arrival, the entrance room is relatively small; however, a stunning black and white canvas of Fiona Campbell-Walter outshone and almost over shadowed the quaint space. (Figure one) Dressed in a beautiful Hardy Amie’s gown, the towering print was a striking taster into fashion photography during the 1950s. Revealing the impressive work of fashion photographer Norman Parkinson, the elegant photograph acknowledged his work as iconic and undoubtedly underlined the importance of the fashion image throughout the twentieth century.
Amongst the low-lit glass cases, the exhibition progressed into the main room where the focus shifted onto rows of mannequins and bodices displaying the designs of Hartnell. This room lacked some visual consistency however this was surpassed by the informative wall texts relaying Hartnell’s journey to the crown. The exhibition directed the audience through his career, starting with his romantic approach to dress design in the 1920’s. After the early success of Hartnell’s evening and afternoon dresses in Paris, the display then goes on to report his powerful influence on other designers. Hardy Amie’s three-part hunting, shooting and fishing ensemble is presented behind a very simple glass case. However, the tweed jacket, matching skirt and knickerbockers echoed the start of the exhilarating fashion change for young women. Putting aside the minimalistic display, the piece demonstrates fashion adapting to social change. Lifestyle and work ethics started to translate into the fashion world quite drastically and Amie’s ‘sport’ designs draw back to the elating independence that women embraced.
Space, light and presentation of the garments around each area are considered, however as the museum continues to exhibit work through the generosity of their loyal supporters, one doesn’t expect extravagant staging. Casting aside these details, the exhibition thrives in keeping audiences connected with easy to follow decade consistency. With the walls radiating Hartnell history in the main room, attention shifts to the array of figures displaying his designs. Lent by two very famous vintage curators, Cleo & Mark Butterfield; a 1940s coffee coloured country suit takes centre position on the podium. With the onset of Second World War, women adapted to work life, alongside that came the selection of understated suits and authoritative styled jackets. A significant fashion movement was addressed with ¾ length swagger day coats and refined woollen dinner suits.
Oozing sophistication, Parkinson’s photographs progressed into the main room. Decorating the walls with Vogue history, they turned out to be prominent features in the exhibition. Beneath the visual iconography, cabinets displayed timeless Hardy Amie’s possessions. Inviting the visitor into a world full of personal belongings, the experience was instantaneously enriched. Amongst personal diaries and royalty treasures, stood the original Hartnell sketch of Princess Elizabeth’s 2nd wedding gown. Key in remembering a 1947 British fairy tale, the drawing illustrated a rich ivory duchesse satin dress with seed pearl embroidery. Complete with peal studded, satin high-heeled sandals made by Edward Rayne, the sketch defined pure fashion antiquity.
The exhibition dedicated an ample section towards the new style that would signify a whole new decade. (Figure two) With forties functional dress coming to an end, the fifties was a time for women to feel extremely feminine again. Kuyper (2006) cites;’ After the War, male designers took charge of the world of fashion.’ The collaboration included a 1948 highwayman’s velvet fitted bodice coat and several two-piece woollen suits with matching full skirts. Strongly influenced by Dior’s ‘New Look’ Hartnell & Amie’s acknowledged clinched waists and long pretty skirts. They inherited the elegant motifs from other fashion designers and produced their own fashion sensations which all stood very beautifully on the podiums. Beside it, a golden sunshine 1950’s full-length evening dress ignited taste and provoked the eye with it’s detailed chartreuse beading. Re-establishing the desire women had for garments that embraced class and elegance, the gown was one of many that confirmed why British couture flourished in the 1950s.
The lower ground of the exhibition draws to an end with an assortment of gowns. Standing out from the rest, a satin organza wedding dress evokes a decade of Royal happily ever afters. Designed by Hartnell for Lady Anne Coke, the 1956 gown radiated beauty. With Silver corded lace bodice and fine appliques, the dress stood centre of the display as a magical reminder from the past. The Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress designed by Alexandra McQueen’s Sarah Burton was made of ivory and white satin silk gazar. A material, which was similar to the organza used in Hartnells dress, showed how designers of today still use the finest of materials and great attention to detail is still a leading attribute in the creative process. A magnificent amount of time is lent to designing these Royal gowns and by comparing McQueen’s dress to Hartnell’s, it’s evident that both these gowns hallmarked elements of Victorian couture. The dress was a thought-provoking feature that demonstrated historic and modern day dress design.
Gorgeous fashion illustrations framed the walls of the staircase, enabling visitors to get close to original sketches especially designed for H.M. The Queen. This indubitably was a very magical touch in the exhibition; it invited guests to see exclusive design work that would normally be restricted and held off from the public. Standing out from the rest was a frame displaying not only the design but also the original material that was used alongside it. This brought the drawings to life and attracted rows of attention as visitors made their way to the higher level. The museum was very successful in creating a peaceful and thought provoking atmosphere, the older visitors seemed very happy to reminisce on designs that they were familiar with and take an interest in the antiquity that they may have missed.
The remainder of the exhibition emphasised the wonderful work of another great British designer. Refreshing to see the focus shift from garments to accessories, guests were introduced to the wonderful designer hat collection by Frederick Fox. With vivid fuchsia being the consistent colour throughout the display, the quirky, spiral three tier hats didn’t go unnoticed. Fox’s designs were innovative and complimented Hardy’s designs for the Queen effortlessly. Many whispered about their own replica hats and talked quietly about the transition of Fox’s designs into 21st century fashion. The space acknowledged a Queen’s fashion favourite and demonstrated a timeless accessory that lead to the revival of hat wearing in the 1990s. Again, the exhibition succeeded in telling the tale of another stylish fashion movement.
The higher level dedicated plenty of space to their cabinets, which were full of precious jewels and sentimental sketchbooks. A 1970’s perfume ‘ In Love’ by Norman Hartnell embodies time and triggers imagination for the scent caught inside the heart shaped bottle. (Figure 3) It’s the treasurable possessions like these that made the experience pleasurable and although you are looking through a glass case to see them, it was still astonishing to see how these valuables had made it through time. The fragrances were a sweet ending to the exhibition and verified not only the success of the British designers but the everlasting mark they have all left among the way. The displays and sections were all of a different variety but the visitor was kept well informed with explanatory labels, this then structured a historic narrative that was fluent throughout the entire stay. As well as embarking on the presence of Hartnell, Amie’s & Fox, the exhibition reflected on their powerful influence and showcased some of their finest work. One can only leave with positive thoughts that this satisfying journey into Royal style will continue to provoke the imagination of young designers for future generations.
Reviewed By Tiffany Lauren Preston