The History of the First Fashion Exhibition

The V&A, or The Victoria and Albert Museum,(named after Prince Albert and Queen Victoria) was founded in 1852 and is the home to over 4.5 million objects and 5 thousand years worth of art. The many different collections it houses are some of the largest in the world and that is why it does not surprise me that it’s collection of fashions exceeds 14,000 pieces.

Although, the V&A had received an impressive collection from Talbot Hughes (a collector of costumes and attire from the 16th century through to the 1870s) in 1913. Its first real fashion exhibition came to life in 1971, thanks to one particularly note worthy man, Cecil Beaton.

Cecil Beaton was a photographer, illustrator, set designer, costume designer, writer and diarist. To say he was a man of many talents would be a serious understatement. During his life time he worked with magazines like Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s Bazaar. He was also commissioned to be a royal photographer, and became official photographer for British government and military agencies during WWII. The huge number of famous faces and personalities he captured on film during his lifetime is ridiculously impressive and left me wondering if in fact there was any one he hadn’t photographed before his death in 1980. To name a few so you get an idea, Dali, Picasso, Monroe, Brando, Jagger, Mae West, Warhol, Twiggy, Dietrich, Garbo… I think you get the idea.

I could go on and on about Beaton (his personal life is an interesting one, rude, bitchy, gay yet had an affair with Garbo etc) but the point of this particular post is how he came to be the creator of “Fashion: An Anthology” what was basically, the first, of the kind of fashion exhibitions we go to today. (Don’t worry, I shall be returning to him in another post!)

The exhibition came about thanks to a New York dinner party in 1969, where Cecil had been seated next to the then director of the V&A, John Pope-Hennessy. Hennessy made a comment to Cecil, about how he was surprised that the Balenciaga gowns which were so in vogue at the time, were not collected as works of art. An idea was born.

Beaton was of course by this time, so well known and established that he had absolutely no problem getting in contact with the kind of women he knew would not only have these kinds of dresses,but who would be happy to donate them. In the end he ended up with a collection of 450 pieces for the exhibition and even more to donate to the museums collections. Some of the oldest pieces dated back to 1897, but it also featured 1960s fashions, including a skirt donated by model of the day, Jean Shrimpton.

Her Majesty The Queen, The Duchess of Windsor, and many other well known royals donated as well as some other rather recognizable last names, Onassis, Guinness, Niarchos. The collection itself had all the most coveted designer names ever known, such as, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, Dior, Desses, Poiret, Givenchy, YSL (who complained as he only had 6 dresses within the exhibit )

The exhibition was open for 3 months and over 80,000 people saw it. The majority of the exhibition was donated to the museum and are still showcased as part of the 14,000 piece collection it now houses.