14 August 2023

A COLLECTOR'S STORY: A Private Collection of Vivienne Westwood @ The Bowes Museum

I'm currently feeling very old. I remember previous fashion exhibition at the Bowes Museum - Vivienne Westwood Shoes, the fabulous YSL exhibition and Catwalking which don't seem like they happened that long ago. Then I realised that the shoe exhibition was in 2011, and YSL in 2015 and Catwalking in 2018. Where on earth has the time gone? I've always been so impressed with the quality of fashion exhibitions there, and am eternally grateful for the fact that I got to meet Pierre Berge, Yves Saint Laurent's partner at the opening event for his show. And it's nice not to have to travel to London all the time. 

The latest fashion offering is small but perfectly formed. A Collector's Story: A Private Collection of Vivienne Westwood charts a ten year period of Westwood's illustrious career between the mid 80s and mid 90s. Two of her collections are the main focus: Mini Crini (1986) which combined Victorian crinoline construction with the modern mini-skirt (as well as championing underwear as daywear), and Storm in a Teacup (1995). The collector is Peter Smithson, who started collecting her clothes in the 80s after visiting her celebrated stores and seeing them on the Clothes Show (reboot please). 

Experience twelve outfits and a wide range of accessories alongside objects from the Museum's 50,000 strong collection (to give Westwood's work historical context and showcase her encyclopedic knowledge of tailoring throughout the ages). You can find out more about her major influences - tartan, Harris Tweed (there are two impressive outfits from her 87/88 collection of the same name), the V&A and the Wallace Collection, Britishness and the Queen, punk and even Minnie Mouse, amongst countless styles throughout the centuries. It's interesting to see a piece of 19th century body armour next to a sleeve from a jacket she created which closely imitates the sections and joins. Other crowd pleasers include a black velvet catsuit from AW 90/91 and a tartan outfit complete with bustle from AW 94/95. 

I especially enjoyed seeing the crinoline skirts which created the silhouette of the 1850s and were inspired by Empress Eugenie of France. The corsets are a joy to behold, straight out of the 18th century but using lycra stretch panels instead of lacing for more comfort. I also really liked the salon print denim jacket and shorts from the Salon collection (1992), constructed from a print of a room with luxurious 18th century furnishings. The room is similar to those of John and Josephine Bowes which can be seen in the museum. Peter's favourite piece is the slashed denim jacket and jeans with a smock shirt from the collection Cut, Smash and Pull from S/S 1991, probably influenced by a 17th century doublet, but you're certain to have your own favourite. 

We all know and love the iconic orb logo, which is the main focus of her accessories. There are many covetable examples here - earrings, rings, necklaces and brooches from a range of her collections. Her shoes never disappoint - there are some cool platforms on show here alongside her popular Melissa plastic range. The hats include the iconic Harris Tweed crown and Bride of Fortune beret. 

I love that Smithson was passionate about keeping the exhibition in the North, and with a collection of around 100 full outfits as well as many other pieces, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a larger exhibition at some point. And praying for a major retrospective to celebrate Vivienne's peerless work so everyone can appreciate her immense talent, skill and intelligence. 

Thank you to Rachel Whitworth, Curator of Fashion and Textiles for talking us through the exhibition. 

The collection is on display until 4th February 2024. To find out more/buy tickets click here

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