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Fifty fabulous frocks – Bath Fashion Museum

50 Fabulous Frocks

Think of the biggest names in fashion, and you’re likely to see their creations have made it to the party to celebrate 50 years of the Fashion Museum in Bath. Fifty Fabulous Frocks curates pieces from the top fashion designers from Vionnet, Schiaparelli and Chanel to Quant, McQueen, and Erdem, as well as historical creations.

Frock may mean dress to us now, but it actually has a wider meaning:

“Frock: historically referred to an article of clothing; in the 17th century specifically a workman’s outer garment; in the 18th century a man’s loose fitting coat; a religious robe; more typically a woman’s dress.”

As a keen frock lover myself, I headed to the museum for some vintage fashion inspiration. Here are my top five from the collection, not in any particular order…

1. Red mini, André Courrèges, 1960s

Andres Courreges red mini dress

Swinging sixties chic with the optimism of the decade is conjured by this simple, angular mini dress in block red by André Courrèges. A designer for Balenciaga before establishing his own fashion house, he introduced a radically different line in 1964 with dresses like this worn with flat boots, goggles and helmets – outfits ready for the ultra-modern space age. This frock was worn by Ernestine Carter, fashion editor for the Sunday Times (1955-1972), who called 1963 the Year of the Leg. Indeed, as Courrèges  started to shorten skirts at the same time as Mary Quant, the debate on the mini’s originator rages on. An engineer by training, his designs are functional and in heavier fabrics, and he also helped to popularise trousers for women. Go back to the future in ’60s style with this footage of one of his fashion shows. (I’m unsure whether the girls are being locked away for another fashion show or being sent into space…?)

2. Mickey Mouse Dress, 1930s

mickey mouse dress

This quirky dress from the late 1930s made it into my top five, despite a dislike of product placement or branding on clothes, and an ambivalence towards Disney. The maker of the dress is unknown but according to the exhibition, from its skimpiness and narrow seam allowances, it appears to have been mass-produced for wholesale. Without the Mickey motif, the puffed sleeves and fitted waist make it a style I would wear today. Fashion seems to maintain a fascination with cartoons from Minnie Mouse hairstyles at Zac Posen to Manga inspired fashion at Gucci

3. Opera Coat, Christian Dior, late 1950s

Dior coat

The Dior New Look was such a fashion shift that this red satin opera coat had to make it into the top five. Dior’s lines marked a return to a ‘feminine’, curvaceous shape and a luxurious look using lots of fabric after war-time’s less restrictive lines and scrimping on fabric. The bar was the ultimate hourglass outfit with narrow shoulders, nipped in waist and padded hips and full, flared skirt.  Dior was also a marketing innovator by devising theatrical shows, creating trends every six months and diversifying his market. This coat is not couture, but from Dior London, through which his designs were licensed and sold at cheaper prices.  I can just picture this coat modelled in one of Norman Parkinson’s photographs, epitomising effortless glamour.

4. Opulent mantua, 1760s

Mantua 1760s

To show the breadth of the collection, I wanted to include a pre-20th century piece, and so opted for this mantua from the 1760s. Although highly impractical, its sheer opulence and beautiful embroidery made it fit for a top five. This piece was created around the same time as the Assembly Rooms in Bath, home to the Fashion Museum today, but it would have likely been worn in even grander venues, perhaps weddings or birthdays at the Royal Court. The expensive fabric and design would signify the wealth and status of the wearer immediately, and although the owner is unknown, the Museum thinks it is likely it was worn at the court of King George III, who succeeded in 1760.

Before ‘make do and mend’ and the resistance to fast fashion, in the 1760s, fabrics were re-used and clothes ‘upcycled’. The exhibition quotes from a Mrs Papendiek in the 1780s:

“Fashion was not then… the matter of continual change. A silk gown would go on for years a little fashioned up with new trimmings.”

5. Green silk dress, Jeanne Lanvin, 1919 

Jeanne Lanvin dress 1919

This green shot silk pannier dress by Jeanne Lanvin illustrates the word ‘frock’ perfectly. The influence is 18th century with the full skirt requiring panniers, which are sewn into the dress. Lanvin began designing for children, and this fashion house’s logo remains a mother and child. As the Museum suggests, this dress certainly has a child’s birthday party feel. I love the way that now looking back it’s going against our idea of the period with its streamlined flapper look. Alber Erbaz now heads up the Lanvin label, and one of his dress won the 2005 Dress of the Year award showing some affinity with this dress. The footage below features the designer herself in fittings. Don’t miss the pockets in the first dress shown – the detail is absolutely beautiful. 

Happy Birthday Bath Fashion Museum

Fifty Fabulous Frocks is just part of the Fashion Museum’s fiftieth birthday celebrations. The museum was established in the sixties (initially called the Museum of Costume Bath) by Doris Langley Moore and Bath City Council. Fifty Fabulous Frocks runs until the end of 2013. If you’re in Bath next month, check out Bath in Fashion 2013 too.

In case you can’t make the exhibition, look out for another post featuring the next top 5. After all, there are another 45 fabulous frocks to choose…

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