This past weekend, the exhibition Hats: an Anthology by Stephen Jones closed at the Peabody Essex Museum here in Salem while across the pond 50 Fabulous Frocks opened at the Fashion Museum in Bath, England. You know what they say in fashion, one day you’re in, the next you’re out. Seriously, Hats must have been an absolute blockbuster for the PEM and I’m sure the relatively new Bath museum organized the Frocks anniversary exhibition to expand their audience as well: fashion history is popular, and almost immediately accessible.
There’s been a lot of publicity for the Frocks exhibition, so even if you’re not able to make it to Bath this year you can still see many of the dresses, including one of the most famous in the museum’s collection, the “Silver Tissue” dress, dating from about 1660. I have seen this dress myself, and it is beautiful, and interesting: there is a contrast between the luxury of the fabric, a fine Italian linen interwoven with silver thread and trimmed in parchment lace, its coarser cotton trim and its relatively modest cut. Most likely this is due to the fact that it was worn by an adolescent girl, which explains the gown’s considerable charm. We are used to seeing more extravagant gowns from the era, made of less subtle silks and satins and much lower cut, most beautifully in the Peter Lely portraits of Charles II’s courtiers, family, queen or mistresses.
The “Silver Tissue Dress” at the Fashion Museum, Bath and North East Somerset Council; a Peter Lely portrait of Henrietta Anne, the Duchess of Orleans, sister of Charles II, from the National Portrait Gallery, London; a doublet from the same era, made of similar fabric, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
Keeping with the metallic theme, but moving forward 150 years or so, the next dress that emerges from the exhibition for me is this ball gown from the late 1820s, made of cream silk embroidered with gold ribbon. Of course it would be right at home in Austenland, but also in Salem’s Hamilton Hall–either in the ballroom or the bride’s room, I think.
Another ball gown which is sure to get a lot of attention is the Veuve Cliquot champagne bottle dress worn by an unnamed lady to a fancy dress ball in 1902: the cap is the cork!
The celebrated designers of the twentieth century are all represented in the exhibition, including Poiret, Vionnet, Chanel, Dior, Schiaparelli, and St. Laurent. There’s a bright tartan satin ball gown from the 1860s, which (except for its length) has a very 1950s silhouette and a Mickey Mouse dress from the 1930s which looks like it could be from the 1960s–to my untrained eye. A little lace Alexander McQueen dress, trimmed with leather, appealed to me the most among the modern dresses: again, it looks like it can transcend the date of its creation: 1999.