The scientists who will be filling the British Library for their
meat market Beautiful Minds Mingle will probably not be the most, um, fashion-conscious people in London. In fact, most people who enter the British Library probably aren't in the running for any best-dressed awards. But for those of you who have an interest in the serious frivolity and ephemeral momentousness of clothes and hairstyles, be sure not to miss the display currently on in the lobby, an exhibition entitled Fashion Lives. (Is that second word a noun or a verb? What provocative ambiguity!)
Of course, every one goes to the BL to view the Magna Carta and the manuscript of Messiah and the Beatles lyrics sheets on display in the permanent exhibition space. Many also stop in to see the well-publicised displays in the large temporary exhibition rooms (soon to contain a collection of Nobel prizewinner memorabilia). But recently some of the most interesting things for visitors to see in the BL has been the adventurous "topical displays" in the lobby itself — including on the first and second floors where most casual visitors have no reason to go. (Fashion Lives follows an interesting interactive display on music in Africa in the autumn, and an equally worthwhile installation on magic and illusion during the summer.)
According to the press release:
For the first time at the British Library, Fashion Lives, a new exhibition, has brought together a collection of post-war fashion leaders who have defined their profession and played a unique role in shaping the fashion industry as we know it today. [...]
The exhibition draws on the Oral History of British Fashion collection of oral history interviews from the National Life Story Collection at the British Library's Sound Archive. This new collaborative initiative between London College of Fashion and the British Library documents fashion and its related industries within living memory.
This description might make the display sound dryer than it is. Each individual, including a prominent tailor, costume designer, fashion teacher, retailer, and hairdresser, is given one glass case containing both documentation of their lives — photographs, catalogues, bookkeeping materials — as well as material that inspired them — art, ephemeral images from magazines, pieces of fabric.
Next to each vitrine is a bench with headphones with which you can hear excerpts from the oral histories from the Sound Archive. These include both recording by the individual in question, as well as recordings of other people talking about them. Although the sheer amount of oral history at each station is overwhelming — it would take a whole day to listen to everything — dropping in at random will eventually yield some gems. (Londonist was particularly delighted by the story of costume designer Marit Allen's profound schoolgirl crush on Davy Crockett.)
But for us, the highlight of the whole display is up the escalator to the first floor. There, in the vitrine devoted to John Church, owner of Church's Shoes, one finds not only a pare of brogues made out of reindeer leather dredged up from an eighteenth-century shipwreck, but also sheets of paper with pencil tracings of the bare feet of Her Majesty the Queen. They're pretty small.
The British Library is on Euston Road, near King's Cross. Fashion Lives can be viewed whenever the library is open — until 8pm except Friday and Saturday (unlike the exhibition rooms, which close earlier).