Exhibition Review: Hartnell to Amies: Couture By Royal Appointment @ The Fashion and Textile Museum

Before we all got excited about the Olympics in the summer, London 2012 was all about the Queen’s Jubilee. The Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey has arrived a little late to the royal party with their new exhibition dedicated to two prominent royal dress designers, Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies.

This isn’t a display of the Queen’s dresses, despite what the show’s title might have you believe. Instead, we have a display of around 50 couture outfits showing off the incredible skills of two designers Liz favoured and examining how these two British titans helped establish London as an international fashion centre after the Second World War.

The show flows in chronological order from early spangly, Jazz-age numbers, through the austerity 30s to the flourishing 50s, the mini-skirted 60s to the Princess Di-inspired 80s. Theatre-loving Hartnell opened his Mayfair couture house in 1923, and won his first royal client in 1935. By 1947, he was famously designing the Queen’s wedding dress and coronation dress of 1953. Amies enjoyed the patronage of the Queen for five decades; starting when she was a tweed-clad princess to more recent pristine pink creations.

While the exhibition features some sumptuous special occasion-wear (exquisite wedding dresses and ball gowns of the aristocracy), there’s also enough more ordinary day-wear to keep the show from slipping into overwhelming glamour. Instead, we get a (partial) picture of Britain’s social history through the clothes women wore; changing your outfit for an evening’s entertainment in the 30s; showing off your new-found knees in the 60s; buttoning up again in 80s power suits. Gorgeous pencil drawings and sketches show off the designers’ processes and techniques. You’re also able to get up close to some of that famous Hartnell embroidery and embellishment. What’s clear is that Hartnell and Amies moved and flourished with the times. Their forward-thinking creativity, dropping a hemline here, embellishing a collar there helped move London ahead of Paris as the fashion centre of the world; their legacy, the current state fashion industry (with the resurgence of British heritage brands, traditional tailoring and dressmaking) provides food for thought at the end of the exhibition.

There’s also a nice section on hats by the Australian-born milliner Frederick Fox; once again the process and craft of fashion design, in this case hat-making, is highlighted in this interesting show.

Hartnell to Amies: Couture By Royal Appointment is at The Fashion and Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3XF, from 16 November to 23 February 2013; from Tuesday-Saturday; from 11am-6pm; last admission 5.15pm. Tickets cost £7 for adults, £5 for students and concessions, free entry for under 12s. Visit ftmlondon.org to find out more. Lovely pics copyright Norman Parkinson Ltd / Courtesy Norman Parkinson archive. Dodgy photos: author’s own. More here.

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