Lucy Cavendish Alumnae go to the V&A

by Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou on 4 June 2015

"The feminine folds of fashion..."

An unworn bracelet, lovingly made by a childhood friend, each threaded bead a reminder of what was once shared. A lump of sugar encased in pristine white wrapping, preserving the unadulterated sweetness of a celebratory day. And a well-thumbed book; the folded frontispiece hiding the tender well-wishing of a soon-to-be ex. All three keepsakes, however seemingly trivial, have the power to evoke heady visions of the past. Whether one is a staunch minimalist or an obsessive hoarder, the objects we surround ourselves with- or better still, the ones we hide- epitomise, embody and silently express our untold stories.

The bracelet, tab of sugar and book- a strikingly disparate visual concatenation of the past- tell the tale of love gained, forsaken and renewed. However, they do so in a way that Barthes would claim simultaneously carries and resists the systemization of language. Collections often do this and none more so than the permanent Fashion Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Between each exhibition case, swathes of cloth clash in an organised chaos of genres, epochs and movements. Custom-made mannequins are draped with some of the most sumptuous gowns and robes so as to defy, in a fittingly Barthean manner, all words. Then again, a disjointed syntax runs through the whole collection: this is history objectified and not just any history, but primarily that of women. What could be more apt for a Lucy Cavendish Alumnae trip?! A group of women from all different disciplines and walks of life, assembling to espy the lives of our female predecessors through their diverse outfits couldn’t be more apposite, in my opinion.

The first outfit, a silver-gilt hand-sewn Mantua, resembled clothing that Madame de Pompadour would wear, when shown to the cabinet of Louis XV. Cut like half a moon bedazzled with golden stars, the gown was actually worn by a Welsh heiress, Sidney Parry, for presentations at court. Essentially a ‘coming out dress’, one can only imagine the alternate flutterings of fear and excitement Parry must have felt (and caused) when wearing it. Gazing at the shimmering seams of Parry’s robe, one could all too easily envisage a candle-lit hall, ablaze with brocaded figures, drunk on silken magnificence and then Parry stepping forth, trembling at her own opulence and eclipsing the very splendour of the king. Hence, not only does the Mantua capture the luxurious spirit of the age, but its very fabric unravels a tale about a young girl’s transition into womanhood.

Moving to another case we beheld an equally striking, though no less exquisite, dress from the late nineteenth century. Designed in Paris by the couturier, Madame Vignon, this daring magenta-coloured outfit brought forward, much like the Mantua, the sartorial dialogue held by Britain and France from the early eighteenth century onwards. Designed in Paris, but frequently assembled in England, such brightly coloured dresses were the rage for the middle-class woman right up to the former wife of Napoleon III, the Empress Eugenie. Whilst the Mantua made a statement with its planet-like, orb-inspired drama, the magenta-coloured Victorian gown shocked, not just for its ‘gaudy’ colour, as contemporary magazines would call it, but for its use of arsenic-laced dye. This was a dress to die for. Costly to ones purse and health, the robe expressed something of the pain women were often subjected to, when playing the part of a lady. Glancing from my own seemingly anachronistic trainers and sweatshirt, to the ‘death dress’ before me, I felt a sense of relief that such an outfit was no longer de rigueur of our fashion!

Above right: Silk dress with bodice, jacket, skirt, peplum and bow, designed by Madame Vignon, Paris, 1869-1870.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.