Fashion Museum, Bath

museum Jan 27, 2018

One of Bath's finest Georgian buildings, the Assembly Rooms was designed for fashionable gatherings. Built from 1769 to 1771, the Assembly Rooms was the third Assembly Rooms in Bath, however, they were seen as being old-fashioned and too small for the fast growing city.

The exterior of the building is rather plain (I walked right by it), but the inside is exceptionally grand, especially the Ball Room, the largest eighteenth-century space in Bath.

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So too the Great Octagon and the Tea Room do not disappoint:

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Originally known as the Museum of Costume, today's Fashion Museum came to the Assembly Rooms in 1963. It was founded by the writer, scholar, costume designer and collector of historic costumes Doris Langley Moore (1902-1989), who first began collecting in the 1920's.

In 2007 the museum became the Fashion Museum, and clothing worn by fashionable men and women throughout the past 350 years is displayed in its galleries, the total number of pieces in its collection numbering over 80,000.

The oldest of these are elaborate gloves from the early 1600's, which were given as gifts or as marks of affection (Fun Fact: It was not important whether or not the gloves fit - often times they did not - all that really mattered was who they were from and how fancy they looked. And they looked FANCY.)

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The Fashion Museum also seeks to keep itself current, with the Dress of the Year scheme: "each year the museum asks a fashion expert to choose a significant look shown on the catwalk during the international fashion weeks, and the ensemble selected is gifted to the Dress of the Year Collection." (Taken from The Authorised Guide: The Assembly Rooms, Bath, page 19.)

Unfortunately such a scheme means you will be forced to endure this:

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But we also get to enjoy this:

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So it's not all bad.

Full discloser: I really have little to no use for clothing post-WWI. I will tolerate the 20's. Other than that, probably not. [2018 edit: My 2015 sentiment seems rather harsh almost three years later. Since writing them I have come to appreciate clothing up through the 70's, having made clothes for myself from the 50's, 60's, and 70's using vintage patters that I wear out in public and feel rather good about myself while doing so.]

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I took a lot of pictures. A LOT of pictures. They will come in handy while I explain the layout of the museum.

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The Museum is arranged chronologically, beginning with the Georgians (the time period from 1714-1830, when all the Kings were named George).

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The display goes through some fashionable day wear, night wear, and the ever-popular court wear, as well as gentleman's dress.

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The Georgians wrapped up with a few pieces from what is also called the Regency:

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A selection of uniforms:

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And several transitional dresses, leading from the high-waisted styles of the 1810's to the soft, Romantic styles of the late 1820's and 30's.

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Suddenly, one is confronted with this:

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And rounding the corner is a whole slew of undergarments, dresses, hats, and the like for playing dress-up. They are not messing around, either, these are decent, quality reproductions that really give people the feel for wearing and moving in the quintessential "Victorian" dress.

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There's even a little area where one can have a staged picture in full costume:

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People seemed to enjoy it too, taking the time to stop walking and viewing to try on corsets and hoop skirts, garments and hats.

I was completely taken aback at the way they displayed their Victorian costumes, however. Expecting a display similar to the one used with the Georgians, instead I encountered this:

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Fashion plates from the 1800's to early 1900's adorn the walls, and nestled into the four walls around the square room were vignettes of the costumes held, with descriptions of the decade portrayed and overarching themes present.

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Perhaps the most intriguing is the inclusion of the boxes, stacks and stacks of them, showing the collection in it's "Costume Shop" form. If you recall, on Thursday I went into the Museum of London's Costume Shop located in the basement, it's boxes hidden away from the public view. Here, they are out for the visitor to see, and perhaps get a closer look into the inner workings and scope of the Museum's collections.

The dresses themselves were, of course, stunning.

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And at the end of the Victorian and early Edwardian eras visitors were invited to share their thoughts with the Museum via the Inspirations Wall:

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And try their hand at fashion design using the Drawings Wall:

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But wait, there's more!

In order to leave the Museum, first you must pass through this:

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Yes, modern fashion must have its due, and you must pass through a hallway of mannequins to view it.

That's not entirely fair, as there were a few I enjoyed:

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Please note how none of them were on the humanoid mannequins.

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The Fashion Museum used three very different ways in which to display the three time periods making up its collections, and very fittingly too: the traditional, stately manner for the gradual procession of Georgian attire, the snapshots of styles confined to very specific decades in Victorian dress, and the rapid progression of fads and fashions all piled on in the long hallway-come-catwalk that is 20th and 21st century clothing, all culminating in the Dress of the Year.

It made for a very exciting, interesting experience.

I visited two very different museums [this and the Jane Austen Centre], and both provided insights into the creating of displays, utilization of space, and ways of engaging with the audience. I learned a lot, and came away with perhaps the most valuable lesson of them all: One mannequin is more than enough.

Information taken from:

The Authorised Guide: The Assembly Rooms, Bath, purchased at the Assembly Rooms store

Rachel Polaniec

I enjoy researching, visiting, and writing about local historic and cultural sites.