An introduction to British fashion with Beatrice Behlen (Museum of London)

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We were pretty impressed by the commitment of the Museum of London during London Collections: Men.  As if there was (finally!) a city which tries to gather the general public with the world of fashion. A statement which is confirmed by the massive involvement of the Museum of London in social media: a new role for cultural institutions seems to rise; becoming and documenting the pulse of a city which tends to consume history.

Beatrice Behlen, the Museum of London’s Senior Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts, accepted to offer us some clues on London and Great Britain fashion history…enjoy.

How do you think British fashion is positioned regarding the other main places (Paris, NY)? what makes British creation so singular through history?

I think that despite globalisation, Paris, New York and Milan still have a distinctive identity and style. British fashion is more fun, more irreverent, more influenced by the street than American and continental fashion in my belief. I think that’s been pretty much a trend since London was swinging in the 1960s. Earlier – from around the mid-19th century onwards – Britain was known for tailoring. But not just for men. Women came here to order their country tweeds and riding outfits. Even before that there were periods – particularly in the eighteenth century – when Britain and the rest of Europe were heavily influenced by French styles. But even then English fashions were different. They were more influenced by a love of nature and the countryside, rather than the urban.

Would you call Savile Row history?

I think Savile Row is very relevant at the moment. Even though few people can afford a bespoke or even a made-to-measure suit, it sets a benchmark in terms of fit and craftsmanship, but also provides something to rebel against and subvert. We live in rather conservative times and it is not surprising that the suit and Savile Row have made a comeback. Not that the suit ever went away, but it seems to be more readily adopted by a younger audience these days.

© London Evening Standard

Will the Duchess of Cambridge’s outfits end up in an exhibition at the museum one day?

The outfits of the Duchess of Cambridge will certainly be displayed in the future. We would not say no if they were offered to the Museum of London! But I doubt they will come our way. The Royal Collection is all too aware of the appeal of fashion exhibitions and has staged a number of these over the past few years at Buckingham Palace – including a display of the Duchess of Cambridge’s infamous wedding dress. I think that is where we are most likely to see these garments go on show. I would almost be more interested in clothes worn by fans of the Duchess. A dress, say, that someone bought because the Duchess had worn something similar. It’s the stories behind and attached to garments and ensembles that interest me.

What’s the role of a museum in the British fashion industry: is it a promoter or is it a curator?

Museums can be both promoters and curators of fashion. We want to be able to tell the story of the development of fashion, but also more generally, every day wear. As such, some of our work involves making sure we collect and preserve the right objects. Obviously, putting contemporary design on display also promotes it. The jewellery designers in our Made in London: Jewellery Now exhibition are also represented in our museum shop. But when planning for the design of the exhibition, we were adamant that it should not look like a jewellery shop display. We wanted to create mini-installations allowing visitors to step inside the mind-set and creative worlds of these seven young London designers. There is a slight danger in being too involved in what’s going on at present. You don’t want to lose your critical distance.

What has changed in the way you curate fashion?

There is more emphasis on contemporary fashion now. Especially over the last twenty years. It is shame that there are not as many exhibitions about nineteenth century dress, or indeed dress from earlier periods in London. This is something that seems to be more prevalent in France and Germany for example. There seems to be a view that visitors will not be interested in clothes they cannot relate to now. Yet I’m not sure I entirely agree. The use of moving images is another big change. I realise that it seems so natural now, but even twenty years ago the technology was too clunky to achieve this easily or to a large scale. I really like that you can now see clothes moving next to the actual object. That’s always been a big problem with fashion: you have to display it on a static mannequin. The challenge is how to overcome the restrictions that this can place on the dynamism of display.

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