At this time of year my thoughts naturally turn to the first Monday in May. To those in the fashion know the date needs no explanation.
For the last 72 years the first Monday in May has signalled the most coveted event on the fashion calendar – The Met Gala. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour has been in charge of the ‘fashion super-bowl’ since 1995, and has turned the gala into the hottest ticket in town.
Every year The Met Gala has a theme, aligned to the museum’s big fashion exhibition for the year – I eagerly await the annual announcement with anticipation. For me, this is where my two loves of fashion and history gloriously collide. 2018 saw Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and The Catholic Imagination, where ornate encrusted Dolce and Gabbana creations sat next to artefacts loaned by The Vatican. The theme for 2004 was Dangerous Liaisons, celebrating both fashion and furniture from the 18th Century. It seems that history and fashion are natural bedfellows.
Heavenly Bodies Exhibition – 2018
I was equally looking forward to this year’s theme. About Time: Fashion and Duration was going to be all about fashion history and the relationship between history and fashion. The theme was inspired by the 1992 film Orlando, based on a Virginia Woolfe novel of the same name. More specifically, it was inspired by a scene where Tilda Swinton enters the maze in an 18th century woman’s robe à la Francaise, and as she runs through it her clothes change to mid-19th century dress, and she re-emerges in 1850s England.
Tilda Swinton in Orlando
It got me thinking. So often on the catwalk we see history repeating itself. The recent A/W 2020 collection from Alexander McQueen was inspired by items in the collection at St Fagans National Museum of History near Cardiff. The results can be seen in lovespoon-inspired dresses, bright red colours and patterns influenced by a 1850s Wrexham tapestry. The bright red was inspired by St Fagan’s Kennixton farmhouse – the colour is traditionally said to ward against evil spirits.
Alexander McQueen A/W 2020
But why does history repeat itself on the catwalk?
I think it comes down to two fundamental things – inspiration and research. Both are central to the work of new and established fashion designers alike. Artists draw inspiration from the world around them, and the world we live in is the result of a history. Surviving historic garments also provide an invaluable research resource for many fashion designers.
There is also something of an established tradition of fashion designers using historical fashion for inspiration. In the late 19th century, the ladies fashion designer and Titanic survivor Lady Duff Gordon – aka Lucile – frequently looked to historic garments for inspiration. Some designs she created between 1910 and 1913 had names inspired by The French Empire. And wedding dress designer to Queen Elizabeth II Sir Norman Hartnell was inspired by the mid-19th century work of court painter Franz Xavier Winterhalter, who had painted her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria.
Elizabeth II’s coronation gown designed by Norman Hartnell – and inspired by 19th C dress
Fast forward to the 20th Century, and fashion history is still repeating itself. For me, when I think of historically-inspired fashion collections my mind jumps straight to the matriarch of punk fashion Dame Vivienne Westwood. Corsetry is a trademark design feature of hers, and her fabulous Portrait collection included shawls and 18th-century style corsets printed with reproductions of Francois Boucher’s painting Shepherd Watching a Sleeping Shepherdess – mixing art history and fashion history.
Vivienne Westwood corset featuring artwork by Boucher
And then of course there is the legendary Alexander McQueen. McQueen really came to public attention with his 1995 Highland Rape collection, which was inspired by his own family history and the Highland Clearances. A/W 1996 saw the Dante collection which was a fusion of denim, Victoriana and blasphemy and the A/W 1998 collection was entitled Joan, after the famous French heroine – complete with portraits of the Romanov children printed on dresses.
I think my favourite historically inspired collection of McQueen’s has to be the lesser-appreciated A/W 2007 collection In Memory of Elizabeth How, Salem 1692. My interest in the history of witchcraft means I really appreciate the references both to 17th Century puritans and ancient Egyptian paganism. Again, this collection was inspired by his own family history – Elizabeth How was a distant relative of McQueen’s that was hung during the notorious Salem Witchcraft Trials.
Alexander McQueen A/W 2007 collection
Fusing fashion and history challenges the latter, and forces us to think about the past in an entirely new way. We are always surrounded by history – sometimes we just need a fashion genius or two to crystallise it into a piece of walking art for us to be reminded of it.