The trip to London concluded to one of my favourite museums, the Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum. Whenever I’m in London, I always try and visit the V&A and I’ve still only seen a small fraction of the incredible collection they have.
Everything about the V&A is fabulous – the building, the exhibitions, the entire scale of the museum. If you can think of it, they probably have a collection on it. I’ve seen everything from a collection of locks and locking mechanisms, to armour for animals alongside more traditional pieces of art.
As it is a British national museum, entrance is absolutely free. You do have to pay to see the special exhibitions (tickets are around £15 for non-members) they have but that is it. They have an extensive gift shop and cafes if you want to support the work they do, which I would wholeheartedly encourage. There are few museums with collections as extensive and varied as the V&A’s.
Sorry for the photos on this one – most of the pieces are behind glass so it was very tricky not to catch the light and reflections as well. Understandably, a lot of the galleries are quite dark too. However, if anything does catch your eye, the V&A has an impressive database of a large part of their collection which can be found here. The search isn’t that easy to use but if you don’t have the luxury of visiting in person, then you can see photographs of some of the collection as well as the accompanying information.
The first stop was to one of the V&A’s current exhibitions, ‘Undressed: A History of Underwear’. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting but the exhibition was such a disappointment that I had to view the entrance fee as a donation in order to not feel ripped off.
It’s a relatively small exhibition and even with the strange, circular layout which means you are continually fighting with the crowds to look at things, it probably won’t take more than half hour to see all of it. There’s a variety of corsets through the ages, showing the changing fashions through the ages as practicality and a lack of crushed organs were considered more desirable. It’s not all bras and knickers though, the history of men’s underwear from the stylish long-johns and thermals to modern boxers are featured as well.
There were a couple of beautiful lace slips and elegant night gowns but I was hoping to see some more fine whitework and delicate hand stitching. The focus of the exhibition is more on the history and development, rather than as a collection of particularly fantastic pieces. Probably the best was the huge number of, presumably unintentionally, hilarious display signs. ‘The back is fastened with a single button, which tantalisingly, cannot be undone.’ Did someone actually write that with a straight face?
Thankfully, the normal fashion exhibition had a lot more eye candy to offer. I’m still idly thinking about designing my own waistcoat, rather than just buying a pattern, and it’s great to be able to see how the fashions have evolved through the ages and think about what characteristic design features I might want to include. I love the collar on one of these and the beautiful hand embroidery and shape of the other…
Some absolutely gorgeous embellishments on these jackets and the green is a fantastic colour.
The Asia section of the V&A is one of my favourite parts. It is stuffed with various treasures and textiles from across Asia, including a great deal of Islamic and Buddhist art. There were some interesting pieces from India, which I thought looked almost English in design that turned out to have been made for the export market. These are all parts of tent hangings which takes the meaning of ‘glamping’ to a whole new level.
Indian bead and metalwork always looks particularly opulent thanks to the density of the metalwork and use of spangles.
It’s Indian but is that a Jacobean Tree of Life I see?
Every time I see a new embroidery technique or style, I want to learn all about it. Zardozi from India, su embroidery from China, Bokhara couching from Central Asia…. There’s a lot of crossover in the techniques used but they all have their own distinctive features. However, sometimes you get some interesting crossovers.
As soon as I saw this I thought ‘that looks very 60s!’ and it turns out, this is actually a qipao dress from 1960-1970 in China. It’s a synthetic velvet, made in Hong Kong, but despite the traditional Chinese shape, the fabric was designed intentionally to mimic the Western trends at the time.
This beautiful piece is motif on a robe for a Daoist priest, intended to symbolise the heavenly cosmos. These robes are known as ‘jiangyi’ and were worn by the highest ranking priests during select rituals. This is all silk and hand embroidered.
The V&A is particularly famed for its Japanese collection and they have a fabulous collection of armour, lacquerwork and of course, kimonos. The more I learn about embroidery techniques as well, the more I have come to appreciate what a phenomenal effort a single, handmade kimono represents.
When I was on a nihon shishuu course in Japan, I saw some of the more advanced students working on their kimonos. Apparently it takes a single embroiderer about two years to finish the stitching on the kimono which, if you ever try nihon shishuu, you can understand why. There is a lot of silk shading-style stitching with very fine silks, making it very labour intensive.
However, when you see the finished pieces, especially the ones with a large amount of goldwork, they are absolutely awe inspiring.
This is a fukusa, used for wrapping gifts. I wonder what would be worth wrapping in a cloth this fine…
Samurai armour is perhaps not where you’d necessarily expect to see fine textile work but actually was responsible for creating a huge market for kumihimo (Japanese braiding) during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. The armour is actually held together using braids and on this piece, you can see some lovely patterns around the wrists in particular. Many of the very intricate braiding patterns actually come from the functional need to create flexible and strong armour that would remain intact.
This is only a very small glimpse of a very big museum but I hope this gives you some textile inspiration. Happy designing!