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Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Fashion or Costume Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the most comprehensive, containing over 14,000 outfits plus accessories, mainly dating from 1600 to the present.

The collection is dominated by fashionable clothes made for special occasions. One of the more important items in the collection is the wedding suit of James II of England.

Some of the oldest items in the collection are medieval vestments. The museum continues to acquire examples with modern fashion to add to the collection.

The 20th-century high-fashion garments and accessories include gowns worn by leading socialites such as Patricia Lopez-Willshaw, Gloria Guinness, and actresses such as Audrey Hepburn. 

The Museum has acquired many famous collections from famous designers with work in the collection including Coco Chanel, Hubert de Givenchy, Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Guy Laroche, Irene Galitzine, Mila Schön, Valentino Garavani, Norman Norell, Norman Hartnell, Zandra Rhodes, Hardy Amies, Mary Quant, Christian Lacroix, Jean Muir, and Pierre Cardin. 

A Tour of Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum

  • Evening dress, 1912, by Lady Duff-Gordon
  • Wedding suit of James II
  • Zemire Evening Ensemble
  • Butler-Bowden Cope


Evening dress, 1912, by Lady Duff-Gordon

Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Evening dress, 1912, by Lady Duff-Gordon

This Evening Dress is a graceful satin gown by Lady Duff Gordon in a reasonably restrained mood. The long slit skirt is an attractive feature, although its draped construction is not too revealing.

Lady Duff Gordon’s claim that she had:

“loosed upon a startled London . . . draped skirts that opened to reveal the legs.”

Lady Duff-Gordon (1863 – 1935), was a leading British fashion designer centuries who worked under the professional name Lucile.

She was the first British-based designer to achieve international acclaim, she was also widely acknowledged innovator in couture styles.

She originated the “mannequin parade,” a precursor to the modern fashion show, and also trained the first professional models.

She launched slit skirts and low necklines, popularized less restrictive corsets, and promoted alluring and pared-down lingerie.

Duff-Gordon is also remembered as a survivor of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912. 

She wrote in in 1932:

“For me, there was a positive intoxication in taking yards of shimmering silks,
laces airy as gossamer and lengths of ribbons, delicate and rainbow-colored,
and fashioning of them garments so lovely that they might have been worn by some princess in a fairy tale.”

Evening dress, 1912, by Lady Duff-Gordon

  • Title:                    Evening dress, 1912, by Lady Duff-Gordon 
  • Date:                  1913
  • Artist/Maker:      Lucile, (1863 – 1935)
  • Origin:                London
  • Materials:           Satin, trimmed with chiffon and machine-made lace, silk velvet, lined with grosgrain, whalebone
  • Museum:           Victoria and Albert Museum


Wedding suit of James II

Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Wedding suit of James II

The wedding suit of James II includes two items of an ensemble that James, the then Duke of York, wore to his wedding in 1673. It represented a new fashion in men’s wear introduced by the Duke’s older brother, Charles II.

The style came from France, where it derived from a version of a military coat made fashionable by Louis XIV.

The Duke of York married for the second time in 1673 to Mary of Modena, a fifteen-year-old Italian princess. James and Mary were married by proxy in a Roman Catholic ceremony.

When Mary arrived in England, the Bishop of Oxford, performed a brief Anglican service that did little more than recognize the marriage by proxy.

Many British people, distrustful of Catholicism, regarded the new Duchess of York as an agent of the Papacy.

James was noted for his devotion. He once said,

“If the occasion were, I hope God would give me his grace to suffer death for the true Catholic religion as well as banishment.”

Only the Duke’s closest supporters attended, and the Duke of York wore this coat and breeches.

The design of stylized flowers and leaves is not symmetrical. It was drawn freehand and not transferred from a printed pattern. Couching attaches the silver and silver-gilt threads to the surface of the fabric.

Tiny strips of parchment wrapped in metal thread give the embroidery a three-dimensional effect.

James II (1633 –  1701) was King of England and Ireland as James II and King of Scotland as James VII, from 1685 until he was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

He was the last Catholic monarch of England, Scotland, and Ireland; his reign is now remembered primarily for struggles over religious tolerance.

Wedding suit of James II

  • Title:                   Wedding suit of James II
  • Date:                  1673
  • Origin:                England
  • Materials:           Wool, embroidered with silver and silver-gilt thread and lined with red silk
  • Museum:            Victoria and Albert Museum


Zemire Evening Ensemble

Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Zemire Evening Ensemble

This Zemire Evening Ensemble by Christian Dior was part of Dior’s collection in 1954-5. It is one of his most historical designs, echoing the shape of riding-habits.

A ready-to-wear version was licensed to a British company that made copies for Harrods. It sold for 22 guineas, a fraction of what a made-to-measure version would have cost.

Dior was founded in 1946 by designer Christian Dior who launched his first fashion collection for Spring–Summer 1947.

The show of “90 models of his first collection on six mannequins” was presented in the salons of the company’s headquarters.

The collection went down in fashion history as the “New Look” after the editor-in-chief of Harper’s exclaimed,

“It’s such a new look!”

The New Look was a revolutionary era for women at the end of the 1940s. The debut collection of Christian Dior is credited with having revived the fashion industry of France.

The New Look brought back the spirit of haute couture in France as it was considered glamorous and young-looking.

The silhouette was characterized by a small, nipped-in waist and a full skirt falling below mid-calf length, which emphasized the bust and hips.

Zemire Evening Ensemble

  • Title:                     Zemire Evening Ensemble
  • Artist:                   Dior, Christian, (1905 – 1957) – designer; Christiane – Atelier
  • Maker:                  Sekers Fabrics Ltd. – manufacturer
  • Date:                    1954-1955 (designed)
  • Origin:                  Paris
  • Materials:             Cellulose acetate satin lined with silk; boned net underdress
  • Museum:             Victoria and Albert Museum


Butler-Bowden Cope

Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Butler-Bowden Cope

The Butler-Bowden Cope derives its name from the family who owned it for several centuries.

It shows scenes from the Life of the Virgin with Apostles and saints, embroidered with silver, silver-gilt thread, and silk, on luxurious crimson velvet.

The figures framed within Gothic arches are arranged in concentric rows so that they follow the curved edge and sit along the hem.

This was the base for the high-quality English embroidery called “Opus Anglicanum,” the Latin for “English work,” which was much coveted by the most influential people in Europe.

European kings and popes used luxurious clothing to make a forceful visual statement of their wealth and status.

Vestments with sumptuous and costly textiles were favored by the Christian church, often given by wealthy donors, to show both earthly wealth and spiritual devotion.

Many medieval church vestments were later cut up and re-used. This cope, as can be seen from its dismembered state, was made into a variety of ecclesiastical garments, but was re-assembled in the 19th century.

Butler-Bowden Cope

  • Title:                 Butler-Bowden Cope
  • Date:                1335-1345 (made)
  • Origin:              England (made); Italy (velvet, probably, woven)
  • Materials:         Embroidered with silver-gilt and silver thread and colored silks in underside couching, split stitch, and satin stitch, with surface couching and raised work, glass beads, and pearls, on silk velvet with an interlayer of silk in plain weave; orphreys embroidered on linen.
  • Museum:          Victoria and Albert Museum

Victoria and Albert Museum Fashion Gallery

A Virtual Tour of the Victoria and Albert Museum

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The surreal fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli

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Wedding Dress Exhibit Interview Victoria and Albert Museum

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“In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous.” 
– Elsa Schiaparelli


Photo Credit: The original uploader was VAwebteam at English Wikipedia. / CC BY-SA (

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