Sunday, 6 June 2010

Review: The Concise Dictionary of Dress, Blythe House

Despite being a curated fashion exhibition, and therefore somewhat beyond the ken of Views From The Cheap Seats, The Concise Dictionary of Dress was first brought to my attention by Lyn Gardner's recent Guardian blog entry 'Theatre that really takes us places'. And there is something decidedly theatrical about this site-specific installation at Blythe House - previously the Post Office Savings bank, now the depository for the the V&A's surplus collections.

Designed by fashion curator Judith Clark with definitions provided by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, small groups are led around 11 exhibits exploring concepts of fashion (from 'Armoured' through to 'Tight'), located within the museum's vast storerooms. Objects from the collection along with specially commissioned works are used to create each tableau. Usually closed to the public, a large part of the thrill of this experience comes from accessing areas normally off-limits behind card keys and cargo lifts. Albeit under the watchful eye of a chaperone, who is less a guide than an usher. Questions are discouraged until the end of the tour, and so the individual is left to import meaning from the exhibit, its location and Phillips' definitions.

The definitions are at once illuminating and confusing. Subjective, conflicting, and at times down right impenetrable (quite how 'Essential' can be understood as 'distracting', I'm still not sure), Clark and Phillips seem to be deliberately toying with the idea that fashion can be summed up meaningfully in one word or a choice phrase, and by extension, that it can be sensibly archived into a museum catalogue.

Instead, the exhibit relies on the context of the spaces, both past and present. From the wax resin figure of 'Armoured' on the roof (where there were apparently used to be segregated shooting ranges for male and female Post Office employees), to the mobile archive shelves wheeled open to reveal 'Comfortable' and 'Conformist', to the former meat larder housing 'Tight', the ghosts of the past jostle with the present to conjure up layers of meaning. Indeed, that Blythe House is a functioning building has led to some fascinating juxtapositions, all the more so for being unintentional. The simple paper structures created for 'Plain' are coincidentally reflected in the protective white shroud covering, what is labelled, a 'flaky paint dress' - part of the actual V&A collection - which was supposedly moved there after Concise Dictionary had opened. As with the best fashion then, it is the accidental accessories that set off this exhibition best.



Total Cost:

The Concise Dictionary of Dress
continues until 27 June 2010. Tours of Blythe House run every 20 mins during open hours. Places on the tours are strictly limited and tickets must be purchased in advance. Tickets online or call 0871 231 0847, price £12.50/£10 concessions.

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