Fashion: Art of poise

Designs by the world's top couturiers (Treacy, McQueen and Westwood, to name but a few) can be seen in the contemporary fashion collection of the V&A. Now the museum is releasing the outfits from their static glass cases and sending them out on models in a live monthly catwalk show, just as they were meant to be seen.

Anyone planning to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum in London's South Kensington next Wednesday should be warned that the dress-code may be rather more elevated than usual. Mingling among the hushed and reverent students and academics and legions of not-so hushed and reverent tourists, will be a group of women significantly taller and more slender than we lesser mortals. Their wardrobes will also be rather more dramatic.

One, I am reliably informed, will stalk around the cool marble halls in a balsa- wood skirt shaped like a two-dimensional snail shell. Another will be wearing delicate wings, crafted in that same material. A third will come in a slightly battered antique tapestry dress, and a fourth will be dressed in a strict leather collar and pretty cream lace confection that swings when she walks like a small but perfectly formed church bell.

These outfits come, as anyone who regularly sifts through newspaper fashion pages or glossy magazines will know, courtesy of British designer Alexander McQueen. Rather than seeing his work at a distance, however, fashion friendly onlookers will, on this rare occasion, be able to see them in the round, as part of the V&A's new Fashion In Motion series. The brainchild of Claire Wilcox, assistant curator of textiles and dress, and the woman responsible for the contemporary fashion collection, Fashion In Motion is a worthy attempt to bring what is necessarily a live art out of the archives on a monthly basis, exposing it to a much wider audience and in more accessible, if still suitably grandiose, surroundings.

"You know how, in the Fifties, a customer would visit a store and, while she was in the coffee shop, house models would walk about in the clothes," says Wilcox. "That's partly what's inspired me." And to this end, V&A visitors will indeed have the opportunity to refresh themselves in a temporary restaurant, which has been installed just for the day in the very lovely Morris and Gamble Rooms, while they look on at the clothes.

"It's a very democratic project," she continues. "People will be able to see designer clothes, shown from all angles and as they were intended to be worn by the designer. Very few of us would otherwise get to see that, apart from on TV."

Last month, Philip Treacy's hats, teamed up with Swarovski crystal dresses by Antony Price, trod the museum's colonnades and walkways. "Walks" - led by presumably bewildered warders and following fluorescent strips across the floor so there's no chance of errant models getting lost - take 30 minutes and there were four scattered over one day. Pity the poor mannequin who must endure ungiving marble beneath her stilettoed feet for two long, however. From now on, there will only be two.

"When they first approached me about the project, I thought it was just the maddest idea," says Treacy. He personally oversaw the proceedings, bringing in his own hair and make-up artists and ensuring it was as close to the way the hats were originally shown as possible. He also chose the models. But then people really got into it. They were all following the models around. The fashion collection at the V&A is beautiful but very static. It's all very Old England. I suppose this brings it to life a bit."

In more ways than one. Treacy was, by all accounts, accosted by a tourist with a portable camera asking not for a picture of the world's most feted milliner, nor of the models sporting his designs, but of herself standing in front of the Three Graces. "It happened right in the middle," says Treacy. "I couldn't believe it." Ever the perfect gentleman, he duly obliged.

The Victoria and Albert Museum was born of the cultural idealism of the mid-19th century, and the thinking of the time that life for everyone, rich and poor, could be considerably improved through education and example. Founded in 1852, following the success of the Great Exhibition the previous year, and funded by its proceeds, it was initially called the Museum of Manufacturers and presided over by Henry Cole, one of the brains behind the Great Exhibition, whose aim was to make works of art available to all, to educate the working population and to inspire British designers and manufacturers.

Today, it remains one of London's most visited landmarks and has by now become the world's largest and most accomplished collections of the decorative arts. The museum's fashion collection is particularly well-respected, covering over 400 years of European dress. Fashion students, designers, or anyone else who might be interested, will find everything from James II's wedding suit to a particularly fine example of Christian Dior's famous Bar Suit, which is perhaps the most popular design to come out of the New Look, at the V&A.

Fashion followers with more contemporary designs in mind, meanwhile, won't be disappointed by the inclusion of Issey Miyake's Pleats Please, a Vivienne Westwood ballgown, or the early and less well-known work of John Galliano. By appointment, colleges as well as individual scholars are allowed access to an unrivalled textile collection as well.

The problem that is facing the museum, however, is that its primary concern must be to preserve its collection which is necessarily stored in darkened rooms in air-conditioned cases. More still is stored in its vaults: there simply isn't the space or the resources to put it all on display at any one time.

"The museum is for collecting," says Wilcox. "It's about durability, display and preservation. We have to be very careful that nothing is damaged or destroyed."

This means that many of the most rare and antique garments in the collection remain behind glass or even closed doors. "With any museum, you are deprived of certain senses: the sense of touch or of seeing things in the round."

Fashion In Motion is just one way of breaking through this barrier. Plans are currently afoot to put the collection on to the Internet, which not only facilitates wider access but also means that clothes will be handled less often and will therefore remain intact.

Scheduled for autumn, meanwhile, is a major display entitled Touch Fashion. Garments will still be shown inside glass cases but there will be holes cut out of them at various points. "Anyone, including children, will be able to reach in and touch them," says Wilcox. "Usually museums say `don't touch'. This time, however, we'll be saying `touch'."

Of Fashion In Motion in particular, she says: "The exciting thing about clothes is that everyone wears them, everyone understands them but there are very few people who see them as the designer intended. We are recreating the actual look of the catwalk but it's not an exclusive thing, it's more like a graceful parade."

Fashion In Motion: Alexander McQueen, The Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 (enquiries 0171-938 8424), 16 June, 12 noon & 3pm. Future designers exhibiting in Fashion In Motion include John Galliano, Dai Rees and Shirin Guild

Top left and right: shots from Alexander McQueen's spring/summer 1999 show.

Middle and bottom: models in motion at the V&A exhibition, wearing hats by Philip Treacy and dresses by Antony Price.

The V&A Inspiration: Top Designers talk

"The V&A was a constant inspiration to me when at St Martin's, and still is today."

John Galliano

"It is the most wonderful museum in the world. If I need to refer to something historical, that is where I'd go. The wonders of the plaster- cast room, the row of shop fronts, the jewellery section and drawing in the Museum galleries - it's all totally inspirational."

Zandra Rhodes

"The collections at the V&A never fail to intrigue and inspire me. The nation is privileged to have access to such an incredible resource."

Alexander McQueen, designer

"What's good about the V&A is that you always find something different each time you go. I never go there to be inspired by anything specifically. I prefer to take it in sub-consciously and marvel at the excellence."

Philip Treacy, milliner

"The utility archives at the museum are incredible. I used to look round them when I was a student. The V&A's where I first saw the Comme des Garcons holey knitwear. That must have been around 1983."

Shelley Fox, designer and winner of the Jerwood Fashion Prize

"The V&A houses a sea of information that must be kept for ever - it's collection is wonderful and very inspiring. When I was at the Royal College of Art we used to go there on weekly visits. I particularly remember sitting in cool, darkened rooms studying the archives on hot summer afternoons, looking out on to that strange courtyard. It was like being at Oxford or Cambridge - very English."

Antony Price designer

"The V&A has a world-class collection. My only criticism would be that, as the Boilerhouse isn't an exhibition space there any more, it is not seen enough."

Colin McDowell, author and fashion historian

"My fondest memories of the V&A stem from when I was studying to be a designer at St Martin's and we used to do Wednesday visits to the textile rooms, pull out fabulous textiles from the past, and do excruciatingly exact copies of them to inspire us to look forward. I like to think that students are still able to do this."

Iain R Webb,

fashion director, ELLE magazine

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