Fashion & Style: Been there, worn that

A radical new exhibition reveals how designers from Quant to Dior have drawn inspiration from the past - and from each other. Susie Rushton finds that there's nothing new under the sun
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" This season, it was all about Victorian pinafores/circus costumes/Twiggy/Schiaparelli." Ever felt as though fashion designers are constantly looking to the past? You'd be right, and even the most original thinkers know better than to claim that their designs tread entirely fresh territory. What can often be a repetitive part of the fashion process (the Biba look, again), not to mention provocative (please say "inspired by" rather than "copied"), is given a thorough examination later this month in an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, entitled Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back.

This is all far removed from the conventional fashion exhibition, which trades on glamorous celebrity connections, juicy biographical revelations and red carpet-style installations. Single-designer retrospectives such as the Royal Academy's Giorgio Armani show (2003), and the V&A's own Vivienne Westwood (2004) and Gianni Versace (2002) exhibitions, have become the standard (and money-spinning) approach to putting frocks in museums. This May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York ups the ante with a grand Chanel exhibition, a guaranteed blockbuster if ever there was one.

Spectres, on the other hand, asks how designers have influenced each other across history. It illustrates its findings with more than 80 garments by both contemporary designers, including Dries Van Noten, AF Vandevorst, Hussein Chalayan and Comme des Garcons, and venerable names such as Jean Desses, Christian Dior, Leon Bakst, Mary Quant and Yves Saint Laurent. It is a costume show that traces the development of ideas, and its title refers to the ghostly shadows that history casts over the present.

In short, it doesn't rely on the no-brainer appeal of your average fashion exhibition. The Australian-born curator Judith Clark, whose own imaginative Costume Gallery in Notting Hill was fashion legend until it closed in 2002, has managed to pull off this feat by placing a wonderfully eclectic group of garments by theme, rather than in chronological order.

How and why, she asks the visitor, does the diamond-patterned harlequin costume reappear as a motif for designers from Elsa Schiaparelli (in an outfit dating from 1951) to Christian Lacroix (1988), or Bernhard Willhelm (2002) and Dries Van Noten (2000)? And what does each interpretation say about the designers' own eras?

The show also covers such oft-visited themes as clowns, black lace, riding gear, the space age, sequins and flowers. And, in juxtaposing these old and new garments, Clark has provided a fresh insight into how fashion history has been warped by the cherry-picking habits of designers. As they revisit themes, costume history becomes an increasingly labyrinthine trail; the only thing that's certain is that there's nothing new. "Every dress is linked to every other dress," says Clark, firmly, herself an elegant figure in a Marni trenchcoat and Romeo Gigli wrap. "And there are roots into history that can be presented in different ways."

In many ways, hers is an explicitly academic approach to fashion curation (the philosopher Walter Benjamin, perception theory and Russian constructivist architecture are reference points). Yet, for Spectres, Clark has designed and constructed eight amazing installations that turn a previously staid gallery at the front of the V&A into a theatrical experience. Clark, who initially trained as an architect, has enlisted the help of the fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo (husband of designer Isabel Toledo) and the catwalk jeweller Naomi Filmer to create displays that bring some of the wow factor of a catwalk show into a museum. "The exhibition is supposed to feel like a series of attractions," says Clark, referring to the spooky fairground- cum-Victorian freak show feel to many of the installations.

The harlequin theme, for instance, is presented in a puppet theatre set, painted with inky gothic cartoons by Toledo. For the clowns, Filmer has fitted the mannequins with masks studded with Swarovski crystals. The way in which classic garments such as the black dress connect past and present fashion design is given spatial form by a pair of giant interlocking cog wheels (literally, what goes around comes around). In short, the dreary "shop window display" that haunts so many fashion exhibits is nowhere to be seen. "It was all inspired by the history of fairground magic, optical illusions - everything about seeing," says Clark.

And, surprisingly for an industry notorious for the sensitive feelings of its biggest stars, she says that designers were happy to participate in a show that deliberately sets out to demonstrate, in a sense, how unoriginal their designs are. "I know a lot of the English designers and they trust me. They know it is kind of an experiment," she says. There's also a large contingent of Belgian designers thanks to Clark's close connections with the respected MoMu fashion museum in Antwerp, where this show first opened, in a slightly different format, last winter. "The Belgian designers all trusted Linda Loppa [MoMu's director], and besides, it's very much in their culture to show in a museum."

The only people Clark still has to impress, then, are the crowds the V&A hopes will be drawn to this new show in numbers comparable to its more starry exhibitions. This is the museum, after all, that stages live fashion shows within its hallowed halls under the moniker "Fashion in Motion". Spectres, however, is essential fashion viewing for anybody who's ever felt they've seen it all before.

Main photograph reproduced by kind permission of Nathaniel Goldberg. Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back, Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7 (020-7942 2000), 24 February to 8 May, admission free