Fashion at the museum brings in the crowds

Prepare to queue for glimpses of finery created by top designers

Rhiannon Harries
Sunday 01 January 2012 01:00

Slinky dresses, sharp suits and stilettos are officially in for 2012 – not only on the catwalks but within prestigious museums and galleries. With a clutch of major fashion exhibitions opening this spring, some of London's cultural institutions are banking on glamorous designer creations to draw in the crowds.

Leading the pack, the Design Museum will from March present a retrospective of the work of the French shoe designer Christian Louboutin, he of the scarlet-soled, skyscraper heels. The month after, the Barbican Centre marks 007's half-century on the big screen with Fifty Years of James Bond Style – 100 outfits and accessories created for the films by the cream of British costume design and international fashion royalty such as Miuccia Prada, Thierry Mugler and Oscar de la Renta.

The V&A makes its own entrance with Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 in May. The inaugural show in the newly renovated Fashion Galleries will feature lavish eveningwear spanning six decades, from the mid-century couture of Norman Hartnell to red-carpet numbers worn by Princess Diana and catwalk show-stoppers by contemporary luminaries including Gareth Pugh.

British curators are right to have confidence in the power of fashion to persuade the public to part with the price of an entry ticket. Savage Beauty, last year's Alexander McQueen retrospective at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, drew 660,000 visitors and was named one of the top 10 most-visited shows in the museum's 140-year history.

Around the world, style showcases continue to multiply. The French designers Azzedine Alaïa and Jean Paul Gaultier and the Italian label Max Mara are all currently enjoying successful retrospective exhibitions in art museums. Later this spring, Paris's Les Arts Décoratifs museum will host a show celebrating the work of Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, while The Costume Institute's follow-up to Savage Beauty will fete Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli. In Florence, visitors sated with Renaissance masterpieces can turn to the new Gucci Museo, which has been a huge attraction since opening in September.

Fashion has not always found itself so at home in museums. Zandra Rhodes, whose work will feature in the V&A Ballgowns show, has seen a shift in attitudes: "Compared with 20 or even 10 years ago, I think museums are taking it more seriously, partly because they have discovered that people are curious about clothes, for all sorts of personal, historical and artistic reasons, and it's one of the most popular things they can show."

Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, ascribes the current public appetite for fashion exhibitions to an accessibility that other art forms lack: "People believe they are able to understand and appreciate fashion, whereas they are often unsure about contemporary or even historical art."

As Rhodes says: "To me, a dress that has been marvellously made has more value than an unmade bed with a lot of garbage round it."

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