V&A Fashion Stores Visit with Sonnet Stanfill

By Amy Francesca Mitchell


As part of the MA History and Culture of Fashion module ‘Substance of Fashion’, Shaun Cole (Course Director) arranged a fantastic visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s fashion stores. Led by Sonnet Stanfill, curator of 20th-century and contemporary fashion at the V&A, the group was given an insightful introduction to a selection of garments from this rich archive. Sonnet Stanfill is responsible for dress dating from 1914 to the present day, including designer evening wear, daywear, cocktail wear, accessories and hats. The ‘Substance of Fashion’ unit explores the technological, economic, social and aesthetic factors relating to garment development. Using her extensive knowledge of the collection, Sonnet selected key ensembles as a vehicle to demonstrate issues surrounding the design and production of clothing, with examples from 1941 to 2009.

The talk began with a superb example of 1940s utility wear, in the form of a three-piece women’s suit (consisting of a jacket, blouse & skirt). With the enforcement of rationing during the Second World War set against a national effort to maintain appearances, the government established the 1941 Utility Scheme. The scheme laid down guidelines for manufacturers as a means of aligning the aforementioned notions, by which consumer goods were to be produced to the highest quality and style while using minimal materials, to comply with the rationing of raw substances. In order to provide the public with inspiration for their own attire, fashion designers created prototype ensembles which adhered to the regulations of the Utility Scheme. The design for the particular suit in discussion was commissioned by The Board of Trade from the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers. In October 1942 Vogue magazine published a description of the collection- ‘All the designs are, of course, within the New Austerity specifications: only so many buttons, this much cuff and that much skirt…but they are an object lesson in the power of pure style over mere elegance’.

Composed of grey herringbone wool, this tailored ensemble characterises the stylish yet economic fashion of the general public at the time. The jacket adheres to a sharply tailored aesthetic with a nipped in waist and little additional fabric; the blouse is un-lined with an unfinished hem, to be worn over a petticoat or undergarment; the skirt provides a hint to its origins as a prototype since it flaunts a rather deep hem. Of course, the extra fabric used with the addition of a deep hem goes against the regulation of minimal fabric, however, prototype garments were established to provide a visual ‘interpretation’ of the scheme as opposed to a pattern for general production. The buttons on this ensemble bear the Utility Scheme logo- CC41, which stands for Civilian Clothing and 1941. The logo is further evident on white fabric tape in the back of the collar.

Following this wonderful analysis, Sonnet went onto uncover a number of equally magnificent articles, including: (1947) Christian Dior- Haute Couture evening dress of the Parisian ‘New Look’; (1954) Horrockses- Cotton daydress; (1967) Pierre Cardin- ‘Cosmo Dress’ which epitomised a ‘fascination/trepidation’ of the future through fashion; (1969) Ossie Clarke & Celia Birtwell- ‘Floating Daisy‘ evening dress and coat; (1970) Geoffrey Beene -American sportswear ensemble; (1976) Vivienne Westward -Punk top and bondage trouser; (1990) Calvin Klein- Softened down/minimalist adaptation of the 80’s power dressing suit; (2009) Prada- Silk top, trouser and shoes with print from drawing illustrator James Jean.

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This wonderful visit provided us with a wealth of rich information which is sure to inform our assessment whereby we must choose one garment for an in-depth analysis. The opportunity to get up close to these beautiful and historically-infused garments while being educated on their history was an invaluable experience. The prospect of visiting again (upon appointment) to further our knowledge on the fascinating design and production of dress is a great and rewarding privilege. Aside from the fashion store’s fantastic educational value, taking a peak at these charming garments ‘behind the scenes’ is a magical and indulgent delight for all.

NB. From 14th March 2010 this collection will be closed whilst it is relocated to Blythe House, Olympia.

For further information on the V&A fashion collections visit: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/


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