Grace Evans, Keeper of Costume at Chertsey Museum, guides us through some exhibits dating from the early 18th century through to 2000s selected from the Olive Matthews Collection for the exhibition: Blooming Marvellous, Flowers in Fashion
The theme of flowers in dress offers enormous potential for interpretation. There are so many garments, both ancient and modern, that feature flowers in some way. The moment clothing is elevated from the functional to a form of adornment, flowers are found. There is something significant about flowers themselves that keeps them relevant and endlessly appealing as a source of inspiration. They appeal to our senses of sight, smell, touch and sometimes even taste.
Their natural status and their ephemeral qualities also give flowers widespread and enduring appeal. Long before photography, artists, textile designers and makers attempted to produce more permanent records and interpretations of fleetingly beautiful flowers. Reproductions, whether in paint or textile forms, try to capture the essence of a flowers’ vanishing beauty. It is no surprise therefore that flowers are such a familiar aspect of clothing. Though we associate them more strongly with some eras, flowers remain a constant presence, whether in the background or at the forefront of fashion. Designers’ imaginations have been fired by the world around them, and by more exotic blooms from far-flung places. These have led to both direct and abstract interpretations of flowers throughout dress history.
Given this enduring popularity, it is no surprise that Museum staff were spoilt for choice when making their floral dress selections for the exhibition. Beautiful examples from a broad cross-section of historic periods were chosen and it was possible to encompass men’s, women’s and children’s dress and accessories. These span the whole timeframe of the collection from the early 18th century right through to the 2000s. The resulting exhibition is a feast for the eyes.
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Beyond that initial visual impression, visitors are also encouraged to explore the garments in other ways through alternative methods of interpretation. Rather than simply providing a linear chronological progression from earliest piece to latest, in the interests of clarity and variety, the decision was made to divide the garments and accessories into different thematic groups.
The themes relate to the ways in which the flowers have been created; that is the production techniques and workmanship used to render them. They are grouped, regardless of age, into sections featuring woven, printed, embroidered and sculpted flowers with explanatory panels for each area. There are also individual pieces which defy such categorisation.
The visitor experience has also been enhanced by appealing to the senses. A light floral scent wafts through the gallery space, and a soundtrack of birdsong and other garden sounds is heard in the background. Garlands of artificial flowers adorn the cases and visitors are encouraged to discover more about the exhibits through touch: replicas of some of the garments on display are available for people to explore or even try on. These different layers of interpretation are designed to help visitors immerse themselves in the beauty of flowers in dress.
Silk brocade open robe. Design c.1750s. Silk c.1734.
Central to the ‘Woven Flowers’ section of the exhibition is a stunning hand-woven silk brocade gown, which is made from textiles that date back to the 1730s. The intricate designs may look like embroidery, but they have in fact been incorporated into the silk during the weaving process. The patterns were produced using a draw-loom; a large weaving device which was complicated and time-consuming to set up and operate. The resulting silk brocade was a valuable textile. It is likely to have been woven in Spitalfields; an area of East London well known for its skilled weavers, many of whom were descended from Huguenots – members of the Protestant faith who had been exiled from France. The main design is typical of the period with its large floral pattern on a light-coloured background. The style is similar to, and may indeed be, the work of talented designer Anna Maria Garthwaite, many of whose patterns survive at the V&A.
Upon close inspection, it becomes clear that the dress is actually made up of three different brocaded silks. This is hardly noticeable on first sight as the patterns are so cleverly selected and blended. Done quite frequently by the less well off, this was a means of gaining a fashionable look without the great expense of purchasing large quantities of a single woven silk. Cheap labour meant that it was comparatively inexpensive to have a dress made up at this time. Most of the cost of clothes went on the fabric. This is also the reason why the dress in its current form dates to the 1750s – around twenty years after the fabric was first produced – recycling of this kind was a common occurrence. Many surviving examples of 18th century dress have been re-modelled in this way.
The cloth of this dress is an excellent example of the fashion for large, flowing botanical designs which followed on from the more rigid, stylized patterns of the earliest years of the Eighteenth century. The flowers are not immediately recognizable, but these largely imaginary blooms are exotic and eye-catching. This fashion for bold floral patterns was based on broader exploration of the new world. Botanists returned from their travels with new and unfamiliar plant specimens. These were then illustrated in publications and circulated widely; capturing the public imagination and inspiring a fashion for botanical designs.
This craze for naturalistic plant patterns was coupled with the development of new techniques in silk weaving. Jean Revel, a talented silk designer based in Lyons, France, is credited with mastering a method which allowed shading in silk patterns. Originally trained as an artist, he identified the need for a more realistic three-dimensional effect, and this was achieved by dovetailing different tones of colour; a technique called pointes rentrés. The secrets of this new method were quickly acquired by designers and weavers in other important silk weaving centres such as Spitalfields in London, and it can be seen in the silk of this dress. The use of this new weaving method closely coincides with an abundance of bold floral patterns, as designers celebrated the newfound realism of pointes rentrés.
Printed evening gown by Frank Usher, early 1970s
This eye-catching dress from the ‘Printed Flowers’ section of the display is a much more modern example. It was produced by Frank Usher; a well-known brand at the time. This striking yet chic evening dress is made from nylon, screen printed with a bold floral pattern.
The late 1960s and early ‘70s saw ‘Flower Power’ sweep the fashion world. The style had its roots in the Hippie movement’s peace and love message which was then taken up by the fashion world and stylized and altered to appeal to a wealthy clientele. Much more conventional garments than true Hippies would ever have dreamed of wearing were given the ‘Flower Power’ treatment with outlandish and colourful prints. Floral and psychedelic themes were combined to create incredibly bright and eye-catching designs. These were widely adopted, even by established brands.
Frank Usher was created in 1944 by Max Bruh and his wife Ann. The boutique label produced smart, ready-to-wear pieces inspired by couture designs. Some were quietly chic. Others featured heavy beading and sequins. The flattering long-line cut, as seen here, was a trademark of the house which found great success during the 1950s. By 1961 the brand was sold to the Selincourt conglomerate, but the Bruhs still retained some design control and their influence can clearly be seen in this piece which maintains an air of elegance despite the eye-catching print.
Hand embroidered kimono, 1920s
The ‘Embroidered Flowers’ section of the exhibition features a selection of beautiful items with exquisite floral decoration, most of which has been hand worked. This beautiful silk crêpe de chine kimono is embroidered all over with rose branches in delicate pinks, greys and browns. The embroidery is slightly padded to give more texture and you can see the flowers in different stages of blooming from buds to full-blown roses. It dates from the 1920s when roses were a particularly fashionable theme for kimono decoration in Japan.
This kimono was produced in Japan for the western market. Such examples were called ‘kimonos for foreigners’. Alterations to the traditional Japanese style were often made, sometimes after they reached the West. For example, here the front sections have been stitched closed and the left side tucked under the right. This style was usual for women’s dress in the West but reserved for dressing the dead in Japan. Press studs have also been added to the neckline so that a modesty in-fill could be added when it was worn.
Another fascinating fact about this particular kimono is its provenance. According to a note which came with it, it was once owned and worn by Queen Mary, consort of George V and grandmother to Queen Elizabeth II. Though a traditionalist when dressed for formal public occasions, perhaps surprisingly Queen Mary was known to have been fond of kimonos as a form of ‘undress’ when resting or relaxing in an informal setting. According to Mabell, Countess of Airlie, in her memoir Thatched with Gold, the Queen was said to have been resting in her sitting room in “in one of her lovely embroidered kimonos” when her daughter Princess Mary told her that she had become engaged to Viscount Lascelles.
Correct clothing, even when the Royal Family were in private, was extremely important to King George V and Queen Mary was unsure as to whether to enter her husband’s presence while wearing a kimono. Apparently she broke with sartorial convention on this particular occasion. Queen Mary is said to have given this kimono to Mabel Hunt, one of her close friends, as a gift. One of Mabel Hunt’s descendants kindly donated it to the Olive Matthews Collection during the 1980s.
Evening dress by Bruce Oldfield, c.1980 – 1982
The final section of the exhibition looks at sculpted flowers. Pieces that have three-dimensional flowers incorporated into them or pieces that actually look like flowers are represented. This elegant gown by British designer Bruce Oldfield resembles a tulip flower and dates to between 1980 and 1982. Despite the overt flower shape, the skilled construction and artful design means that it never strays into the realms of fancy dress. The bodice has a single shoulder strap supporting a petal-shaped panel. The skirt features five further triangular bias-cut sections gathered into the waist with the apex of the triangles at the hem. The quality of the construction is very high with hand finishing in the style of haute couture.
Bruce Oldfield has confirmed that he thinks that it “does have a certain couture look to it”. He goes on to state that “The simplicity of this dress would mean it needed to be made one by one, it isn’t a production line dress”. Bruce Oldfield OBE was born in County Durham in 1950. He spent some of his childhood years in Banardo’s charitable care facility. Having graduated from Central St Martin’s college in 1973, he worked for Henri Bendel department store in New York before returning to the UK in 1974, establishing his own fashion house in 1975 and a couture line in 1978. During the 1980s he continued to produce Ready-to-Wear, De Luxe and custom dresses for a growing clientele in the UK and in the US.
He found fame when he produced designs for A-list celebrities. Names include Charlotte Rampling, Faye Dunaway, Jerry Hall and Sienna Miller, but his most famous client was Diana, Princess of Wales. He designed for her for 10 years from 1980, producing some of her most memorable gowns. Commenting on the tulip dress, Bruce Oldfield said: “It would have been the kind of dress that I would have encouraged Princess Diana to wear in the early days of our working together (unsuccessful)”. Discussing his work at the time when this dress was designed and produced he said that he “was never commercially driven and enjoyed experimenting with shapes and cuts, eschewing the traditional way of constructing garments and always relating design to hand techniques in dressmaking rather than be driven by what the machine demanded”.
Blooming Marvellous – Flowers in Fashion continues until Saturday September 3 2022.
This article gives just a taste of the variety and quality of garments featured in the exhibition. To find out more you can visit chertseymuseum.org/costume-exhibition
Admission to the exhibition is free. To plan your visit please go to www.chertseymuseum.org
All photos by John Chase Photography. © The Olive Matthews Collection, Chertsey Museum.
For any enquiries relating to the dress collection at Chertsey Museum, please email email@example.com
We have fine collections, including history of the Runnymede area, local archaeology and history of Chertsey Abbey, fine art, decorative art, social history including many documents and photographs, local clocks and the nationally significant Olive Matthews Collection of dress and textiles. Free Wi-Fi and smart phone gallery guide available.