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Did you know that The Bowes Museum has a Fashion & Textiles Gallery so impressive, it’s caught the attention of fashion houses like YSL and Alexander McQueen?

Barnard Castle’s magnificent museum has a visual timeline of fashion – and it’s getting attention from models, catwalk photographers, designers and stylish establishments the world over.

Written by High Life North
Published 13.11.2021

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For us, part of the magic of modern museums is the technology they can now use to transport us back in time so completely.

We can see reconstructions of the homes the people of the past once lived in, the tools and utensils they used to survive and, at The Bowes Museum at least, what they would have been wearing at any given period in history, too.

Fashion brings the past to life in such a personal way – whether it’s knowing how clothes reflected status in past societies, the undergarments and personal effects people kept so privately from their contemporaries now on public display, or simply seeing the shapes and sizes of those who have lived before us. Clothing, accessories, and fabrics sharpen our focus on the everyday lives of our ancestors and instantly make them more relatable.

We’re not just talking about the ancestors of hundreds of years ago, either. The Fashion & Textiles Gallery at The Bowes Museum also transports us back to the modern eras we wish we’d been able to live through and those moments within the fashion world that we wish we’d had a front-row seat for.

Take the minidresses from the swingin’ ‘60s, for example, or the satin slips of the ‘70s; the 40 years of Vivienne Westwood shoes all brought together under one roof or the showstopping Chanel, Dior and Prada dresses worn by the likes of Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer, which have drawn admiration on runways around the world. Or take the fact that The Bowes Museum was chosen to be the first gallery in the UK to host a dedicated display around the life and work of French designer Yves Saint Laurent, (the fashion house’s co-founder, Pierre Bergé, was even at the opening himself). Pretty impressive, right?

We caught up with Joanna Hashagen, Curator of Fashion and Textiles at The Bowes Museum, to understand a little more about why fashion is so important to the museum, how style has changed through the ages here in the North East, and what the museum has got planned for the gallery in the next few years…

THE GALLERY WAS CREATED DUE TO POPULAR DEMAND 

‘The driving ambition to create a new, innovative Textile Gallery for The Bowes Museum was fuelled by the closure of our Costume Gallery in 2005,’ Joanna explains.

‘In 1976, the first Costume Gallery at The Bowes Museum was opened by Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother – a descendant of John Bowes and lifelong supporter of the Museum. When it closed, there was a public outcry in the local press, which helped convince the powers at be that a new gallery for both our dress and textile collections was an essential part of a major redevelopment scheme, which occurred between 2008 and 2010.’

IT’S WORLD-RENOWNED AND AWARD-WINNING

The Bowes Museum’s Fashion & Textiles Gallery is highly regarded the world over, due to its ground-breaking method of costume display – where garments are mounted on invisible mannequins, allowing us to view them inside and out from 360 degrees. Spectacularly lit, the items in this gallery provide an incomparable visual timeline of fashion through the ages.

‘It’s innovative in its design and offers access on many different levels,’ explains Joanna. ‘The gallery was created through a very close collaboration between the designers, the curator, and the conservators and won a national award just after it opened, in 2011.

‘Our use of discreet, bespoke, acrylic mounts are one of the most innovative parts of the project,’ Joanna continues. ‘The layering of objects in the cases, including the addition of original paintings, creates a sense of time and place and, through film, even creates a sense of movement.’

THE STANDOUT EXHIBITIONS

Stats don’t lie and annual visitor surveys from The Bowes Museum reveal that the Fashion & Textile Gallery is not only a firm fan favourite but is also one of the most common reason for a repeat visit to the museum. Which, to us, suggests their exhibitions must be pretty spectacular…

‘It all began in 2010, with a four-week show of 200 shoes by Vivienne Westwood –visitor numbers went through the roof!’ says Joanna. ‘The new gallery suddenly opened up opportunities as it was an attractive, exciting space for designers to show in. It has also enabled us to borrow fashion exhibitions, too, from establishments such as the Fashion Museum in Antwerp and the V&A.

‘The most successful fashion exhibition we’ve had at The Bowes Museum so far was Style is Eternal: Yves Saint Laurent in 2015.  It was the most intense two years of my life, co-curating with the Fondation Yves Saint Laurent in Paris! But I remember the excitement of seeing a news flash on my phone on 21st January, when it was first announced: UK’s first Yves Saint Laurent exhibition brings Paris to County Durham. It received global coverage, awards and 77,000 visitors. It was also a financial success, which has become a rare phenomenon for museums.

‘Our most recent fashion exhibition was Catwalking: Fashion through the lens of Chris Moore, where we married the stunning imagery from the undisputed king of catwalk photography with a fabulous selection of original catwalk outfits. Curating this show was probably the most satisfying, as we managed to borrow from all the top fashion houses – Chanel, Dior, Prada, McQueen… Working with Chris Moore was a delight, too.’

AND FOR THE FUTURE?

Well, it’s all very hush-hush right now – which makes us think, whatever is coming in the next few months or years, it’s going to be equally as epic as what has been before.

‘Yes, I am planning a fashion exhibition in the future,’ smiles Joanna. ‘But it’s still a secret…. So, just watch this space!’

THE PIECES TO LOOK OUT FOR

Planning a visit to The Bowes Museum sometime soon? Here are the Fashion Gallery’s not-so-hidden gems you definitely don’t want to miss…

 

  • ‘The 1932 bias-cut evening dress in crêpe backed silk satin is one of my favourites,’ says Joanna. ‘The skilful cut and the inventive design of twisted, serpent-like tails is reminiscent of Elsa Schiaparelli’s work.’

 

  • ‘A silk jacket with fine embroidery in gold and silver metal thread and sequins, made between 1858-60, once belonged to Empress Eugénie of France. It is superb quality, probably supplied by Worth, the Empress’s couturier, and is one of a number of pieces we have from her wardrobe.’

 

  • ‘We have a lilac day bodice with a woven check that is thought to have belonged to Joséphine Bowes, our founder, along with a reproduction skirt,’ Joanna explains. ‘This was another project with Luca Costigliolo, the talented historical costume designer. The fabric was embroidered in St. Gallen, Switzerland, and it’s almost impossible to tell the difference.

 

  • ‘This is cheating a bit, as there a number of fabulous items here, but visitors should definitely not miss the donation from the Order of the Poor Clares. The sisters ran a school for English Catholic girls from 1644 to 1793 in Rouen, France. In 2007, the sisters of St Clares Abbey, Darlington, donated their collection of vestments, embroideries and silks that had been brought to England in 1794, after the nuns had been evicted from Rouen during the French Revolution. The convent was seized and the nuns imprisoned, but they managed to save many of the vestments, except the large copes, which they hid down a dry well. It’s such a great story!’

 

  • ‘Finally, I would choose lace from The Blackborne Collection,’ says Joanna. ‘There are a number of pieces on show, but some of our best examples of 16, 17 and 18th-century lace are currently on loan to MoMu in Antwerp. LACE.S – Looking through Antwerp Lace is an exceptional exhibition over fives venues in the city; I’m really hoping to go and see it myself.’

Fancy finding out more about The Bowes Museum’s Fashion & Textiles Gallery?

Visit their website or follow the museum on Facebook and Instagram.

 The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham DL12 8NP.

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