V&A Fashion History


posted by on Thoughts & Inspirations, Vintage Fashion & Beauty


Vogue October 1948

The Victoria and Albert Museum (aka the V&A) is by far my favourite museum in London. With an impressive permanent collection of statues and artefacts spanning eras from all over the world, it stands in competition with the much loved and well-known National History Museum.


While the V&A often plays host to interesting limited exhibitions, the permanent fashion history exhibition space is the part of the museum I and – I am willing to bet – you could spend hours exploring! So, when I saw that lovely beauty, fashion and lifestyle blogger Sophie from S K Beauty was coming to London for the second time, I thought that this would be the perfect place to take her! Sophie seemed happy enough to give it a go too.

As we were walking around to get to the fashion exhibition space, I had to convince her that the fashion was actually there – understandably, the rows of naked male statues were a little misleading at first!




As we worked our way around the collection from modern day to Elizabethan, I became a little bit snap-happy! As it’s a pretty comprehensive collection (and I’d like to leave something for you to discover yourself!), here are my favourite bits from each section.

Court Mantua, 1775-1760.

This court dress – otherwise known as the mantua – was made from the most fashionable and expensive fabrics and trimmings. Women were required to wear this awkward style to royal balls and assemblies.

Silks were displayed to perfection on the mantua petticoat and train. Often they were woven and embroidered with gold thread, sparkling in candlelight, with diamonds and lace added for the finishing touches.

Needless to say, wearing the mantua required skill to negotiate narrow doorways and carriages. it can’t have been easy maintaining royal composure wearing one of these!



Corset, 1883.

During 1870-1910, many garments were starting to become readily available in ready-made forms, including corsets and different types of bustles required to achieve the fashionable silhouette.

This stunning corset is made of cotton sateen, leather and whalebone with a steel busk. Now, that’s an hourglass figure!


Day dress, Monsieur Vignon, 1869-1870.

Dresses used to be such an investment that they were often made with separate bodices for different occasions and for evening use. Extra pieces, like the peplum below, could be attached to the back of the skirt to allow for further variations.

These dresses required enormous amounts of fabric – the hem of this, measuring in at over five metres! Monsieur Vignon was a high skilled couturier who designed for many of the aristocracy.




Evening coat, 1924-1926.

In the 1920s fashion was dominated by simple, straight and waistless silhouettes – known as the garçonne look. The rich and sensuous detail of fashion for the rich included dresses embroidered in the Chinese style and evening coats trimmed with fur.

Luxuriously decadent, the flapper-era coat below is made of sumptuous velvet and adorned with a fur collar. Chic, no?



Bathing costume, 1937-1939.

The wool jersey bathing costumes below were innovative for their time, representing part of the growing freedom in fashion for women throughout the mid-1920s to the 1940s.

Retailed by Finnigans, New Bond Street, London and worn by Lady Vera Swettenham, costumes such as these had become popular staples in the new ‘resort’ collections from designers.



Evening dress, Jeanne Lanvin, 1936.

Glamourously Art Deco, this evening dress is a matured version of the shorter hemlines of the early 1920s. Clinging full-length dresses cut on the bias for a closer fit were popularly made using satins and silks and were accessorised with metal clutch bags and metallic coloured heels.



Suit, Crisobal Balenciaga, Autumn/Winter 1954.

Bespoke fashion in London was mainly the work of tailors and court dressmakers before the World War II. but, in 1942 the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers was formed and the legendary boutiques of Mayfair and Savile Row were born. The members of the society became well-known for their ability to artfully tailor the latest fashions using the finest tweeds and woollen fabrics from Scotland.

In the earlier part of the 1940s, skirts were limited to knee length, no pleats or folds were permitted and only three buttons were allowed on jackets. Utility was key during wartime. The tweed suit lined with silk below was indicative both of the square-shouldered, masculine fashions of the war and also the rising influence of Parisian trends. By the early 195os, London courtiers favoured two silhouettes: first, the narrow waisted and full skirted silhouette in line with Dior’s New Look and the second being an elegant, streamlined profile that foreshadowed the clean lines of the 1960s.



 ’Zemire’ evening ensemble, Christian Dior, Autumn/Winter 1954.

This piece is probably THE most iconic vintage fashion silhouette. It created a sensation at the time and Carmel Snow, editor of American Harper’s Bazaar, christened Dior’s collection as the ‘New Look’. The distinctive hour-glass shape continued to grow in popularity following Dior’s ‘New Look’ collection launch on 12 February 1947.

Dior’s collection was the antithesis of the masculine silhouettes that dominated wartime fashions. Instead of the reserved approach to fabric, length and decoration, the designs featured sloping shoulders, a full bust and a cinched-in waist above full, long skirts. In fact, the sheer quantity of fabric necessary to create a ‘New Look’ garment caused uproar in London, for rationing was still in place. London couturier John Cavanagh described the style as ‘a total glorification of the female form’.

The collection was shown in secret to Queen Elizabeth and other members of the royal family at the French Embassy in London. Although initially condemned by the British Board of Trade, the New Look gained widespread popularity, particularly after Princess Margaret adopted it, attracted by its femininity and youth.







Cocktail Dress, Cristobal Balenciaga, 1962.

A gorgeous dress, crossing the divide of the late 1950s and the early 1960s, this is a piece you wouldn’t be surprised to see Mad Men’s Betty Francis wearing when she was formerly Betty Draper. Embroidered wild silk lined with silk, this stunning dress really stands out for its bright florals.


 Necklace, Christian Dior, 1999.

This intricate silver-plated necklace stood out – as it should – given its status as a statement necklace! Adorned with glass and silver-plated lace, this piece from Dior shone brightly in the modern day section of the collection.



Have you ever been to the V&A fashion history exhibition? What did you think? What was your favourite piece from those featured above? As ever, I love to hear your comments, so don’t feel afraid to leave one!


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    • Melissa

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