Blythe Mirrors the Museum

By Claire Wilcox, 2010

I have always been drawn to Blythe, although I find it melancholy. I like its mortuary atmosphere, the fluorescent lighting, infinity views and old fashioned bathrooms. Working alone in the stores, cataloguing unending collections of textiles, it’s easy to lose sense of time; the atmosphere becomes uneasy, the tightly sealed windows offer no escape. Cupboards and objects, collections and one-offs, metal racks and glass spy holes, this is the secret terrain of objects.I walk the tour, its route punctuated by a series of tableaux, study the definitions, long for the clarity of a label, gaze with a fresh eye and wonder again at Blythe’s strangeness and silence. The dresses, Chanel, Vionnet, Mme Grés, Lanvin, hang like trophies opposite their waxy casts, just as Blythe mirrors the museum, in all its complex meanings. I read The Concise Dictionary of Dress, impressed, delay writing this, daunted by the transformation of the familiar into something I do not know.

The tour guide maintains an enigmatic silence, we’re on our own. I think that the definitions are both universal and specific, that this work reflects an intimate and cerebral partnership and continues a line of enquiry begun in Judith Clark’s exhibition,Spectres, if not before. I appreciate the dry observations about collecting and the intriguing nature of stored, and thus hidden, collections, the false drawer labelled TREATED, and the language of anxiety: Armoured, clothes as noise.

Threads entwine others, like a skein. Conformist, a partially, beautifully embroidered toile, that gestures to the museum and William Morris’s mutual love affair. Mme Poiret’s chaste nightgown; Loose - a sparkling buckle offset by caged weaponry; a damp Junya Watanabe dress. The kid glove in Measured, like a clue from a crime scene. Finally, a group of dresses neatly tied with tape, in a gentle, ghostly mockery of the curator’s desire to wrap things up.

Claire Wilcox is a Senior Curator of Fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum. She created Fashion in Motion (1999 – 2010) and her exhibitions include Radical Fashion(2001), Versace at the V&A (2002), Vivienne Westwood (2004) and The Golden Age of Couture (2007).