The Beauty of Not Knowing

By Bronwyn Cosgrave, 2010

I was taken aback by my initial encounter with Blythe House. Encircled with a spiky barbed wire fence, its entry gate was hard to find. The gruff mannered security guard seemed to reluctantly admit me through a turnstile, and I objected to the front desk’s request that I relinquish my Alberta Ferretti handbag. Patiently, it was explained that it would be held in a safe locker for security purposes. I relented.

The Blythe House freight lift ferried us up to The Concise Dictionary of Dress’s rooftop commencement point. Handbag-less and harboring a slight phobia of being confined in elevators, it felt a little as though I was on my way into prison. By the time we were gathered in front of a rooftop sentinel viewing a resin cast of a human form, a revolt practically broke out from my fellow viewers. “What is it?” asked a man in brown suede shoes. “Who made it?” asked his bespectacled friend.

But we had been handed a card containing Adam Phillips’ thoughtful definitions of “Armoured” and told that, aside from Phillips’ interpretive texts, there would be no information about the make or provenance of anything on display. And not until the conclusion of our lead through could we ask questions.

Our initial bewildered silence, however, swiftly gave way to collective merriment. Stunning sunlight enlivened the claustrophobia of Blythe House; we had fun venturing through a space spying the V&A’s myriad sequestered treasures.

Viewing these unidentified items, seamlessly installed in an environment that has never been utilized as an exhibition space, prompted me to focus in a completely new way, to fully absorb the beauty of what I was witnessing. Knowing the provenance of a work always prompts me to make certain associations; in a fashion exhibition, particularly, designer names can be distracting relating as they do to an industry overloaded with imagery and opinion. Had I known that the black silk taffeta cocktail dress suspended within the fourth floor rolling racks was produced by Lanvin, for example, my mind would raced to the modern Lanvin I had just viewed at Dover Street Market or at the Cannes Film Festival...

Here I was grounded, compelled to be fully present, to examine and marvel at these exquisite clothes and objects just for being what they are. It was a breath of fresh air, to see costume and dress liberated from the standard glass cases in which they are usually presented yet rarely ever encourage a stimulating viewing experience.

Bronwyn Cosgrave is an author and broadcaster specialising in fashion and design.