Cecil Beaton’s Fashion: An anthology 1971


After my mammoth museum visiting session over the past few weeks I want to step back in time to what I believe was one of the most important exhibitions the Victoria and Albert museum ever held. Cecil Beaton’s 1971 exhibition Fashion: An anthology.

1971 (October 1971 to be precise) marked the opening of the Fashion: An Anthology exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This exhibition “put fashion on the map at the V&A” and had a lot to do with the changing perception of fashion’s place within the hallowed walls of the museum.
At the time there was mass publicity about the exhibition with both the Sunday telegraph and Vogue running large features on it Vogue mentioned “there were twenty outfits by Balenciaga, nine by Schiaparelli, eight Poirets, two Vionnets, a Fortuny, and “masses of Chanels” 

One of the many beautiful Balenciaga dresses on display at the exhibition, dating to 1959.

Cecil Beaton’s exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum saw the accession of some of the most iconic pieces of dress that the V and A holds. Here are just a few of my personal favoruites.

1957 Jacques Fath dress (what a princess piece!)

1957 floral by Pierre Balmain

1947 classic early Dior day dress

1909-20 Iconic Fortuny Delphos dress

And who can forget my favourite garment OF ALL TIME. This 1938 circus collection jacket by Schiaparelli. 
Beaton was a fascinating character in that these garments were mostly given by Beatons friends. He had the rare opportunity of being a society figure who was respected and admired which I think meant people were more willing to donate. Beatons aim was to create an exhibition which celebrated “the best of women’s fashion today”

Discussions between Beaton and  John Pope-Hennessy  (then director of the museum) suggest the directors enthusiasm towards the exhibition and that the dresses should be exhibited as works of art, not necessarily fashion (dismissing some of the problems often associated with fashion displays). For this reason the exhibition had an elitist focus, with most pieces being haute couture.  

Not only were the objects on display fantastic but the exhibition display itself was also something to behold and heavily influenced later  exhibition styles (I personally believe that Diana Vreeland must have been inspired at least in part by Beaton’s exhibition).
The exhibition was designed by Michael Hayes and stretched across two floors of the Victoria and Albert Museum held in a prime location, it must have certainly been a sight to behold and so unlike anything the museum had done before. What I really love about it was that historical garments were put in a completely modern and somewhat “alien” setting. These are just a few examples of this futuristic exhibition display, which I think still looks fresh, modern and thoughtful 40 years on.

(you can see here how it stretched across two levels)

Although one thing I would say is that the popularity of this exhibition often means that earlier examples of innovative exhibition display are often ignored. If you are interested In the topic as a whole I highly recommend looking further into the “Britain can make it’ exhibition of 1946 organised by the eponymous Horrockses director James Cleveland-Belle and also Richard Buckles 1954 exhibition of Ballet Ruses costumes at Forbes house. 
Hopefully I’ll get writing about these soon too.

From the “Britain can make it” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum

 From Richard Buckles exhibition at Forbes House

If you are further interested in the topic I highly recommend reading Amy De La Haye’s enlightening article (which I have  quoted here

Vogue and the V and A vitrine Fashion Theory, Volume 10, Issue 1/2, pp. 127–152 

Or try and pick up the original exhibition guide. I got mine on ebay a few years ago for only a couple of pounds, and it features some truly sensational images of Marisa Berenson in items that appeared in the exhibition.

All images from the Victoria and Albert museum collections website.

2 thoughts on “Cecil Beaton’s Fashion: An anthology 1971

  1. Hi Liz – Julia here (from Brighton). Just discovered your blog through some random Googling! I will dip in more detail later, but just wanted to pop in here and say I totally agree with you that DV was inspired by Michael Haynes' ideas. I can't wait for Amy de la Haye's book on the subject. I think it'll be super to get her take on such an important exhibition from the perspective of today!

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