The best fashion museums to visit this year
Rhiannon Batten takes a stitch back in time as she threads her way around these historic clothing collections
Fashion Museum, Bath
Housed in Bath’s elegant Georgian Assembly Rooms since 1963 and moving to a new home in 2023, this historic dress collection started out as the Museum of Costume, but evolved into the Fashion Museum in 2007. It was founded by designer and collector Doris Langley Moore, who donated her private collection to the city.
Exhibits now range from an elaborate brocaded floral yellow silk robe and petticoat dating from about 1760, to a collection of dinky shoe-shaped wedding ornaments from the 1940s, currently on display in the museum’s ‘Shoephoria!’ exhibition, which runs into 2022.
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
The V&A’s extensive fashion catalogue includes several sub-collections, from theatrical costumes to standalone hat and underwear assemblages.
Many items – including a women’s waistcoat dating from the 1790s, a 1936 velvet and organdie evening dress by Schiaparelli, and an exquisite Art Deco tennis dress – are on permanent display in Room 40, the museum’s fashion gallery. Others get their turn in the spotlight during temporary exhibitions.
One current show, ‘Bags: Inside Out’, for instance, showcases an elaborate chatelaine from the late 1800s and a 1921 despatch box owned by Winston Churchill.
Petersfield Museum, Hampshire
Reopened earlier this year after an extensive overhaul, one of the star attractions is the Bedales Historic Dress Collection.
Originally developed by the former head of drama at Bedales School for use in productions, it ranges from crinolines and ball gowns to mourning wear, swimwear and sportswear (including an elegant England First XI ladies’ hockey dress from the 1890s, complete with lace cuffs).
Current items on display from the collection include two intricate 19th-century wedding dresses, an elaborately embroidered Georgian waistcoat and a dapper pink hunting coat dating from 1837.
Highland Threads, Online
This collaborative exhibition – woven together from the costume collections of 14 heritage attractions across the north of Scotland – launched in April as an online show.
Star items include a shimmering scarlet silk tartan dress from the Highland Folk Museum dating from 1842, and an exquisite ‘beetlewing’ dress embellished with Indian zardozi embroidery that was made for a Scottish woman living in India in the mid-1800s, and now resides at the West Highland Museum.
A map pinpoints the garments’ real-life locations; most have now reopened and put the garments on centre-stage display.
Northampton Museum & Art Gallery, East Midlands
Another recently revamped museum that has significance far beyond its immediate area, Northampton Museum and Art Gallery’s wide range of exhibits (including a costume display) is crowned by its 15,000-piece strong historic shoe collection.
Housed in a new Shoe Gallery, the collection was founded as a reference tool for the county’s celebrated shoemakers and is now one of the largest catalogues of shoes and shoemaking in the world.
Exhibits range from an ancient Egyptian sandal to Queen Victoria’s wedding shoes, as well as Northamptonshire-made (German-designed) Dr Martens boots.
Totnes Fashion & Textiles Museum, Devon
Based in Grade I-listed Bogan House, a late-medieval merchant’s house, the volunteer-run Totnes Fashion & Textiles Museum is home to the Devonshire Collection of Period Costume.
It opens each summer for a new, themed exhibition, allowing the team to pick out clothes and accessories from tens of thousands of items and display them in turn.
Next year’s show is yet to be announced, but this year’s, ‘Into the Blue’, is still available to view online. Focused on blue garments, as the name suggests, it ranges from Malian indigo-dyed fabrics to a dazzling ripple-hemmed day frock from 1815.