Thursday 27th June may have been an ordinary day in the life of The Bowes Museum, but it was undoubtedly an extraordinary evening. After hours, guests were welcomed through the revolving door and offered a rare opportunity to roam the museum at dusk, peek behind the scenes and view a special display from Cleveland College graduates. A guaranteed visual feast for any fashion and art lover!!
The theme of ‘fashion‘ was explored throughout the night, in a trail that began with Luca Costigliolo’s recreation of Joséphine Bowes’ wonderful pink ball gown. After musing on the sumptuous fabric and Joséphine’s tiny waist, it was on to Tim Walker’s Dreamscapes for fashion photography at its best: clothes, colour and cake! The pastels, motion blurs and surprising juxtapositions of objects, people and environment are ethereal and always full of humour and whimsy – I could have happily spent all night in the Temporary Exhibition Gallery. Fortunately for this blog, I successfully tore myself away!
Next up was the Fashion & Textile Gallery, the museum’s temple to all things fashion. I’m drawn to the Glass Cube immediately – I’ve never seen it open before! Inside I find Keeper of Fashion & Textiles, Joanna Hashagen, and two volunteers carefully presenting exquisite pieces of Venetian lace from the Blackborne Lace Collection. One of the volunteers, a recent fashion merchandising graduate, has pen in hand and is surrounded by stunning sketches of the lace patterns, some of which will be incorporated into an exhibition in Hong Kong. They explain that the museum houses thousands of pieces of lace, some going back as early as the 15th century. In this sense, the collection reflects the evolution of the art of lacemaking, from its simplest form to its most elaborate. You can’t help but feel a deep respect for those responsible for the care, conservation and cataloguing of the lace – some of the pieces look so fragile that they might fall apart with a gust of wind.
Back in the gallery is the current exhibition, Diana Winkfield’s Material Remains and items from the Museum’s permanent collection. I like to think of walking around the displays as time-travelling through fashion history. And what a journey it is! A divine oyster satin evening dress is specified on the fashion trail, adorned with ‘twisted serpent-like tails’ in a ‘poured in’ style. I realise with a sigh that I want to pour myself into almost everything I’ve seen so far!
Up the grand staircase and I travel through the exhibition ‘Jeremiah Dixon: Scientist, Surveyor and Stargazer’ to a room I didn’t know existed: the Jubilee Room. Decked with rich velvet curtains and trimmings, it’s an opulent setting for a static fashion show: this evening it is hosting pieces from the final collections of students from Cleveland College’s Fashion Enterprise BA. It’s a case of old-meets-new, and the result is impressive. The outfits are extremely diverse in style and fabric. A grey coat of a textured, bouclé fabric with burgundy leather panelling towards the back of the shoulders catches my eye first. I also covet a gold-band belt, and a white jacket with caped sleeves. I ask the students about how the show has gone, curious to hear what other people’s favourite pieces are. The lone children’s outfit, a bold and playful mix of floral prints, has apparently received most attention tonight. They also reveal further details about the project: the pieces are all from final year students, and form part of a six-piece collection. I also discover that they’re no stranger to the spotlight – the collections come straight from London’s Graduate Fashion Week, where they garnered attention from postgraduate fashion education providers and even established fashion labels and designers.
The night ticks by, and before I know it it’s time for my 8.30pm tour, led by Principal Keeper Dr Jane Whittaker. As a museum volunteer (and, tonight, aspiring blog writer), I’m assigned as Jane’s henchman for the duration, helping to chaperone our group, the majority of whom are on a birthday night out – such a fabulous idea! We start with an introduction to the newly rediscovered Van Dyck portrait and from there ascend to the third floor (usually off limits!), and file into the picture store. The two portraits on the picture trail are here for us to see – the 18th century young ladies with their finery, furs and fan and the 17th century portrait of a lady holding an apple. Both are a lesson in painting and symbolism – the presence of a carnation means fidelity, we learn, as does a dog, while fruit is more of an innuendo!
My favourite detail learnt on the tour was on the subject of beauty patches, those small disks of black silk attached to the face in the 17th and 18th centuries. I had been under the impression that these were purely decorative, meant to imitate beauty spots, little did I realise their communicative power – their shape and placement denoted states of availability and different moods (discreet, flirtatious, passionate)! According to Jane, one could even get hold of a patch in the shape of a horse and carriage, though she declined to guess what that might signify…!
On that fascinating fashion fact, I bring my blog to a close. It was an evening full to the brim with beautiful clothing and inventive displays with exclusive access to the museum’s hidden collections. And the best news of all? It’s happening again! Once a month until December, you too can explore the museum by night, discovering a different theme each time…
The next late night is: 26th July 2013. Don’t miss it!
Were you there too? Talk to us on Facebook or tweet us @TheBowesMuseum with #bowesmuseumlates – we’d love to see your photos from the evening and hear your ideas for next month!
Lorna Urwin, Marketing Dept. Volunteer