Spanning five centuries, the V&A's fashion collection is one of the most comprehensive in the world. Key items include rare 17th century gowns, 18th century ‘mantua’ dresses, 1930s eveningwear, 1960s daywear and post-war couture. The collection is particularly strong from the 18th century onwards, containing mainly European fashion and accessories for men and women, together with examples from India, China and Japan. The collection also includes a wide range of accessories, including footwear and hats.
Cravat, lace cuffs and wedding suitThe Victoria and Albert Museum
This suit was made in England for the wedding in 1673 of James II when Duke of York to Mary Beatrice d'Este. The style of the suit represents a new men's fashion that had been introduced several years before by the Duke's older brother, Charles II.
Overdress Overdress (1755/1770) by UnknownThe Victoria and Albert Museum
Characterised by its close-fitting back, the robe à l’anglaise, or English-style dress, was fashionable across Europe in the 1770s and 1780s. This example is made of vibrantly patterned painted cotton, or chintz, imported from India through the port of Amsterdam. Indian cottons were popular because of their fast and bright colours. Their competitive price made them available to a wider market.
Gown Gown (1775/1870) by UnknownThe Victoria and Albert Museum
The skirts of this dress were gathered up with loops, a new fashion referring to country working dress. This dress was originally constructed as a ‘sack-back’ or negligée, with loose pleats from the shoulders. Dresses were often altered, as fabric was so expensive.
Coat (1790) by UnknownThe Victoria and Albert Museum
By the 1790s, the gentleman's frock coat had been adapted for fashionable daywear. This smart coat is made in an unusual flecked grey wool with large, silk-covered buttons. The standing collar, high waist, wide lapels and tight sleeves suggest the exaggerated styles worn in revolutionary France.
Banyan and waistcoat Banyan and waistcoat (1800/1810) by UnknownThe Victoria and Albert Museum
Chinese design was immensely admired and sought-after in Europe and this banyan and waistcoat are a unique blend of Chinese textiles and Western tailoring. They are clearly cut, tailored and sewn in a European style.
Banyans and nightgowns were popular informal men's garments worn for leisure at home and among friends. Both banyan and waistcoat have been made out of a silk woven especially for the Chinese Imperial Court. These silks were richly brocaded with dragons on the both the front and back of the robe and featured stylised landscape borders. Silks such as these were not widely available in Europe at this time.
The Italian tailor who made this banyan and waistcoat, adapted them to the wide, flowing style of the Chinese robe, while retaining the usual European front opening instead of the traditional Chinese side opening. The characteristic cuffs on a Chinese dragon robe have been inverted on the banyan sleeves.
Court coat and waistcoat (1795/1804) by UnknownThe Victoria and Albert Museum
Although clothing worn at court was the most formal style of dress, by 1800 it was not the most fashionable. Such rich fabrics and embroidery were no longer worn for everyday wear, but the requirements for court dress provided work for craftspeople in the textile industries. This suit is thought to have belonged to a Scottish nobleman and ancester of the donor. A pair of matching velvet breeches would have completed the ensemble.
Gown Gown (1817/1826)The Victoria and Albert Museum
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, plain and decorated hand-woven muslins imported into Britain from Bengal by the East India Company were highly fashionable, and were imitated by British manufacturers in Ayreshire and Lancashire. The needle-worked 'lace' fillings and embroidery of this exceptionally fine dress were probably worked in Ayreshire.
Dress Dress (1862) by UnknownThe Victoria and Albert Museum
In the mid-19th century, the European fashionable silhouette reached extreme proportions. Corsets provided support and enhanced small waists, emphasising the extraordinary size of crinoline skirts. By the mid-1850s, ever widening skirts meant the weight of multiple petticoats had become very uncomfortable. The 'artificial', or 'cage' crinoline appeared in 1857 as a welcome and more practical alternative. It was made of spring steel hoops, increasing in diameter towards the bottom and connected with tapes. This dress would have been worn with a crinoline underneath.
Evening dress Evening dress (1912) by LucileThe Victoria and Albert Museum
The V&A owns an extensive wardrobe of clothing and accessories worn between 1905 and 1925 by London socialite Heather Firbank who, according to her brother's biographer M.J. Benkovitz, "had beauty and adorned it with exquisite clothes of a heather colour to complement her name". Heather Firbank bought from many London dressmakers, particularly Lucile, the creator of this delicate gown.
Kimono Kimono (1920/1940) by UnknownThe Victoria and Albert Museum
In the first half of the 20th century most women in Japan continued to wear kimono. Although the cut remained the same, the designs on fashionable garments bore an unmistakable modern flavour as motifs were dramatically enlarged or distorted. Many kimono were made from meisen, a thick silk fabric that was both long-lasting and relatively inexpensive. Patterned with chemical dyes applied through stencils on to the threads before weaving, meisen became the favoured fabric of stylish, urban woman. This kimono, with its dynamic design of flying fish, is a striking example, the use of silver and lacquer threads adding an air of luxury to what is essentially an informal garment.
Evening jacket (1937) by Charles JamesThe Victoria and Albert Museum
Charles James made this remarkable, sculptural jacket for Mrs Oliver Burr-Jennings in 1937. In 1975, James wrote a full description of the jacket's development:
"The stitching which held the shaped masses of eiderdown in place, being treated as scrolls or, as in the case of my coat as tapered arabesques, one within another. The stitching however had to be worked out with the cut... This is done while the pattern lies in pieces after it has been first planned.... The great problem in the development of this concept was that it concerned the expansion of the silhouette by inflation with eiderdown which in some areas would be three inches thick at least." The thickness of the jacket padding is reduced around the neckline and armholes to enable unimpeded movement. The sleeves are cut as one with the front panels and have underarm gussets.
La Ligne Muguet La Ligne Muguet (1954) by Christian DiorThe Victoria and Albert Museum
This dress was a specially commissioned from Christian Dior by Gloria Guinness, voted the world's second 'Best Dressed Woman' by Time magazine in 1962. It is a variation of Belle de Nuit, a dress in Dior's 1954 Spring/Summer collection. The original design featured straps, a fuller skirt and a plain silk stole rather than a bolero.
Hat (1955/1955) by Simone MirmanThe Victoria and Albert Museum
This saucer-shaped hat was designed by London milliner Simone Mirman. Made from woven strips of coconut fibre, it suggest the wide range of materials used by hat makers.
The Flowers of the Fields of France The Flowers of the Fields of France (1957) by Norman HartnellThe Victoria and Albert Museum
This dress was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth II from London couturier Norman Hartnell for her state visit to Paris in April 1957. The visit followed the Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic Community (EEC). Showcasing beautiful couture embroidery techniques, the dress is embroidered with pearls, beads, brilliants and gold thread. The design makes diplomatic reference to French motifs, including daisies, crossed wheat sheaves and Napoleonic bees.
Dress (1964) by Mary QuantThe Victoria and Albert Museum
After training in fine art at Goldsmith's College in London, Mary Quant opened her boutique Bazaar on London's King's Road in 1955. Quant promoted stylish yet affordable ready-to-wear fashions like this day dress with beribboned collar and cuffs. Its simple material and construction are typical of Quant's youthful designs.
Dress (1966) by Jacques HeimThe Victoria and Albert Museum
This beautifully embroidery with flowers and three dimensional appliquéd daisies adorns a classic shift dress. The dress was commissioned by Jillian Ritblat from the Paris couturier Jacques Heim for her engagement party in London. Jillian Ritblat said of wearing the dress, "It was a big party at my parent’s home and I was marrying a Frenchman, so that was excitement in Hampstead! Couture sums up a kind of vision of extraordinary glamour and luxury with extraordinary people in an elevated world".
By the 1970s, this simple, modernist style had fallen out of fashion.
Knitted Circle (1969/1969) by Zandra RhodesThe Victoria and Albert Museum
After training in textile design at London's Royal College of Art, in 1969 Zandra Rhodes created a set of textiles like the printed chiffon from which this kaftan was made, whose motifs were taken from knitting and embroidery stitches, called Knitted Circle. She then learnt how to cut patterns in order to produce her own clothes, basing the shape of the clothes on the textile print. Rhodes said, “I made swirling, dramatic shapes with no concessions to the saleable, the acceptable or the ordinary. The true Rhodes style came into being”.
Jumper Jumper (1982) by Kawakubo, ReiThe Victoria and Albert Museum
This ensemble illustrates Rei Kawakubo's emphastically black collections of the 1980s. An asymmetrically patterned jumper of black hand-knitted wool utilises the potential of post-punk random holes.
Pair of platform shoes (1993) by Vivienne WestwoodThe Victoria and Albert Museum
The supermodel Naomi Campbell will be forever associated with the blue mock-croc Vivienne Westwood platforms that were responsible for her spectacular fall on a Paris catwalk. Westwood’s reinterpretation of the platform heel was exaggeratedly proportioned. It required a courageous wearer who was not afraid of heights.
Invitation dress Invitation dress (2000/2011) by Kumiko UeharaThe Victoria and Albert Museum
The cult of the cute (kawaii) took off in Japan during the 1970s. Initially a fad among young girls, it now crosses the generations and, to a certain extent, the sexes. It has influenced street style, especially the hyper-feminine ‘Lolita’ look and its copious use of ruffles, frills and elaborate accessories. This outfit by the cult brand Baby, the Stars Shine Bright is an example of the so-called Sweet Lolita (amarori) style. The pinafore dress is designed to be worn with bloomers, double petticoats and a lace-trimmed, puffed-sleeve blouse. The tea party print, clock and playing card motifs are all references to Alice in Wonderland, as is the style of the dress.
Sari and blouse Sari and blouse (2011) by (Mr) Hitesh RawatThe Victoria and Albert Museum
The sari is an important item of dress for women across India and can be draped in a variety of ways to reflect regional diversity. In this contemporary example a dramatic abstract design has been created using the single ikat dyeing and weaving technique.
Tracksuit Tracksuit (2012) by Joe BatesThe Victoria and Albert Museum
This track suit is part of a group of early 2010s ensembles donated to the V&A by Charlie Porter, an influential British fashion journalist known for his understanding of contemporary menswear. From a distance, the textile may look like a traditional toile de Jouy print, but it depicts scenes from the London riots of 2011. Charlie Porter said, "I loved this look. It is the sort of piece where you think, 'Should I be wearing these in public? And then immediately think, I don't care.'"
Evening dress Evening dress (2013/2014) by ValentinoThe Victoria and Albert Museum
It is challenging to take forward a fashion label decoupled from its founder. Since 2008, when Valentino Garavani retired, head designers Maria Grazia Chiuri (who moved to the house of Dior in 2017) and Pier Paolo Piccioli extended the firm’s emphasis on couture. Their collections celebrated traditional techniques combined with the occasional startling element, such as the flora and fauna depicted within the medallions of this evening dress. The dress was part of Valentino's Autumn/Winter 2013-14 haute couture collection, titled 'Wunderkammer' or cabinet of curiosities, and suggests a wonder and fascination with the natural world.