The American photographer Bill Cunningham once said: 'Fashion is a mirror, reflecting culture'. The Fashion Museum, Bath, know this best, having staged their annual Dress of the Year collection and exhibition since 1963 - whereby fashion experts select their most significant item from the past 12 months. The museum, established in 1963, has quite the gold mine of an archive - it's considered to be one of the world's top ten fashion museums, with a collection exceeding 100,000 items. Dress of the Year reads not only as an education in fashion history, but as a political and social reflection of each ensemble's source. From Mary Quant, who helped to define the swinging sixties and women's liberation with her a-line mini dresses and skirts, Karl Lagerfeld's resurrection of the house of Chanel through to Craig Green's workwear sculptures and Kim Jones's merger of streetwear and luxury menswear, clothing reflects the times in which we live.
As fashion weeks closed down towards the end of February, Cunningham's words began to ring truer than ever. Designers found themselves having to find new alternatives to the traditional runway show format as they sought out meaningful ways to connect in the absence of physical gatherings. Like many other cancelled events, the Fashion Museum has had to postpone their Dress of the Year 2020 exhibition until next year, so you'll have to wait to get a glimpse IRL of what might be the most poignant addition to the collection yet. Invited to the task by the museum's curator Rosemary Harden, the famed journalist, educator and friend of SHOWstudio Iain R. Webb has selected seven outfits and one film. This is the first time someone has been asked twice to contribute to the annual event - in 1998 Webb chose a womenswear ensemble from Sonia Rykiel paired with a selection from Chris Bailey's Jigsaw menswear, and has consulted for the museum for over a decade. In the hopes of reflecting the current moment in which we find ourselves, Webb follows in the one-time tradition of the late Isabella Blow, who selected the work of seven of her favourite designers including Hussein Chalayan, Shaun Leane and Philip Treacy in 1997.
'My Dress of the Year 2020 selection starts and ends on film. This was the year that the communication of fashion truly shifted from catwalk to film. This is how most of us consumed the world this year - through a screen - from news reports and COVID-19 briefings to the latest must-see series on Netflix. Naomi’s Being Naomi YouTube film is part video diary (the preoccupation of the modern age). It tells a very human story of the fear and madness of this particular moment. As a finale I have chosen S.W.A.L.K, a paean to the process of making fashion, making clothes - my first love. During a very dark time filmmaker Nick Knight’s collaboration with designer John Galliano transported and uplifted me for its duration, reminding me of exactly why I do what I do. The film’s effect is positively restorative.' Iain R. Webb
Naomi Campbell's infamous COVID-19 travel attire, which has gone down in fashion meme history, kicks off the selection. Over her Tyvek hazmat suit, all important face mask and pink latex gloves, Campbell cloaked herself in a Riccardo Tisci Burberry camel cashmere cape to board a flight. A Black Lives Matter t-shirt and specially commissioned designs by stylist Ibrahim Kamara and futurist designer Gareth Wrighton also feature in the selection, alongside an updated toile of Webb's Central Saint Martin's graduate collection (1980), modelled by none other than Princess Julia.
The finale? S.W.A.L.K.: the fashion film cum documentary Nick Knight directed for the Maison Margiela Artisanal A/W 20 collection earlier this year. Knight has pioneered fashion film since the late 1990's, with the medium becoming a mainstay on recent fashion calendars. This will however mark the first time a film has been nominated for the Dress of the Year collection - it's a significant moment in time.
Artistic director John Galliano - who has been nominated twice before by the museum - set out to create a new fashion blueprint with Knight. Together they proposed an alternative to Galliano's beloved runway shows - here was a moment about letting go of the old, instead seeking out new creative solutions. Part process documentary, the film opens up the doors of the Margiela atelier further than ever before - the soundtrack is quite literally the ripping and tearing of fabric, which we get to see up close via GoPros on the heads of artisans. Alongside an appearance by Princess Julia, heir to the 1980's club scene, Webb also features in Galliano's reference images. A resident Blitz Kid, Webb has recorded extensively on the period.
'Like many others during lockdown I tried to raise my spirits and nourish my soul by watching films online. I was amused in the midst of such dark times to make a blink-and-you-missed-it on-screen appearance in Knight’s latest fashion film. It seems that the style antics of the original Blitz Kids (of which I was one), are still proving an inspiration for a new generation of fashion freaks. Knight’s empathetic film is a collage of captured moments in the Margiela atelier, scrapbook mood boards, snatched Zoom conversations and the overheard mechanics of virtuoso makers that tracks the collection from Galliano’s creative brief, disseminated via email, to regal realisation. For the finale, Knight interprets the new Margiela proposal in swirling, neo-operatic splendour, all the time soundtracked by longtime Galliano collaborator (and fellow Blitz Kid) Jeremy Healey, including a particularly evocative version of Young Americans that transports us seamlessly back to that original Bowie Night at Billy’s, c.1978.’ Iain R. Webb
Explore the Dress of the Year archive here.