Innovative Sixties shift dresses at the V&A

Julie, Penny and Anna with Zorian investigating the Paco Rabanne leather mini-dress and with the Dispo paper dress in the foreground, clockwise to 'Peachy' by Mary Quant, and the 16th Century smock.

Julie, Penny and Anna with Zorian investigating the Paco Rabanne leather mini-dress and with the Dispo paper dress in the foreground, clockwise to ‘Peachy’ by Mary Quant, and the 16th Century smock.

The surprise and delight Anna Glasbrook, Julie Heaton, Linda Row and I felt, as each shift dress was brought out, was like a particularly good Christmas as a child. Suzanne, the curator, had chosen the most wonderfully innovative Sixties shift dresses for us to see from the V&A Collections at the new Clothworkers Centre at Blythe House, Olympia. It was a fabulous way to spend an afternoon researching with fellow enthusiasts (but also frustrating – we could only look, not touch). Zorian was incredibly helpful handling the dresses for us, and on the next table Abigale was researching some gorgeous McQueen and some of his design influences.

Anna and Julie examining 'Double D' by Foale & Tuffin - the D is a pocket! In the foreground is a Ginger Group mini dress and the Andre Courreges daisy mini-dress on the other side.

Anna and Julie examining ‘Double D’ by Foale & Tuffin – the D is a pocket! In the foreground is a Ginger Group mini dress and the Andre Courreges daisy mini-dress on the other side.

The Sixties shift dresses we saw are still in copyright so I can only show you glimpses but do follow the links and see them on the V&A website.  We saw:

  • Paper printed dressesOssie Clark and Celia Birtwell dress from 1966. Ossie Clark launched Britain’s first range of throwaway dresses. The imitation paper seemed very much like J-cloth fabric! Dispo dress from 1967 all cut edges, minimal stitching, but could be washed.
  • Mary Quant dresses – ‘Peachy’ made in 1960 in wool tweed – one of the earliest Mary Quant dresses in the collection. showing how she led the way to break with convention by designing for a young audience. Ginger Group wool jersey mini-dress from 1966.
  • More British dresses‘Double D’ minidress by Foale & Tuffin in linen from early 1966 – my favourite, so simple and graphic, the ‘D’ is separate pieces of fabric stitched in, perfectly, and is a pocket! ‘Variable Sheets/Optical Shift’ by Stephen Willats (a performance artist) from 1965 – with large brightly-coloured square panels of PVC zipped together, which can be re-arranged according to mood. It is stored stuffed with its’ very own cushion – preserving plastics is a problem that all museums are facing with their Twentieth Century collections.
Linda, Julie and Anna looking at the fabulous Stephen Willats' 'Optical Shift'.

Linda, Julie and Anna looking at the fabulous Stephen Willats’ ‘Optical Shift’, the Emmanuel Ungaro mini-dress and jacket in the background.

We also asked to look at a woman’s shift, the intimate lingerie worn next to the skin, under the corset, from the Middle Ages to the early Twentieth Century.  Is this the origin of the Sixties shift dress? Or was the word ‘shift’ used as an indication of the change in values signified by such a simple dress? Suzanne found us a beautiful decorated smock, it is the same simple T-shape as a shift, but I am not sure if it was worn as the base layer of clothing, the embroidery was meant to be seen.

A decorated linen smock, hand embroidered with silk in England, 1575 - 1585.  The skirt and lace trim are modern.

A decorated linen smock, hand embroidered with silk in England, 1575 – 1585. The skirt and lace trim are modern.

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The decorated linen smock, bodice detail. Very fine black-work embroidery – not sure how they managed to do this by candlelight!

Lastly I thought I would include an image of a ballgown circa 1885, which Abigale was researching.  With its formality, restrictions, fussy detail, and the layers that would be worn underneath this ballgown is the absolute antithesis of the all the Sixties shift dress represents!

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Ballgown circa 1885, moiré silk overlaid and trimmed with machine lace, and lined with silk, cotton and whalebone (from the other research table). I have included this because it is the antithesis of the shift dress! It is necessarily stored flat in its own drawer, the V&A images show it in its full glory on a mannequin.

Thanks again to the Victoria and Albert Museum, Suzanne and Zorian for a breath-taking afternoon.

Penny Wheeler

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