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.
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 dresses – Ossie 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.
- French designer dresses – André Courrèges daisy mini-dress from 1967 – more modest than it appears, with the semi-transparent organza panels backed with flesh-coloured silk. Emanual Ungaro bold stripey jacket with co-ordinating shift dress in wool gabardine from 1966. Paco Rabanne leather mini-dress from 1968 – constructed from brown leather triangles held together with metal studs (looking at the V&A record I had confused the back with the front!).
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.
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!
Thanks again to the Victoria and Albert Museum, Suzanne and Zorian for a breath-taking afternoon.