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A fashion history: piece by piece

Exhibition window with YES stamped across
Exhibition window with YES stamped across
Fashion: Central Saint Martins, Lethaby Gallery (photo: Liam Leslie)
Written by
Mary McCartan
Published date
20 February 2020

Fashion: Central Saint Martins brings together garments, photography and drawings to explore facets of the celebrated Fashion programme. The exhibition is curated by final-year BA Fashion Communication: History and Theory students in association with the Museum & Study Collection. Here, Mary McCartan, from the student curatorial team, selects pieces from across the show and reflects on their meaning and significance for the project.


Bumster Suit, Alexander McQueen, MA Fashion (1992)

We knew a fashion exhibition at Central Saint Martins couldn’t be without McQueen. The Bumster Suit is part of the Museum & Study Collection so we had straightforward access but as we learnt more about it, it was such a powerful and poignant piece that we had to include it.

It’s an unbelievably special thing and sits in the section of the exhibition called "Against the Grain" which looks at designers who’ve pushed existing boundaries. It’s made from silk jacquard which is not a traditional fabric for tailoring. Perhaps more importantly, the Bumster Suit was never about provocation, showing too much of the female figure; in fact, it was McQueen’s way of elongating the torso, reframing the body through fashion.

Detail of many layers of fabric
‘T-shits’ (R-18)! Mao Usami, Fashion: Central Saint Martins, Lethaby Gallery
Dress, Charlotte Tydeman, BA Fashion Design with Marketing (2014)

We referred to this as the “Barbara Cartland dress” throughout the curation process. It wasn’t the only piece that got a nickname. Tydeman’s work is incredible and a personal favourite of mine. This dress features a sponge torso reminiscent of Picasso’s portrayal of the female form and pin-up imagery. Her final collection was inspired, by and examined, the objectification of women’s bodies and this piece does exactly that in a way that’s not expected.

Dressing the mannequin was a longer process than expected and required several layers to be attached precisely, almost like armour. Once the final look was put together it was intimidating and powerful – a contrast to the delicate fabric and the use of pink.


Floral Paper Jacket, Hussein Chalayan, BA Fashion (1993)

Hussein Chalayan’s Floral Paper Jacket is incredibly delicate and part of the Museum & Study Collection, so initially, there were doubts as to whether we would be able to display it. The museum curators shared their concerns that any changes to the air conditioning or strong gusts of winds from the front door could damage it.

It is made with Tyvek paper, more usually for conservation, and the form is inspired by an 18th-century pattern. It was touch-and-go but with the Museum’s approval, we are really proud to be able to display this publicly.


‘T-shits’ (R-18)!, Mao Usami, BA Womenswear (2013)

This t-shirt comprises 100 layers and embodies many of the recurring themes in the exhibition's section on material research and development. Each layer is exactly two millimetres bigger then the last and that considered (and considerable) accumulation, Usami noted, represents the enjoyment of removing another person’s clothes a hundred times over.

The piece shows how dedication to precision and process can transform something ordinary into something unexpected and extraordinary. In terms of curating, it was almost a performance itself with student volunteers installing it layer by time-consuming layer!

Portrait painting sat on easel with two drawings place in front
Portrait of Muriel Pemberton, Stanley Lewis, on easel installed in Fashion: Central Saint Martins, Lethaby Gallery (photo: Liam Leslie)
Portrait of Muriel Pemberton, Stanley Lewis

Reflecting on the show, we would have liked to include more by Muriel Pemberton. She is the beginning of fashion at Central Saint Martins and her legacy is undeniable. It was a pleasure to work closely with her niece, Liz Griffiths whose work we were grateful to display.

Pemberton founded the Fashion programme over 80 years ago and it has been wonderful through this exhibition project to see how much the industry – and the College – has evolved since then and yet how a little bit of Muriel is still everywhere.

We kept returning to a quote by Pemberton – “If you can draw it, you can make it” – as it channels the notion that there isn’t one road in fashion anymore. We hope that the rich mix of work gathered in the exhibition reflects that continuing truth.

Fashion: Central Saint Martins is at the Lethaby Gallery until 10 March 2020.