Filling that bit in between Xmas and New Year is always a challenge, but fortunately the round of family visits usually takes us close enough to London to throw up some opportunities, and with absolutely no inclination to join the orgy of retail that surrounds the post Xmas sales, we grabbed the chance to immerse ourselves in some of the tempting range of exhibitions currently on offer on the museum circuit.

We were driven as much as anything by the imminence of closing dates, and the knowledge that it would be a while until Mrs M could get into Town again, so first on our list was the 1930s Fashion and Photographs exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey. Every time we head down that way, the area has become less grungy and more of the original buildings have lost their coat of grime to show them as their architects intended. I suspect it’s at something of a zenith, before the big money moves in to eradicate the less aesthetic buildings and replace them with steel and glass ego boxes, but with the massive project on London Bridge Station now reaching conclusion, the Museum has become very accessible and remains surrounded by a wealth of attractive pubs and cafes that make a trip down there a treat before you’ve even set foot inside the door.

And once you’re inside, the exhibition wastes no space in presenting a jaw-dropping collection of original couture. I totted up 116 different outfits – mostly for women – arranged across 10 thematic displays. The exhibition as a whole builds on the Jazz Age display mounted two years ago (and reviewed here) which focussed on the frivolity and extravagance of the 1920s, and reflects the more sober approach to design that fell out the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash and resulting depression. That’s not to say that the dresses on display are in any way drab, and for many the agonies of the depression were something that happened to other people, but the designs seem altogether more relevant to everyday life – albeit an immensely stylish one that sets vintage lovers hankering for a world free of track suits and shapeless jeans.

With displays taking their theme from popular song titles, we were led through clothes for the remaining rich, for everyday work, city life, the ballroom circuit, the Hollywood influence, the new suburbia, holidaywear, mass manufacture and, finally, the 1937 coronation. What I like most about the Museum is that clothes are not hidden in glass cabinets, or displayed in isolation, but on groups of figurines that give the impression of how they would hang in use, and how they would have looked when seen in context with others of the same type. The lighting, too, is excellent, giving each display depth and allowing the colours and textures to come through – helped by the trustingly close proximity that the subtle barriers allow; clearly the Museum knows its clientele and is prepared to trust them not to be stupid.

The exhibition is complemented by a room full of Cecil Beaton portraits, ‘Thirty from the 30s’, reflecting highlights from his work across the decade. As with all the Fashion and Textile Museum exhibitions, there’s also a comprehensive and well-designed complementary guide which not only avoids obtrusive or hard to read legends but also makes writing articles much easier afterwards!
Given the proximity of other food and drink outlets, the Museum has sensibly forfeited the space taken up by its excellent café to create space for workshops and we were kicking ourselves that we had missed some excellent events related to the exhibition itself. Their shop, though, is excellent with a good cross-section of reference material and tasteful gifts, and all the staff are clearly there because they, too, have a passion for vintage clothing in one form or other. It’s a shame only that the Museum building isn’t big enough to allow them the luxury of a standing collection, and the cost of maintaining a separate properly controlled storage facility would be prohibitive, so each exhibition is effectively a one-off gathering of carefully-preserved items from private collections or those from other institutions. That means, though, that each visit will be a unique experience – all the more reason to keep a close eye on their programme on their website and Facebook page. Given that the next event covers London between 1952-1977, I’ve a very strong feeling we’ll be heading down Bermondsey way again soon…