Chic-itita: ‘Unexpected Elegance: Female Fashion from the 1970s’ at the Grosvenor Museum.
Chester’s eclectic museum showcases fashion from the decade that gave us the behemoths ABBA, bell-bottoms, and, um, brown…
Wend your way past displays of Roman chaise longues *, then precipitous Georgian powdered wigs, and, in a somewhat out-of-the-way back gallery, you will find a quirky collection of couture circa 1970.
Billed as ‘the decade that taste forgot,’ (fashion-, not food-wise, for it spawned the epicurean delight that is the prawn cocktail) the Grosvenor’s exhibition sets about systematically debunking the negative myth. Dresses spanning the decade are ranged alongside comprehensively-researched plaques, proof that the era’s Dancing Queens could opt for subtle, sophisticated, or statement.
Does Your Mother Know (That Your Hemline’s So Short)?
Carefully curated for a range of styles, this homage to the Wilson-Heath-Wilson (again)-Callaghan-Thatcher era features hemlines from mini to midi to maxi, and colours from tomato to turquoise (via brown). On display, too, are a variety of fabrics (wool, viscose, cotton, polyester, chiffon) which evidence both a wealth of choice for designers of the decade, and the increasing popularity of synthetic fibres at the dawn of fast fashion.
I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do. The dress was specially made for the petite bride by a designer in Liverpool’s Dale Street.
The exhibition’s showpiece, though, is its 1973 wedding gown: mandarin-collared, ‘puddle’ train-trailing, it makes comprehensive (if unconventional) use of the fabric corduroy. Reclaimed from the trousers of Scooby Doo’s Shaggy, the dress is entirely made from the material- from bridal bodice to buttons. It kept the lucky lady snug during a winter wedding in Warrington in 1973, and, as the plaque details, echoes in cut if not in fabric the gown worn by the Queen’s second child, Princess Anne, later the same year as she wed Captain Mark Phillips. Hers, though, probably cost a smidgeon more than the £20 spent on fabric for this dress- which, incidentally, was bought from George Henry Lane, later to become Liverpool’s John Lewis department store.
As with this gown, threaded throughout the collection are acknowledgements of indebtedness to the local region. One piece was designed by the fashion and textile students of a local university, another a product of a collaboration between husband and wife duo Celia Birtwell and renowned Warrington-born designer Ossie Clark.
Take A Chance On Ossie… The dress worn by Kate Silverton (right) to the National Television Awards echoes the earlier gown’s cut.
It is this last that is the collection’s most elegant, all balletic lines and billowing fabric, a signature of the Clark couturier. It is also arguably the collection’s most transcendent, its dusty rose-pink hue, slit neckline and choker collar not dissimilar to thos
e on dresses found between the pages of today’s Zara or Next S/S ’19 catalogues.
Mamma Mia-ow! The dress features bold big cat prints.
Centred in the collection is another highly-covetable piece courtesy of Parisian fashion house Givenchy’s pret a porter line. Inspired by the classic ’Fifties little black dress silhouette, its ’Seventies makeover is apparent in the kitsch leopard-print detailing and ubiquitous brown colour palette.
For despite the exhibition recognising that ’Seventies fashion was far from homogenous, there is no escaping the fact that it featured brown, heavily. Often accompanied by… brown. Then there are, naturally, those bold floral patterns reminiscent of the wallpaper you discovered behind the fridge that time you redecorated the kitchen. Mostly in a colour palette dominated by (you guessed it) brown. These autumnal hues background the belted kaftan, decorated with Persian hunting scenes that reflect a growing cultural interest in all things Eastern.
Meanwhile, the exhibition’s last is deep black, austere and schoolmarmish; inspired, so the plaque informs us, by the 1930s, and featuring its quintessential bias cut. It is a reminder that fashion’s peaks and troughs tend to recycle themselves. As the great philosopher ABBA once observed, ‘the history book on the shelf/ Is always repeating itself.’
Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Kaftan After Midnight).
Here’s, then, to a 2019 (hopefully) free from flares…
* Available to test out for comfort (bunch of grapes not included).
‘Unexpected Elegance: Female Fashion from the 1970s,’ is at the Grosvenor Museum until 7 July 2019. FREE ENTRY. 27 Grosvenor Street, Chester. CH1 2DD. 01244 972197.