Applying the Bus Test
Inner Editors and Inner Critics

The memory of an elephant

Yesterday I went to the Golden Age of Couture exhibition at the V&A. It's a gorgeous tribute to a vanished age, a last post-War gasp of the pre-War world, top-down fashion for a world that was growing out of top-down decisions about everything else. The great and the good designers dressed the wives of the great and the good ruling class, and the rest of the world followed the suit, literally and figuratively. One desirable figure, one prescribed hemline and nothing done by machine if doigts de fée - the fairy fingers of Dior's seamstresses - could do it better. There was footage of the ateliers of London and Paris, relics of an industry of embroidery firms, corsetières, glove-makers, milliners, and bi-weekly mailings of the latest textile samples. The couture houses courted celebrities, which is perhaps one way that world hasn't been lost: it's hard to believe that the wife of the British Naval Attaché in Paris was an important show-case, but easier in the case of Margot Fonteyn. I assume the low lighting, which makes the frocks glow spectacularly in the darkened exhibition rooms, was necessary for conservation, but it was frustrating because you couldn't always actually see the seaming, the cut of five or six panels for the back of a jacket, the tiny hand-stitches that shaped the dress to a particular client, whose name we know, who is a real person, perhaps, even now. I don't know much about the art of fashion - firmly in the I-know-what-I-like camp, me - though I find the cultural history fascinating (if you read Alison Lurie's The Language of Clothes you'll never buy a garment un-selfconsciously again). But I do know a little of the craft and when you see great craftsmanship in action and in completion it's extraordinarily compelling.

I lingered, and the museum began to close. I wanted some postcards, and to come down gently from my small high by poking among the glossy catalogues and exhibition-inspired scarves and children's workbooks. But the shop was shut and I had to leave, still slightly glowing despite my sore feet and aching back. Maybe that's why walking back through Belgravia to my bus hardly felt as if the last fifty years had passed: there was even a very couture and tail-coated wedding emerging from the Brompton Oratory.

There are the seeds of all sorts of writerly things in this: stories of Dior's muse-models or the keeper of the elephants in Avedon's famous photograph (scroll down for it). There's a chain of thought which recalls the discussion on here about needlework as a metaphor for what writers do, and which could be taken further. There's the small yearning it's started in me to get my sewing machine out and buy some patterns. Will any of these things get any further, with me or anyone else who sees this exhibition? I don't know. I didn't even make notes, though I always have a notebook with me. One day maybe something from yesterday will float back up to the surface, and find itself in a story, or a blog-post, or a wardrobe.

Or maybe not. As someone said, the human memory is very bad: in evolutionary, survival-of-the-fittest terms, its sole function is to help us predict and cope with the future, and anything surplus is discarded. I don't know which of yesterday's experiences is significant and what is surplus. Maybe I'll only know when I see where they turn up next. Or, more disconcertingly still, maybe these events only actually become significant, or surplus, as time passes and my memory makes them so. 

Comments