Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Zandra Rhodes: A Lifelong Love Affair with Textiles


The Fashion & Textile Museum, London

Situated on the south bank of the river Thames in London, the Fashion and Textile Museum (FTM) aims to “exhibit the immense changes in contemporary fashion and textile design over the past fifty years and to educate a wide audience in all areas of fashion and textile design.” The fuchsia-painted exterior of the building matches the hair color and flamboyant design sensibility of the museum’s founder and director, fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, who established her own design label in 1969. The space now serves as museum, textile studio, printing workshop, and home for Rhodes, who divides her time between London and southern California.

Zandra Rhodes: A Lifelong Love Affair with Textiles, on exhibition at the FTM through June 25, represents the first major retrospective of the artist’s work in Europe. The focal point of the show is a selection of dresses Rhodes designed in the 1970s and 1980s. The grouping is comprised mainly of bright prints on layered sheer fabrics and offers a good sense of Rhodes loyalty to an unapologetically feminine style. Few of these dresses are appropriate for a woman uncomfortable with the idea of drawing attention to herself – all seem perfect apparel for dancing the night away. Alongside the garments are sketchbooks, silk screens, uncut yardage of printed fabrics and photographs of models wearing Rhodes label strutting down the fashion catwalk and gracing several covers of Vogue. Their inclusion helps to give viewers insight into the long creative process from early sketches to finished prints that are behind the glitz and glamour of the finished product. Perhaps the greatest lesson revealed through this curatorial decision is the central role printed textile design rather than garment design plays for Rhodes, who studied textile design at the Royal College of Art in London.

With the help of the sketches and pieces of printed fabric, viewers learn that for Rhodes the pattern of the print dictates the cut and drape of the garment rather than vice versa. This information explains in large part the billowy unstructured shape of many of her signature dresses. The Fashion and Textile Museum opened in 2001 after close to a decade of planning, a considerable achievement considering that it does not receive any state support. Their first exhibition, “My Favorite Dress” in 2003, presented a collection of over seventy dresses selected by what reads as a greatest hits list of fashion design names. Smaller exhibitions aimed at supporting emerging talent also fall within the museums remit and have included work by fashion illustrator Daisy de Villeneuve and “Love on the Rocks: The New Blood of Fashion Photography.”

Unfortunately, the space continues, as it has from its opening exhibition, to feel unprofessional. The absence of attention to the details of display is particularly ironic in light of the time and energy fashion spends presenting itself to the public eye. The substantial space somehow feels cavernous rather than expansive, which seems particularly unnecessary considering that this retrospective is of the director’s own work.

FiberArts (summer 2005: 64)