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29 October 2014

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You are in: South Yorkshire > Entertainment > Culture > Features > Fashion & Fancy Dress

Anne Armstrong-Jones and Oliver Messell

Image courtesy of Birr Castle Estate

Fashion & Fancy Dress

Sophie reviews the Millennuim Galleries' exhibition which shows a selection of garments drawn from the extensive wardrobe of six generations of one artistic family...

"Fashion and Fancy Dress: The Messel Family Dress Collection 1865 - 2005" at the Millennium Galleries includes over 60 dresses from six generations of women, spanning from 1865 to 2005.

Maud Messel c 1900 @ Nymans Garden

Copyright the Messel Collection

The fact that the Messel family women include two countesses and a viscountess means it includes high fashion and extravagant outfits. It is more than just a selection of posh frocks, however. The outfits are arranged thematically, rather than simply chronologically, inviting us to consider the wider role of fashion in women's lives.

Although dresses from different centuries are placed next to each other there is an unexpected continuity. At first glance, Marion Sambourne's 19th century pink and amber day dress is a world away from Anne, Countess of Rosse's elegant black evening dress from the 1940s.

Yet their similar V-shaped necklines and the bow at the back of the evening dress, echoing the earlier dress' bustle, show how, in essence, fashion remains the same, however much details may change.

Modern day wedding dresses and Victorian mourning clothes are also grouped together to show the continuing importance of clothes in helping to define moments in our lives. These may be fashion items but they also play a vital role in the rituals surrounding major life events.

Dress by Charles James 1939 (c) N Sinclair

Dress worn by Anne, Countess of Rosse

A surprising number of the dresses are handmade or designed by the women themselves. Both Maud Messel's Medieval-inspired dark brown dinner dress, and her tea gown, a riot of pink and ruffles, are her own creations and are clearly intended to reflect the wearer's interests and personality.

The exhibition repeatedly shows how clothes acted as a creative outlet for early twentieth century women, who were severely limited in the ways they could express themselves.

Lavish fashion

Costumes and fancy dress feature prominently in the pieces on show. Maud Messel's fascination with the scandalous 18th century singer, Elizabeth Linley, a distant ancestor who eloped with the playwright Richard Sheridan is reflected in the period costumes worn by her and her husband. Like many of the other fancy dress items, these costumes allow their wearers to briefly take on personas worlds away from their own.

This exhibition is unashamedly about the clothes of the rich. The Messel family progressed from a comfortable upper-middle class existence to the ranks of the aristocracy so there is no idea of make and mend or Sunday best. But their attitude to clothing, with items being passed down through generations or used to mark special occasions, is not that different from that of the most ordinary of families.

Ribbon Dress by Charles James c1939 (c) N Sinclair

Dress worn by Anne, Countess of Rosse

The success of "Fashion and Fancy Dress" comes through the fact it does not trivialise fashion and allows us to see its wider social function. But, equally, it doesn't let the sense of fun in fashion be overwhelmed by history and visitors have plenty of opportunities to marvel at the fabulous frocks.

  • Fashion and Fancy Dress: The Messel Family Dress Collection runs at Millennium Galleries between 14 June and 23 September 2007. Visit the Sheffield Galleries website for more information.

last updated: 04/03/2008 at 14:57
created: 04/07/2007

You are in: South Yorkshire > Entertainment > Culture > Features > Fashion & Fancy Dress

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