Monday, June 7, 2010

Exhibition Review: The Concise Dictionary of Dress

1. a book containing a selection of the words of a language, usually arranged alphabetically, giving information about their meanings, pronunciations, etymologies, inflected forms, etcetra expressed in either the same or another language; lexicon; glossary;
2. a book giving information on particular subjects or on a particular class of words, names or facts usually arranged alphatetically
 Source: Webster's Encyclopeadic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language 1994 

Conformist, Photo by Julian Abrams 2010

The Concise Dictionary of Dress is a site-specific art installation that explores the art and language of dress within the confines of the Blythe House, a storage facility of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Commissioned by Artangel, the creators Judith Clark and Adam Phillips insert clothing, accessories, cast objects, photographs in surreal and evocative tableaus within the V&A Museum's reserve collections. Clues to the interpretation for the eleven installations are provided through cards with definitions of dress terms written by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. These words were chosen because of their association with fashion and appearance and included: armoured, comfortable, conformist, creased, essential, fashionable, loose, measured, plain, pretentious, tight.

Armoured, Photo byTas Kyprianon

The Blythe House is the working storage facility of the V&A Museum, and as such attending The Concise Dictionary of Dress requires advance planning and security clearance. Only seven people are admitted at twenty minute intervals for a docent-accompanied tour and tickets cannot be purchased at the venue. Over the course of the exhibition which continues to June 27, 2010, a maximum of about 5000 people will see this unparalleled presentation with the confines of the Blythe House. 

From the moment I buzzed the security officer to allow me access through the fenced-in grounds to the time I returned my security pass to the clerk, I was conscious of being in a place that few people have ever seen. Once the home of the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank, the Blythe House now is home to the reserve collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as the Science Museum and the British Museum. Security is tight and this means that visitors must leave all bags and purses behind in a locked storage cabinet and groups of seven are accompanied through the exhibition by a guide. Leading the way through a labyrinth of corridors, these guides yield a huge ring of keys, distribute the definitions at each installation, and issue frequent reminders not to talk inside this working facility.

Having had access to the press materials before setting foot in the Blythe House made my experience somewhat different than the average person. And yet  in spite of my advance preparation, I was utterly astonished by the unexpected juxtapositions of a dress tableau beside a row of Roman wall reliefs, a wall of swords, or a massing of antique furniture.

Fashionable, Photo by Julian Abrams 2010

This exhibition was decidedly different from anything I've ever seen. Clark and Phillips created eleven tableau that required effort to understand. In the end,  this exhibition was anything but a dictionary to define the meaning of dress. In the absence of standard museum labeling, the viewer was forced to make connections between the definition and what was on display. In fact, this conceptually-based presentation stepped into the realm of contemporary art.

For example, for the word Plain, there were a number of dressed mannequins covered in Tyvec material. The definition given for the installation and the word Plain was 1. nothing special where nothing special intended. 2. Hiding to make room. Underneath those Tyvec covered mannequins were in fact Balenciaga gowns. In spite of the iconic shapes, the only way I knew this for sure was by reading the book that accompanies the exhibition.

Plain,  Photo by Julian Abrams 2010

My favourite tableau was a presentation of a muslin/calico gown elaborately embroidered in 354 hours of work by Rosie Taylor-Davies. Designed and commissioned by Judith Clark, the embellishment on this gown was based on a William Morris design which was drawn in hand in pencil, painted and worked in coloured stranded silk thread and a variety of metal threads and spangles. Accompanied by the definition Conformist, this pinned-together gown was a breathtaking display of craftsmanship.
Conformist,  Photo by Julian Abrams

There were other tableau in the exhibition that had me struggling to find the deeper meanings and connections between the definitions and the displays. Observing such installations like part of a dress for Junyu Watanabe for Comme des Garcons in a leaky coal bunker for the definition of Creased left me feeling vaguely uncomfortable and at times confused. Even so, I was undeterred and welcomed the challenge to create my own meaning.

Creased,  Photo by Julian Abrams 2010

The Concise Dictionary of Dress is a unique exhibition that blurs the boundaries between art, psychology and fashion. Challenging the viewer to re-interpret clothing and accessories in terms of anxiety, wish and desire, this site-specific installation also offers a rare opportunity to engage with the background of objects contained within Blythe House.

Pretentious Photo by Julian Abrams 2010

If you are lucky enough to live in London or to be traveling there before the exhibition closes on June 27, 2010, don't miss this extraordinary presentation. Tickets can be purchased at

As well, on Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 630 pm, Judith Clark and Adam Phillips will talk about how their respective interests and ideas are expressed through The Concise Dictionary of Dress. This talk will be moderated by Lisa Appignanesi at the London College of Fashion. Tickets are free but must be booked in advance by emailing

The Concise Dictionary of Dress
Judith Clark and Adam Phillips
Blythe House, London W14
April 28 to June 27, 2010
Presented by Artangel