Evidence of colonialism can be seen clearly through fashion of the era. In the Fashion Museum of Bath, there is an exhibit which features “100 ‘star’ objects from its collection” (“A History of Fashion in 100 Objects”). These items are supposed to be representative of the past 400 years, presumably of Britain. A significant portion of these outfits and items are somehow related to other countries and colonies, the majority of which seem to be from Asia. The plaques in the museum indicated the influence of fashion from Asia was different from that of other countries, such as France and Scotland, which worked in conjunction with England to generate clothing. Instead, the museum hints at wars and theft to make these outfits inspired by Asian culture possible.
The museum takes visitors through time, beginning in the 17th century, all the way through the 21st. The collection is in the basement of the famous Bath Assembly rooms, where wealthy men and women of the 19th century would attend balls, gamble, and socialize. The museum holds a couple of collections: A History of Fashion in 100 objects and Lace in Fashion. Both exhibits show the change of styles over time and even make some predictions about future fashion trends.
Though the History of Fashion in 100 Objects exhibit features many articles of clothing and accessories which are linked to imperialism, they do not go into detail about how or why. Visitors are given a handful of sentences about British imperialism and its effects on fashion, but not in the context of the clothing displayed. With the help of information about imperialism we learned from our postcolonial London and urban field studies classes, I was able to fill in the gaps.
China presented a huge economic opportunity for Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Trade routes were established to import items such as silk, porcelain, and tea (Roblin). Britain’s interest in China is reflected in many of the earlier styles of clothing in the exhibit. Floral motifs, embroidery, and the use of silk on waistcoats and petticoats that are influenced by China can be seen throughout the exhibit. The Fashion Museum briefly talks about the Opium Wars, where the British bought a lot of goods from China, such as silk, but China had little interest in purchasing items from England. As a result, Britain smuggled opium into China to sell, resulting in addiction and death (Roblin). The Qing dynasty fought with the British Empire to stop the import of opium, but was ultimately unsuccessful (Roblin). Opium continued to be brought into China, and fashionable people in England continued to drink tea and wear silks.
Indian fabrics are also prominent in British fashion in the exhibit, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Two Banyans made of chintz are displayed in the exhibit, one for a young boy and another for a grown man. The plaque by them explains the fabric, chintz, had to be smuggled into England because the laws only allowed for Indian fabrics to be imported if they were sold to other countries. Muslin, originally from India, was a very popular fabric in England, especially during the early 1800s.
This was used frequently in the styles of the time. In the late 1870s, shawls made of pashmina, or cashmere became quite popular. These too were originally from India. Dresses and coats that make use of these styles are scattered throughout the exhibit. There are many types of jewelry on display, including tiger claw necklaces, which the museum explains is a type of souvenir for the British in India. One item that caught my eye (because of the horrifying history linked to it) was a petticoat with embroidered ships, supposedly indicative of the East India Company, which traded goods and enslaved people throughout the British Empire.
There are many, many more items throughout the exhibit that have questionable influences , including fans and jade jewelry from Japan as well as ivory and ostrich feather accessories from Africa. It is clear Britain’s colonial past can be exposed through the fashions of the time. What is particularly interesting is the fact that the museum decided to present these fashions as representative of the past 400 years without fully explaining them. They do mention some of the atrocities, such as the Opium Wars and the East India Company, however, they fail to mention how these are directly linked with the objects on display. They let their audience infer the relationships on their own.
In class, we discussed the fetishization of the Orient, and it is clear the clothing illustrates it well. It is important to note that the clothing in the displays was only for the upper classes. No working class clothing was displayed, creating more problems about misrepresentation of the past 400 years, which the exhibit aims to show us. The lack of working class attire demonstrates more about the appropriation of “Oriental” styles. The fashion inspired by Asia was meant to distinguish the owner, displaying their wealth and worldliness. This clothing was only available to the upper class, and the only way to be upper class at that time was to be white and rich, closing off these styles to the people they are supposed to represent. This clothing demonstrates how the idea of the “Orient” had deep roots in British Imperial society. Because the clothing and styles from overseas and the colonies could demand such a high price point, the clothing may have caused colonization. Besides labor, these goods feature the Chinese silks and Indian fabrics which the British empire coveted. It is clear a demand existed for “Oriental” clothing, creating an economically profitable market for the Empire and likely contributing to colonization in the first place.
This museum is interesting, but it has the potential to be so much more. It would be nice if they clarified the objects on display are for British upper class fashions of the past 400 years, instead of trying to represent the past 400 years of Britain as a whole. Additionally, they begin to challenge the history of British imperialism, but it would be better if they related it directly to the objects on display rather than a general side note. This museum may not be your cup of tea if you’re not into high society trends over the past 400 years. Though it has its problems, it is very informative on different styles over several eras and features some beautiful clothing. The Fashion Museum is definitely worth taking a look at, just remember you may not be getting the whole story.
Fashion Museum, Assembly Rooms, Bennett Street, Bath BA1 2QH
-Katherine Jones ‘18
“A History of Fashion in 100 Objects.” The Fashion Museum. N.p., 18 Oct. 2016. Web.
Roblin, Sebastien. “The Opium Wars: The Bloody Conflicts That Destroyed Imperial China.” The National Interest. The Center for the National Interest, n.d. Web.