Review: The Vanishing Art of Camouflage

The Vanishing Art of Camouflage, University of WestminsterYesterday, I attended the private view of a new menswear exhibition at the University of Westminster called The Vanishing Art of Camouflage. You might wonder why a lingerie blogger would be interested in menswear. Well, first of all, I don’t consider myself to be solely a lingerie blogger. I’m interested in writing on a number of different topics, including a variety of sectors or themes within the fashion industry, which is why my site has a several categories for its posts. When I attended a talk last week about the curation of the Reigning Men exhibition at LACMA in California, I thought I should explain to my Twitter followers why I was attending, given that most of my blog’s fashion content and most of my tweets from my @LHamiltonSmith account are about underwear.

I did my Batchelor’s degree in the mid 1990s at in the Textiles Department UMIST (now part of the School of Materials at the University of Manchester) and my final project was on fabrics for men’s smart jackets and waistcoats. Although we didn’t have to produce garments, just the fabrics, I was keen to have fashion history form a large part of my research – looking at men’s styles, fabrics and embellishment – and emerged with my final designs inspired by eighteenth century menswear styles and Rococo interiors. The history of menswear seems a world away from my Master’s research but I realised recently that the one thing that links together the vast majority of the garments I get really excited about is structure.

The Vanishing Art of Camouflage, University of WestminsterDespite my interest in textiles and my general obsession with clothing, I’m far more likely to have my attention held by a tailored suit than a bias cut 1930s gown. The garments that made me literally gasp with joy on archive visits during my Master’s course included a structured 1950s ballgown, stored in a very large box due to the size of the layered stiff tulle skirt, and a Regency era tailcoat with a wonderful high collar that could only be properly appreciated on a mannequin. However, it was only when I heard the Museum of London’s Timothy Long give a presentation on tailoring that I really realised it was heavily structured garments that had the biggest appeal for me. However, I’m getting side-tracked here as the exhibition theme is pattern rather than structure!

Featuring a range of historical military garments alongside their adaptive high-end fashion versions, the exhibition also includes a selection of unusual artefacts that have adapted camouflage for their own means, and questions the neutrality of blending in as a means of survival.

The Vanishing Art of Camouflage is the first exhibition to draw extensively from the newly created Westminster Menswear Archive. The archive has been founded for the purpose of establishing a collection of garments and related artefacts to encourage and develop the study of menswear design from a technical and functional point of view. The archive is also intended to advance the general knowledge of menswear as a design discipline and to be used as a resource tool to inform contemporary menswear design.

The Vanishing Art of Camouflage, University of WestminsterAt first it’s tricky to see which are the fashion garments and which are the military uniforms – well, apart from the sequinned camo parka next to the neon Jeremy Scott Adidas puffa jacket! – but then your eyes start to detect differences in what appeared to be identical patterns. Pocket placement and use of fastenings differ across the garments in ways you wouldn’t expect and before long you’re sucked in to looking at every little detail. If like me you’re ignorant of the history of camouflage, the wall text provides a history of the use of disruptive pattern material in both military and fashion contexts. Interestingly, at first glance in the gallery, I assumed that the ghillie suits on display (see the second image for an example) were fashion garments as their 3D texture looks like it would be at home on a catwalk! The exhibition is co-curated by Andrew Groves (Course Director of BA Fashion, University of Westminster) and Robert Leach (Senior Lecturer, University of Westminster) and if you want to learn more you can catch the two of them in conversation at the gallery, 1pm on Weds 9th November.

The Vanishing Art of Camouflage is on at London Gallery West (University of Westminster’s Harrow Campus, HA1 3TP) until 20th November 2016.

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