words David Watkins
It’s appropriate that Anglomania should be held in New York, a city that remains a hotbed of inexplicably romantic notions of London.
While this goes some way to explaining why the new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum has been packed to the rafters since it opened in May, such sentiment nevertheless pales in comparison to the love affair that intellectual Europe had with the British capital in the 18th century.
Greeting you at the entrance is a quote from Voltaire, stating that if he was to be born again, he’d “pray to God to make me be born in England, the land of liberty.” While few Europeans would go on record with that today, there are still apparently some traditions of British fashion from Voltaire’s lifetime that remain in rude health.
At least, that’s what curators Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda would have you believe. Aiming to explore “tradition and transgression” in British fashion, they certainly ram the point home by juxtaposing traditional costumes from the 18th and 19th centuries with the work of contemporary designers who have both adopted and subverted that aesthetic.
Alexander McQueen’s John Bull coat, designed for David Bowie, opens the exhibition. Bull was a fictitious personification of English libertarianism, and was frequently depicted in a plain frock coat. McQueen’s version, imbued with the Union Jack, plays on Bowie’s persona as something of a walking fiction who has manipulated notions of character and identity while also serving as the embodiment of libertarianism.
The idol of 18th-century Saville Row, “Beau” Brummel, is credited with spearheading the rebellion against aristocratic convention by transforming the period’s lace, wigs and knee-breech fripperies into clean lines and a focus on cut and proportion, providing the template for the bespoke suit. By the 1970s, of course, this democratising impulse re-emerged with Punk’s nihilistic reaction against the perception of the meticulous, precious English gentleman. In the show, designs by the likes of Ozwald Boateng and Paul Smith – representing traditional tailoring – are confronted by Alexander McQueen’s black-worsted, silk-tulle-embroidered creations and Johnny Rotten’s tartan Vivienne Westwood blazer.
The English period rooms’ dim lighting accentuates the eerie qualities of the costumes, while sound effects of tweeting birds add the sense of eccentricity. The conceit of a quintessential English garden is continued in Hussein Chalayan’s dress made of nylon rosettes. But John Galliano’s outfit topped with a fox-fur hat punctures this idyll by providing a life-size parody of the aristocracy’s preoccupation with hunting. The trousers, printed with gutter-press headlines, appropriate an English tradition at the other end of the scale.
Anglomania’s purest example of transgression lies not in its design, however, but in its branding: Burberry, a label whose luxury stylings have been appropriated by Britain’s so-called “chav” lower class, sponsors the show. Its presence speaks the loudest, despite the efforts of the curators, and announces that, far from working together in tandem, traditions of English fashion will always be consumed by transgression.
Anglomania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until 4 September