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A sneak peak of the 50's fashion exhibition, The Age of Glamour at Lotherton Hall

PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 March 2015

A stunning illustration by Leeds-based artist Nina Hunter used to illustrate the exhibition programme

A stunning illustration by Leeds-based artist Nina Hunter used to illustrate the exhibition programme

Archant

Lotherton Hall's revamped fashion galleries get off to a stylish start

Well have the blue one& and the spotty one& oh, and the green stripy one pleaseWell have the blue one& and the spotty one& oh, and the green stripy one please

With its bold boning, raunchy red floral fabric and cheeky, knicker-flashing cut, the beautiful beach costume laid out on the table in front of us looks like something songstress Katy Perry would strut around on stage in. But this sexy, statement piece is not a contemporary creation; it’s a Fifties original that was made to last as well as flatter.

The beach costume is a key, eye-catching exhibit in a new display at Lotherton Hall in Leeds, curated to make the most of its revamped fashion galleries. The Age of Glamour, a to-die-for collection of fabulous Fifties clothes, is open to the public from May 8th, but we were given exclusive behind-the-scenes access to peruse the rails and lift the lid on all manner of exciting boxes.

‘We opted for the Fifties as our launch exhibition because we wanted to make a big splash,’ said Natalie Raw, curator of costume and textiles at Leeds Museums & Galleries. ‘We’re looking at couture fashion, but we’re also looking at what ordinary people wore and how the rise of Leeds’ department stores affected a distinct change of style. From Paris to Yorkshire, all Fifties fashion life is here.’

Women’s fashion had taken a masculine, utilitarian turn during the war years, which probably explains why the Fifties were such an explosive celebration of femininity. Paris designers like Dior took it to the extreme with huge, full skirts and tiny, bird-like waists, but ordinary woman experienced the change too.

‘We’ve interviewed people for the exhibition and they distinctly remember the time when department store clothes started to take over from home-made clothes,’ said Natalie. ‘Ready-to-wear clothes had previously been seen as cheap and shoddy, but the department stores changed that. People continued to make their own clothing, but they also enjoyed the experience of buying something new.’

Leeds became something of a shopping mecca, with Marshall & Snelgrove and Marks & Spencer leading the way. The former was set up by a Yorkshireman in London as an upmarket, luxury department store. He later opened a branch in Scarborough, for when rich London folk went to the seaside, and in Leeds. The business was eventually taken over by Debenhams. And as for the other M&S, well, I think we’re all very familiar with how that turned out.

‘The department stores were the first to introduce the model system, in which they paid the couture designers for patterns so they could make ready-to-wear copies of their catwalk clothes,’ Natalie explained. ‘This also prompted the designers themselves to start making ready-to-wear as well as couture collections; something still very much in evidence today.’

In the Fifties, people’s wardrobes and their pattern of purchases very much reflected the seasons. They didn’t buy all year round as we do now, instead making strategic purchases for the spring-summer and autumn-winter seasons.

Fabrics tended to be brightly coloured and embellished, perhaps as an antidote to the rather dour Forties, and early synthetics – many of which were pioneered at Leeds University – made life a lot easier for busy women who wanted clothes that looked good and were a breeze to maintain.

‘Nylon revolutionised life in the Fifties, but it meant the cotton industry started to struggle,’ said Natalie. ‘High end designers were encouraged to work in cotton to boost the flagging home-grown industry, which was a great way of getting people to buy British. Apart from the Paris couture pieces, all the clothes in our exhibition are British-made, and a great number made right here in Leeds.’

The Age of Glamour exhibition marks a fashionable new start for Lotherton Hall, where clothes had previously been displayed in hulking great cases that visitors couldn’t walk round in rooms so dark you could barely see your own shoes, never mind the sequin embellishment on a Fifties blouse.

The new and vastly improved fashion galleries have now been fitted out with modern display cases that let you see the clothes up close and from all angles. A new lighting system and specially-designed blinds have also been installed to protect the collection while still allowing visitors great views of the clothes on the inside and the surrounding grounds on the outside.

‘Lotherton Hall has more than 30 years of history showcasing major fashion exhibitions and has evolved into a repository for one of the nation’s most important collections of fashion and textiles, numbering some 20,000 items,’ said Natalie.

‘Our new exhibition space will allow us to accept loans from some of the most renowned and historically important fashion houses, giving visitors from across Yorkshire easy access to exciting displays not traditionally seen outside London museums.

‘It’s a very exciting time for us and for West Yorkshire; a county with a legacy of being at the cutting edge of the textile and retail industries.’ n

For further details of the Age of Glamour exhibition and all other events at Lotherton Hall, call 0113 378 2959, email lotherton.hall@leeds.gov.uk or visit leeds.gov.uk/lothertonhall

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