My favourite ever dress

Not sure what reminded me of this, but over the weekend I started thinking about The Best Dress Ever. It hasn’t crossed my mind for about 6 months now and while I feel certain I probably have written about it in the past, I can’t find anything. Anyway, it’s here burning a hole in my brain so here goes nothing.

Back in the old days of my Masters, the marvellous Amy De La Haye gave us a presentation on an exhibition she’d just curated; The Messels: Six Generations of Dress. The fascinating show (wow, maybe you could even call it a social experiment?) featured the extensive wardrobes of the Messel family over the decades. Anne, Countess of Rosse (4th generation Messel) realised that her family’s clothes might be interesting one day in the future and preserved them like a stylish, tissue-packed time capsule because she recognised that, ‘they have that meaning of being worn.’  Deep! Anyway, Anne gave the Brighton Museum heaps of her family’s clothes, all packed away and preserved, annotated with notes about where they’d been worn and the reaction they got. One dress (a long green evening dress with a beaded neckline, according to the museum) has a note that (intriguingly!) reads, ‘Had a wonderful time in this dress am ashamed to say. 1941!!’ Hah! Wonder what the minxes got up to?

The collection comprises over 500 items dating from 1870 to 2005, which were worn by six generations of Messel women. You can read about the intriguing family here, but suffice to say their wardrobes largely comprised of couture gowns from exclusive London dressmakers and top fashion houses. The exhibition also featured loads of letters and photographs of the outfits in action. All amazingly fascinating, but maybe irrelevant seeing as the exhibition was in 2006…

Anyway, amongst the wonderful outfits was aforementioned Best Dress Ever. The Snow White Day Dress was created for Anne by Charles James in around about 1937, just after the film came out. I’m by no means a Disney fan (we only had Fantasia on video as a kid, and I think that was a present… still, it was creepy) but this dress is a real thing of beauty. When the exhibition came to Sheffield I spent about 4 hours wandering around drawing everything in anal, fashion student detail. I’d hazard that the bulk of that time was spent in front of this number. What I like most about it is how modern and creepy the print is, kind of like Giles Deacon’s 2008 Who Killed Bambi-ish collection. Without being crass, I remember thinking that the open-mouthed Snow White which makes up the bulk of the print looks just like a sex doll. Not sure whether the honourable Charles James would have intended that, but who knows?? Eleanor Thompson, Curator of Costume at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery (where the exhibition opened) is quoted as saying;

The Snow White dress is amazing – by Charles James, after the film comes out. It’s a fantastic and unusual example of a merchandising twist, I guess. And the cut – you see at the front the faces have all been cut up and juxtaposed with each other. If you look, the faces are interesting – very odd! You think of Snow White as quite childlike but when you look at the actual faces it’s quite strange.

Such an unusual item and such a stand out piece. I remember when Amy was giving her presentation a slide of this dress was shown and all my pals correctly assumed that I would love it. I do, I do, I do! I wish this exhibition (or just this dress) would go on tour again so I could get another good look. Alas I have no photos or a scanner to show you my shit sketches… the only two pics I can find are teeny, but you get the jist.

The exhibition catalogue is available here. Look beyond the awful 90s Textile GCSE cover, it’s good!

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