‘À La Mode’, the final – and very exciting – pop-up display of the Christ Church Upper Library in Michaelmas 2023 exhibited examples of fashion over hundreds of years. It was curated by Ruth Holliday, who had a look into the ‘moralistic teachings’ of fashion. From Pollocks’ Toy Theatre to Cardinal Wolsey’s green hat, the pop-up managed to squeeze in a retrospective of  fashion styles from all over the globe

One particularly delightful exhibit featured illustrations of dogs and cats in hats by Genty (c.1825) and printed by A Cheyère. Appropriately titled ‘Les Chiens coiffés’ and ‘Les Chats coiffés’, both featured distinguished looking animals in an array of fashion choices. Included in the selection were a Schnauzer in a top hat, a greyhound in a pink bonnet, a Maine Coone in a turban, and what looked like an Egyptian Mau in a barrister wig. The dogs and cats were, of course, too sensible to indulge in what they were wearing. They were esteemed, noble creatures. There were some that were snarling, but we hope it is in good taste.

What is more,Thomas Stamford Raffles’s The History of Java (1817) presented fascinating illustrations of William Daniel’s A ‘Renggeng or dancing girl. She was carefully balanced on one foot, her arms splayed on both sides with hands holding the ribbon attached to her sarong. Most amazingly, the artist had chosen to depict her on the edge of movement rather than in full motion, about to perform what we can only imagine was a  graceful and animated gesture. 

The ‘Alphabet of Female Costume’ showed various forms of colourful  national dress in twenty six cards spanning ‘America, Bavaria, China’,‘Venice, Wales, Xeres (Spain), Youghal (Ireland), and Zurich’. Eight of the twenty-six were on display, featuring Zurich, Wales, China, Norway, Xeres, Quito, Kamschatka, and Japan. Holliday wrote that the Japanese costume was in ‘westernised Victorian Style’, a misconception likely arising from Japan’s ‘isolationist foreign policy’ before 1845. Indeed, the Japanese dress featured in the card seemed peculiar; besides the separation of shirt and dress and details in the collar, it could easily be mistaken for a Victorian dress;the long head scarf and bell sleeves, for example, pay tribute to the fashion of the French Middle Ages rather than familiar Japanese styles, while the full-bodied skirt appeared distinctly Victorian.

Alongside the charming exhibits, we also found biting satires and works that expressed a certain disillusion with vanity. ‘Headlands Capes and Promontories’ by Catherine Fanshawe (1786), for example, featured an expressionless man and woman standing at an appropriate distance from one another. The propriety of the characters bordered on absurd. Holliday wrote that ‘the satire of the metropolitan Georgian clothing fashions of 1786’ were based on this. The woman in the figure had an alarmingly large hairstyle and a hat neatly five times the size of her head. Well-equipped with feathers and fabric, the hat could well have been an entire ostrich. She was holding something spherical and shaggy, likely flowers, but these could have well been a bale of hay or a gigantic pom-pom. Although the man was less ornamented, he was sporting several buttons that may well have been the size of half of his fist. 

Fashion in drama also made its way into the exhibit. Not only was there the Toy Theatre, but Francis Bridgford Brady donated a huge theatrical collection in 1977 to Christ Church. This included fifteen thousand portraits of actors, actresses, authors, dramatists, as well as representations of productions. Besides this, the exhibition also included  an album of around 200 photographs depicting scenes from Japanese Kabuki theatre in the inter-war period, with intricate costumes and theatrical makeup in full view. 

All in all, this tastefully-curated exhibition proved an exhilarating whistle stop tour of developments in fashion throughout the centuries from all over  the world. Fashion certainly does hold us in a ‘magic spell’, regardless of however mocking Culham wishes to be.