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London’s Fashion Alphabet is a Museum of London video series that introduces viewers to our amazing Dress and Textile collection – one letter at a time. Fashion Curator Lucie Whitmore takes us behind the scenes to explore the making of this series.
A version of this article was originally written for the Social History Society. It can be found on their ‘Community Exchange’ blog.
Hello, and welcome to another episode of London’s Fashion Alphabet!
These words have been used by numerous Museum of London staff members over the last year, as we have worked our way through the alphabet in a new digital series, sharing some of our favourite objects in the museum’s Dress & Textile collection. A was for Hardy Amies, B was for Boudoir Caps, C was for Corsets, and at the time of writing we’ve reached the letter T. (The full series is available to watch on the Museum of London YouTube, Instagram and Facebook pages.) London’s Fashion Alphabet (LFA) started at a time when the Museum of London had closed its Dress & Textile stores to research visits, while essential collections work was carried out in preparation for our move to a new museum site. It now continues into an unprecedented period in which the museum has closed its doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I'm going to take you behind the scenes of how and why we made the Fashion Alphabet, revealing some of the hidden stars of our incredible collections.
The series was devised and created by myself, Beatrice Behlen (Senior Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts) and Laura Muldoon (Social Media Manager). The plan was to create an informal behind-the-scenes video series to share stories from our Dress & Textile collection and highlight the work of different staff members at the museum. The A-Z format, while simple, seemed like the perfect structure. It is open enough to encompass a wide variety of objects but also sequential – giving viewers something to follow and tune-in for. We had little-to-no budget for the series and wanted it to feel accessible, so it was filmed in-house using equipment the museum already owned, with minimal-editing and staff time required. We all prioritised the captioning of the videos for accessibility.
Despite the modest budget and resources, it has proven to be one of the most successful social media series put out by the museum, ever. On Facebook alone, the series has had 1,934,719 views, reaching 3,434,896 individuals and receiving 439,434 engagements (that’s the likes, comments, shares and clicks). We believe that this success comes down primarily to the stories that our objects can tell, and the intimate way in which the stories have been captured. But of course the wonder of the collection itself is a hugely significant factor. The Museum of London Dress & Textile collection comprises around 24,000 objects, dating from the 15th century to the present day. It includes fashionable dress, archaeological textiles, flat textiles, dolls, accessories, uniforms, working dress and performance costume. While the LFA series has mostly maintained a ‘fashion’ angle, episodes have also featured jewellery and other wearable objects from the Decorative Arts and Archaeological collections. For example, in episode ‘N’, Curator of Making Danielle Thom introduced viewers to one of the more unusual materials in our Decorative Art collection: nacre.
Filming of the LFA series started in spring 2019, with Senior Curator Beatrice Behlen standing amidst the roller-racking storage of the Dress & Textile store next to a truly fabulous early 1970s Hardy Amies ensemble. Since that moment 11 members of staff from 3 departments have made 22 films in the museum’s stores and galleries, covering two millennia of fashion history. The episodes often start with an object reveal – removing tissue paper or opening a Tyvek garment bag, to share the exciting moment of ‘discovery’ with viewers. We purposefully have not staged or doctored the filming locations, but set-up in our usual workspaces to enhance the intimate and immediate feel of the films. The objects are not treated or mounted by conservators before filming but are generally ‘as we find them’. This is not a glossy television series; we want people to feel that they are stepping into our stores and getting a true insight into what museum work looks like. This has caused more than one viewer to ask whether we are ever allowed out of our ‘cold war bunkers’!
No matter the subject handled, every episode strives to demonstrate the ways in which our objects tell compelling and varied stories of London lives. While seemingly simple, this ensures that the series reflects the scope of the collection and the aims of the Museum of London – an organisation that represents London and all of its people.
It would be wrong to discuss the successes of the London Fashion Alphabet series without mentioning the viewers. There would be no point in us making this series if nobody was watching, commenting, or asking questions. But we could not have anticipated the warm and generous response that the series has received around the world, with many viewers actively engaging on social channels where the episodes are shared. Amongst the most common interactions are those sharing their own memories of the objects discussed. Here are some of our favourites:
I for Ice-skates: “This bought back one of my earliest memories of watching my Dad skating at the Richmond ice rink in the late 60's. I think I was about 4 or 5 years old. I remember his dark brown boots and chunky Aran sweater knitted by my Mum […] Many years later I tried to skate at Murrayfield skating rink in Scotland with less effect!”
P for Punks: “I had a party once when I wore a chain and padlock as a necklace with my outfit of men's shirt with suspenders and stockings. (Hair in bunches, cats eye make-up). The padlock key.... I mislaid after a few drinks and I woke up with a lovely print of that padlock on my neck!”
J for Jumpsuits: “I bought two long sleeved jumpsuits in the very early eighties, from an Australian brand ‘Saba’ […] My inspiration for the purchases was the lead singer of the Little River Band Glen Shorrock, I saw them/him in concert wearing an orangey olive military jumpsuit from a surplus store. Instant jumpsuit lust!”
H for Horrockses: “I remember photos of my mum wearing dresses made from Horrocks cotton. Not surprising really as both my mum and Grandma worked at the factory on New Hall Lane Preston, they worked different shifts and I was swapped over at the factory gates…”
Interactions such as these make the work behind the series all worth it for the staff involved. We love seeing our objects used as the starting point for wider conversations about fashion history!
A core goal of the LFA series was to provide a different kind of access to the collections while in-person visits were temporarily suspended because of our New Museum work. We are proud to have achieved that, and are so glad that the series has struck a chord with our online audience. This connection has become even more valuable while the museum is temporarily closed, and while we curators have become ‘socially distanced’ from our collections. We can’t wait to get back into the stores and take you behind the scenes again. In the meantime, look out for the final few episodes of the series, which will be filmed not in the museum ‘bunkers’, but in our own homes!
Stay up to date with the London’s Fashion Alphabet series here.
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Find out how we put a royal mourning dress, worn by Queen Victoria, on display as part of our Disease X exhibition.