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How London learned to dress

The Horniman museum traces style in the capital.

New Statesman
Photo: Urban Portraits Horniman Museum

London is a leading fashion capital with arguably the most diverse and eclectic sense of style of any city in the world. The Horniman museum’s new major exhibition, The Body Adorned, explores how this sense of freedom and individuality was born.

The display includes a vast array of striking objects from the Horniman’s archives. It opens with a Papua New Guinean “Ancestor” figure from the 19th century draped in jewellery and flowing grass skirts. The grinning statue sits alongside the figure of Guanyin, a deity of compassion whose lengthened ear lobes and top knot would not look out of place on a Brick Lane art student.  In this, the first section of the exhibition, a wide range of African, Chinese and European folk costumes are featured exploring the relationship between the wearer and the messages they convey through their dress. These costumes often reflecting social status, gender, warfare, religion, marriage and death, many ideas that are important driving forces behind the way we choose to dress today.

As the exhibition progresses, we get a sense of how, through the mass movement of people caused by Britain’s colonial expansion and scientific exploration, new objects and ideas and cultural adornments have become integrated into urban trends.  Indeed, today, saris, nail bars, tattoo parlours, distended ears and a range of "body mods" have become an everyday part of the London metropolis.

Turning to the present day, interviews with Londoner’s about their relationship with their clothing and the city play out. “Everything is accepted in London,” one woman muses. Another agrees, “I like London, it makes you feel free”. There is an inescapable sense of pride in the way people talk about their dress, “we don’t have money but we still want to look nice,” says a teenager, a thick gold chain round his neck. However, these interviews also betray the way in which the city creates a certain sense of anxiety within its habitants, “I’m not part of what’s going on in the buildings,” says an old woman, “but I can’t go round the city looking scruffy”. There is an illuminating quote from a homeless man wherein he describes “wearing what he can get his hands on”. Tellingly, one man says of another, “he looks like a lay-about”, reflecting the inescapable judgments made on the basis of appearance.

By the end of the exhibition, the viewer has been offered an overview of a range of cultural ideas and practices of dress that have formed the way in which Londoners dress their bodies. Yet, there are some striking omissions. The Body Adorned entirely ignores the influence of the British fashion industry, popular culture and English heritage. There is no mention of the British high-street or the influence of celebrities, who have an undeniably far-reaching effect on the clothing choices of young Londoners. Moreover, the more interesting aspects of the exhibition are skimmed over; the relationship between contemporary fashion and religion, the power of advertising, the lure of brand names.

Given that the exhibition opened not long after the London riots, which saw hundreds of young people looting trainers from sports shops, it would, perhaps, have been interesting to reflect on the economic gap between London’s richest and poorest inhabitants. The riots told us much about those who aspire to a certain social status, which often centres on clothes appearance but which will, for the majority, remain out of their reach.

The Body Adorned is on display until 6 January 2013.