Stripped down

Discover a secret side to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Concise Dictionary of Dress
Blythe House, London W14

Blythe House is an impressive building. A vast, Victorian, red-brick monolith that looks like a former asylum, it once housed the HQ of the Post Office Savings Bank. Within these walls, 7,000 clerks worked in gender-separated units, processing thousands of savings transactions
a day. It is now a museum outpost, housing the reserve collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Imagine spending the night here - you can almost sense the ghosts stirring as you walk through the turnstile.

Visitors to the latest installation, commissioned by the visual arts group Artangel, don't get to spend the night, but the place makes itself felt nonetheless. Upon entry, there's a tiny stripping away of identity: in a small, shabby office with plastic chairs, you are first security-checked, then you have your photo taken for a pass. You are then asked to leave your bag and mobile phone. Then you wait to join a tour led by an Artangel guide, who will tell you that you must leave questions to the end.

Artangel has been behind some ambitious projects, the best known of which is the plaster cast of an east London house made by the sculptor Rachel Whiteread in 1993. The Art­angel team excel as location scouts, and visitors to their exhibitions have found themselves
in some interesting places over the years. It might be a disused building, some vast echoing warehouse, say, or a tucked-away archi­tectural gem, quite possibly on the fringes of the city.

For "The Concise Dictionary of Dress", we find ourselves a short walk from the Kensington Olympia branch of the District Line - where trains rarely seem to go. It is co-curated by the dress curator Judith Clark and the psychoanalyst and author Adam Phillips. Like many of Artangel's projects, it has taken a long time to realise - about two years, in fact, from conception to birth. A long gestation, yes, but it certainly starts with a bang. After ascending in an industrial lift, weaving our way through a corridor and up again via a spiralling staircase, we are led out through a small door and on to the roof, squinting into the sun.

It takes a while to stop marvelling at the panoramic view of London, but we are even­tually directed to a cupola. Here is a woman in
a bonnet and a late-18th-century dress. She has her back to us. She shimmers in translucent resin, the stiff, icy folds of her skirts swept back, as if ruffled by a strong wind. On the A5-sized cards we are duly handed, we read that this work is called Armoured. We are offered various definitions for "armoured". Some of them appear contradictory: "Hardened for the elements; soft-centred." Others, once unwrapped, reveal a beautifully articulated truth: "Inviting attack by being prepared for it, provocative." And like much of Phillips's writing, this one is teasing: "The need to make undressing a new kind of pleasure."

There are 11 exhibits in all, each accompanied by a series of sometimes cryptic definitions. It doesn't seem much, but there's a lot to think about in the hour allotted to visitors. And as we are guided through each display - up and down stairs, through corridors, the dust tickling our nostrils - we glimpse objects in glass cabinets. We want to stop and examine these objects that are not part of our tour; the backdrop clamours for our attention.
But before we can ponder such a question fully, out jumps another, far more arresting exhibit. Through garments made transparent by projected light, Tight shows a cut-out woman bent double. This is 19th-century pornography, and we are invited to view it through a narrow gap in a tiny utility room, which we enter on our own. "The holding in that is a holding out for something," we read. And "in readiness". We are halfway through and, so far, down in the corridors and rooms, everything has been quite museum-like, playfully cerebral, while this packs an unexpected, thrilling punch.

“The Concise Dictionary" is an exhibition bristling with ideas and intrigue. However, it is let down by a sense of awkwardness in the way the work is presented: the clumsy handing out of cards to be read in a group; and, worse still, the requests to remain silent, to leave questions to the end. This prevents the exchange, the dialogue, the questions that would enhance our experience.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope