Finding the Fashioning Winter exhibition amid all the Christmas cheer at Somerset House is rather like embarking on a treasure hunt, since the curators have eschewed the traditional gallery format and dotted the display about at various spots around the building’s grand hallways.
It makes for an unusual experience; I kept going back on myself, and spent a good deal of time gazing forlornly at the map and wondering exactly which hallway I was in. That said, once you get your bearings, there’s plenty to enjoy. Pulling together the trends – though this term is used loosely – of the colder months, the display flits across centuries to provide the definitive guide to frozen fashion.
Start in the South Wing, where you will see images of men braving the cold during the First World War, wrapped up in furs and woollen hats to stave off the icy weather in the trenches. The captions tell of the fascination in the British media with what soldiers wore on the front line, and reveal nuggets like the fact that some tied brown paper around their torsos as an extra layer.
Another display, wrapped rather inconveniently (for viewing purposes) around a staircase, investigates the tendency to wear white in the winter, and the ongoing significance of luxury materials like pearls and lace. You’ll have to crane your next to get a good look at the various fluttery and ethereal gowns on display, not least a mesmerising John Paul Gaultier dress from 2009, but it’s worth it.
It’s a lucky dip of fashion, popular culture and design. One exhibit considers the enduring popularity of skating and skiing; as I now know, the world first water-based ice rink opened in Chelsea in 1927. The photographs of poised 1920s skaters, and the pair of well-preserved skating boots from the 1930s, will make you long for the days when the pastime conveyed glamour, rather than Christmas commercialism (although the Somerset House rink, just outside, did look spectacular on the evening I visited). The skiing display is equally fun; there’s a limited edition James Bond skiing doll who bears a striking resemblance to Ken (of ‘Barbie and’), and what might just be the original Christmas novelty jumper from the 1950s.
Around the building at Nelson Square – which I found after much map-consulting – there’s a wall of pictures taken by the renowned surrealist photographer Angus McBean specifically for Christmas cards, all of them wildly untraditional. The 1951 nautical-themed card, featuring a replica beach scene against a disconcerting, bleak backdrop, is wonderfully quirky, although you hope his self-portrait cards – in one he is pictured naked and upside down – don’t give perennial festive oversharers any bright ideas. The sailors taking a rather unspiritual peek at a latter day Botticelli’s Venus will make you smile, while other images are simply confounding.
It’s all rather blink and you’ll miss it; I almost walked by the screens in the alcoves of Seamen’s Hall showing clips from fairy-tale inspired fashion shows (Narnia and the Snow Queen among them, naturally). And with so much else on at Somerset House this winter, from the ice rink itself to exhibitions of Egon Schiele’s and Guy Bourdin’s work, I wouldn’t make a trip specially. But if you need to stretch your legs after skating or happen to be in the area, it’s certainly one of the more novel exhibitions on in London this winter.
Fashioning Winter, until 11th January 2015, Somerset House, admission free