It's impossible to talk about the history of fashion without heavily referencing the iconic Antwerp Six, a young design collective that changed the face of commercial fashion way back in the mid-1980s. These young pioneers were followed a few years later by one of fashion's most elusive vanguards; Martin Margiela established his 'Maison' in 1989 and went on to redefine minimalism and logo culture. His critically-acclaimed collections never featured labels; instead, every piece was hand-finished with four plain white stitches in the place the label should have been. His intimate shows were amongst the first to evoke tears from a crowd of hard-nosed fashion editors, and key pieces such as his 'Tabi' boots toed the line (quite literally) between commercial and experimental, forcing the rest of fashion to catch up. Finally, in 1995, Raf Simons was first introduced to the fashion world as a little-known designer with a new menswear brand focussed around youth culture. Back then, few could have predicted that the designer sending pale, skinny street-cast skateboarders down the runway would become one of the most powerful men in fashion, eventually being chosen as Creative Director of Christian Dior. These designers all have one thing in common; they all studied at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, a school which defines Antwerp as a city at the top of any fashion lover's bucket list. I was recently lucky enough to spend a weekend in Antwerp and, between visits to Dries van Noten's flagship store and swigs of Belgian beer, visit the city's ModeMuseum.
Located on Nationalestraat, the city's main shopping area, the ModeMuseum is an impressive building which comes complete with its own specialist fashion bookshop. Tickets to the 'Birds of Paradise' exhibition were extremely reasonable (only £3 for a student ticket), and the exhibition is a comprehensive insight into the rarely-seen work of plumassiers. 'Birds of Paradise' is, first and foremost, a collaborative exhibition. Divided into twenty sections, the history of feathers in fashion is narrated with pieces loaned from Maison LeMarié, the French couture house behind some of the most spectacular pieces in fashion history. The opening piece is taken from Thierry Mugler's Spring/Summer 1997 Couture collection, and literally depicts 'une femme papillon' - as opposed to the feathers being added for decoration, the exotic plumage appears to be an extension of the woman herself. Originally worn by Simonetta Gianfelici, the dress is an example of the popular 'Femme Oiseau' image conjured up during the era of Romanticism, with the feathers symbolising lightness and innocence.
|Thierry Mugler Haute Couture|
It wasn't just fashion; the exhibition was multi-media, teaming photographs by Irving Penn with ShowSTUDIO fashion films & gigantic feather sculptures by English artist Kate MccGwire. However, the clothes were the real stars of the show - legendary creations from Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent and Coco Chanel were all on display, and the connotations behind the use of feathers were explained. Some designers chose to use feathers which were extremely cheap to buy, such as pigeon and rooster feathers which would later be dyed or hand-painted. Belgian designer Ann Demeulemeester was particularly fond of pigeon feathers to the extent that she would wear a feather on a necklace every day, an element that she included in every collection. In a quote included in the exhibition guide, she described a pigeon feather as " poetry of the mundane, a form of perfection that is to be found on the street by everyone".
|Pigeon feather waistcoat, Ann Demeulemeester|
At the other end of the spectrum was a piece taken from the archive of the iconic German actress Marlene Dietrich. Renowned as a fashion icon, Dietrich is said to have treated every piece of her clothing as a work of art, and was known to be particularly meticulous when working with designers. Proof of this fact comes in the form of a full-length white coat made from the feathers of over 300 swans, worn over an evening gown made with 227,000 rhinestones. Swan and goose feathers were (and still are) considered the epitome of luxury, frequently used in haute couture. The 'White & Black Swan' display featured two centrepieces both designed by McQueen - on the one side, there is the ethereal white feather dress designed by Sarah Burton for the first collection after McQueen's death. Here, a white bodice is adorned with goose feathers and teamed with a full ostrich feather skirt - a look said to symbolise purity and romance. This is in stark contrast to the menacing black feather dress that stands just next to, designed by Alexander as a direct reference to his love of crows. Known for his dark fascinations with the macabre, the dress served as one of the showpieces in his 2009 'Horn of Plenty' collection. Thousands of dyed black goose feathers were moulded into a corset which extended and crept over the model's head and face - speaking on his inspirations, McQueen stated that it was always his intention to 'transpose the beauty of a bird to women'. This statement is the one which best summarises this incredible exhibition, focussed entirely around the delicate balance between beauty and nature.
|Goose feather dress, Alexander McQueen A/W 2009|
|Ostrich & Goose feather dress, Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen S/S 2011|
|Swan feather coat, worn by Marlene Dietrich|
|Raf Simons for Christian Dior Haute Couture, A/W 2013|
|Silk crepe cape trimmed with rooster feathers, Chanel Haute Couture 1925|