The Museum of London’s fascinating and concise exhibition is a real pleasure to wonder through from start to finish.
From M&S to couture, the influence on fashion that Jewish people (many of whom were escaping persecution) have had on the fashion industry can not be underestimated as this clear and poignant exhibition makes clear.
Taking visitors through the story of how so many Jewish people came to London and many of whom found their livelihoods through the fashion and textile industries through to the styles that they created and how their influence can still be felt on the high street today. But this is not simply a display of many of the garments that they helped design, many personal stories are told throughout the exhibition giving it an even more humane feel that is captivating, finding out more about the families and their backgrounds makes you appreciate even more their skills and eye for detail.
The way in which the exhibition has been laid out is very clever as well, making you feel as though you are walking through the streets of London as how many entering the city would have experienced it, making it feel extremely immersive (I particularly enjoyed the way in which a corridor representing the Central Line links how those successful enough made the transition from the East End to the West End).
It all begins with great poignancy, as you are first greeted by the luggage in which immigrants used to travel to the UK with, while a video reveals how quickly the Jewish population rose in the UK as the world began to change and became increasingly dangerous. Visitors are then whisked to the East End of London streets, cleverly replicated with details and you can learn more about the incredible skills of many of the families living in the area, thorough gorgeous photographs and stories that don’t fail to make an impact as you wonder around. You learn more about the Spitalfields’ Jewish Free School and the different eduThe cation style for boys and girls attending and see how the skills from their families were passed down. Everything in these early rooms feels vivid and it feels very gently educational.
There is no doubting that the high quality of the garments that were produced and have clearly been so carefully preserved – including many beautifully tailored suits that pay testimony to the skill of the designer and workers who created them. In the West End section of the exhibition, there is a dazzling collection of outfits selected – including outfits designed by David Sassoon, who worked with the Royal family, with Princess Diana proving to be a particular fan with one of her maternity outfits prominently displayed. Throughout there is elegance and style, as seen through the work of the Rahvis sisters, who while (as this exhibition admits) were good ‘copyists’ yet their designs were simple and elegant – even if there was sometimes controversy attached to their names.
The exhibition is also able to cleverly to expand its focus slightly, by highlighting the broader range of cultural immigration within the East End and how communities worked together – including that of Jamaican tailor Winston Giscombe who worked for Julius & Co, a Jewish owned tailoring factory in Whitechapel and Anwara Begum, a seamstress who undertook piece work from home whilst looking after her four children. As their stories and so many others recounted through this exhibition, it is the stories not necessarily the garments on display that really make the exhibition what it is.
Fashion City is a display which very capably charts the evolution of the fashion industry through the eyes of Jewish Londoners, including helping to make the high street develop through brands such as Marks & Spencer, Moss Bros, Wallis and Chelsea Girl (now River Island). A fascinating journey from start to finish.
By Emma Clarendon
Fashion City is on display at The London Museum Docklands until the 14th April 2024.