The Fashion and Style gallery at the National Museum of Scotland opened in 2016 as part of a 15-year, £80 million redevelopment project. The permanent gallery presents more than 400 years of fashion history including a changing display of contemporary designs.
We recently completed a redisplay of the Cutting Edge section of the gallery, reflecting our desire to make our fashion displays more inclusive and better reflecting the societies that we serve.
Our 2019 exhibition Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk explored representations of age, disability ethnicity, gender and size in fashion, with highlights including a classic Max Mara camel wool coat with a matching hijab worn by model Halima Aden and a bustier by Chromat designed for curve model Denise Bidot.
We worked with Sinéad Burke, an advocate for disability and design, to create the world’s first mannequin of a little person to display two looks on loan that had been customised for Burke. This, combined with our wider work to reflect on our existing displays, led us to rethinking the figures on display in our permanent fashion gallery.
To achieve this, we embarked on a consultation process with peers from museums in Britain, Europe and the US along with educators, designers, and other people from across the fashion industry.
The discussions covered everything from how we can make museum spaces feel welcoming to all visitors and the importance of recognising global historical contributions to fashion in the stories we tell, to the minutiae of mannequins themselves – their colour, form, bodily proportions, facial features and styling.
One of the reoccurring themes was around the context of a fashion gallery itself and how the viewer looks at clothing differently in this environment. Is it a space for fantasy and the appreciation of artistry, or is it a space where our audiences seek representation? And how do we carve out a space between both needs?
We questioned whether the mannequin (or body) could ever truly be divorced from the clothes. Within this, we explored the ‘neutrality’ of mannequins. Can or should a mannequin ever be seen as ‘neutral’?
Discussions about mannequins’ facial features revealed findings from a focus group consultation by sector colleagues which deduced that headless or completely abstract mannequins did not receive a good response from visitors.
The original mannequins installed in 2016 were the company’s standard issue matte white. Throughout the consultation process, concerns arose that the display of garments on white mannequins plays a part in the erasure of the contributions of Black and People of Colour designers to fashion history, present and future.
The same argument could be extended to “unnaturally coloured” mannequins in bright colours or metallic shades. Ultimately, museums are spaces where many visitors desire to see representations of self and their stories, and we wanted to reflect that in this display.
Other considerations for our team included the limitations posed by the conservation requirements for museum-accessioned objects and the lifecycle of purchased mannequins, which are expensive and necessarily need to be as robust as possible to enable them to be reused.
Due to budget restrictions and sustainability goals, there is a requirement for them to be ‘re-curated’ and to be able to be reconsidered in a different context.
The result is new mannequins created in different sizes and in a palette of five shades to represent different skin tones and better reflect our society. Of course, the process is ongoing and future goals will include addressing disability representation in the display.
Our consultation with industry peers and creatives also helped us consider other ways to represent designs as worn on bodies, including the potential for using digital displays to further audience engagement. This update aligns with our strategic aims which include engaging with new audiences and connecting more people with our collections and their stories.
Georgina Ripley is the principal curator, Modern and Contemporary Design, National Museum of Scotland