Review: Thea Porter exhibition

Last Thursday evening I went to the Fashion and Textile Museum to see the Thea Porter exhibition.  I’ll confess: the exhibition – well, I needed to think about it a little bit.  I’ve never quite understood boho chic *cowers slightly at the thought of glowering readers* – not that the designs and prints aren’t beautiful, but more the floaty frippery that seems to characterise the look.  It makes me wonder what the difference is between a boho-style garment and a massive offcut of pretty fabric: so long as both are wrapped around your shoulders and fastened with a pin, you’re all set.  I’m seasoning my sentiments with humour, but you get the drift.  Clearly I’m missing something, if only appreciation for the look and where it all began.  Plus, this is partly what exhibitions are all about – learning – and besides, not visiting the FTM for several months would’ve been too weird; it’s one of my favourite museums.

So off I went.  The colours were very inspiring, but I was most fascinated to learn about Thea herself; she seems to have been a fascinating person.  The one sadness I felt, looking around, reading and listening, was that she wasn’t really suited to the business side of the fashion industry.  In many ways, it cost her dearly.  Creative vision though, she had in spades: it takes a lot of depth and breadth to wring out such variety from one or two simple shapes.  Dotted around the exhibition are headphones, through which you can listen to her daughter, Venetia, reading excerpts from her unpublished autobiography/scrapbook.  I won’t retell the story of Thea Porter’s life, but it is one of those cautionary tales that explains why so many current designers are so plugged in to the financial side of their business.  Given the influence that Porter has – and continues to have – on fashion, it is a shame that her story ended sadly.  I feel oddly sentimental about it, partly because I can identify with some of her character traits.

Anyway – enough borderline schmaltz!  Here come the photos:

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This first group is a selection from the ground floor of the exhibition, which showcases the early part of Porter’s career.  I liked the curation here: the vinyl records and photographic backdrops really helped to bring the designs alive, and the references to other people of the time was great for contextualisation.  Sometimes I think that fashion exhibitions should be more like this: if arrangements like this don’t show context, they show the designer’s inspiration.  Incidentally, the corridor leading up to this atrium had lots of childhood photographs and memorabilia, so you really got the measure of where Thea found her inspiration and the sights of her childhood in Beirut.

These photographs are of some shirts created for Pink Floyd.  The light was tricky here, so apologies in advance.  The embroidery and tapestry on some of these was gorgeous:

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On the upper floor were more commercial collections.  The first one, Paris, is the first to feature lace and uses about three or four colours.  It is testament to Porter that these don’t look boring (unless you put them next to her usual colourful fare!):

TheaPorter_07 TheaPorter_08I particularly liked this cream embroidered dress.  It wasn’t part of the Paris collection, but it does continue on from the understated look and I can’t help but be charmed by yet more surface embroidery.  I think this might be my favourite dress.  The beading around the neckline was also beautiful.  On loop was an extended interview Thea gave to the Today show, in which she detailed the man hours that go into intricate finishing like this – just in case you weren’t impressed with it by looking at the garments themselves!  You never know…

Last were some collaborations with other designers, or up-and-coming print designers.  It was nice to be reminded of the eye-popping prints that made Porter’s name in the first place, but here they were given a refreshing twist by new eyes.  There should be more teamwork like this in the fashion world.

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All in all, a great afternoon and I’m glad I went even though the 1970s aren’t usually my cup of tea, from a fashion design perspective.  (As an aside, I really like disco music – always gets me off a chair!).  Thea Porter, on the other hand, was an inspiration.  I left with a newfound appreciation for her life’s work.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jan Horox says:

    I would just add a comment as someone who was studying fashion in 1970 – what seems fairly lightweight and frippery now was actually very cutting edge and inventive at the time. Natalie this is not a criticism on your writing which I always enjoy. Re: the financial aspect of a fashion business – it has destroyed many great designers and some not so well know. Not wanting to name names but a number of great designers from the 70/80’s lost all – the one’s who succeeded often were lucky enough to have family financial backing or family financial experts who saw them through. Teaching in Art schools benefitted from this – and new generations followed on. i don’t think its any easier now nor do I think fashion courses teach any business skills at all.

    1. Thank you Jan – especially for the insight into what happens or can happen when running a fashion label. The ugly business and/or financial side is often a hefty elephant in the room and I admired the fact that the FTM didn’t shirk from it in this exhibition.
      Some degree courses do have modules in running a fashion business (I’m thinking of UAL) but I don’t know if they’re compulsory. In any case, today’s students feel financial pressure so early on I imagine they’ll be very savvy about money!
      P.S. I feel a little guilty about my glib humour…the 1970s were definitely a seminal moment in fashion history and I hope that came across too.

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