In Brighton, India is eternally present in the Indo-Saracenic flight of fantasy that is Brighton Pavilion, an erstwhile Regent’s pleasure palace. Inspired by Mughal architecture, it stands like a footnote to fantasies of an exotic East. Its bulbous domes and spires rise amidst the bare coastal sunshine of South East England, seeming to hover like a mirage within the grounds of its restored Regency gardens.
Former stables built in the same grand style as the adjacent pavilion now house The Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, and a costume collection! Currently there is an exhibition Fashion and the Flag, curated to celebrate the year in which Britain enjoyed a supersized jamboree of a diamond Jubilee and hosting the Olympics, it started back in the summer and ends November 25th. It’s small, around 20 pieces in all including accessories, but an interesting slice of heritage-inspired British fashion. Apart from the Barbour jacket which was made especially to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee, none of the pieces on display were created especially for 2012 or the exhibition, but represent the place of the Union Jack as an enduring reference point for designers.
It seems particularly fitting that within the spaces of the Royal Pavilion, inspired by the splendor of Mughal architecture and the taste for an imagined exotic East, that an equally exotic aesthetic is expressed through the Union Jack inspired designs. As much as anything, this collection seems to represent the way in which British fashion has absorbed the influences of sub-cultural movements and street wear so these markers of rebellion are now part of the language of luxury brands, and as much a part of heritage as the symbols of tradition which they sought to rail against.
…and the Fashion and The Flag exhibition provides much sartorial food for thought. With Union Jack inspired pieces including those by John Rocha, Alexander McQueen, Jasper Conran, Alice Temperley, Barbour, Aquascutum and Vivienne Westwood. What this exhibition is about at a more profound level is British-ness as a form of “dressing up” and the eternal preoccupation with status and belonging.
All of the designs in this small but incisive collection are about making a statement, although iconoclasm is a departure point in some whilst others are more an exercise in a very jolly sort of British patriotism- hence the Barbour and Aquascutum jackets which tick all sorts of boxes about British eccentricity. The Jasper Conran piece is suitably stately, making use of two flags to create a gown with flowing train. The Dr Martens indicate the way in which the flag once subject to punk-rebelliousness, has been appropriated back into mainstream fashion through mass market street wear.
A deconstructed flag forms part of a complexly constructed shirt by John Rocha. The accompanying exhibition label notes that Ireland-based Rocha’s Chinese and Portuguese heritage and international career, makes him well-placed to understand British fashion and design. This points to the way in which symbols of Britishness such as the Union Jack have entred a global language of contemporary fashion and commerce since the late 1970s. In turn, bombast and satire sizzles from the McQueen and Westwood designs, highlighting the alternative sub-cultural history of reinventing symbols of Britishness.
Alexander McQueen especially, played on the ideal of the artist as a unique creative genius to create and sell fashion, deliberately iconoclastic whilst building highly successful commercial business. McQueen is represented here by the knitted intarsia dress, not exactly an outré piece, but like the immensely popular knuckle-duster topped McQueen clutches, one way in which the reputation built by the high-art of his out-of-this-world catwalk creations distilled into highly marketable and covetable product.
The one pictured here at the exhibition takes the form of a flag draped over a voluminous tutu, the folds and swathes of which suggest air and luminosity, suspending the wearer in a cloud of tulle. Westwood’s Union Jacks (made especially for her collections from silk) look hand painted and aged, suggesting ancient lineage battled out on a horse in a field somewhere; often parody literally rips through the very fabric of her designs. Her use of quintessential symbols of Britishness plays with the hierarchies of pomp, ceremony and unspoken sumptuary laws upon which they rest. Throughout, the tension Westwood creates between form and symbol underscores the “inventedness” of tradition.
Within the space of the Royal Pavillion, it is impossible to ignore the dialogue they create with this wonderful piece of Indo-sarancenic architecture. The Mughal-inspired Pavilion and Union Jacks may seem disperate, but both are seeped in the aesthetics of English heritage, provoking a sense of familiarity through the exotic.
In the splendour of the surrounding Pavilion, the Union Jack emblazoned designs feel much like an ode to an imagined exotic West.
*See the brillant chapter by Rebecca Arnold ‘Vivienne Westwood’s Anglomania,’ in The Englishness of English Dress, Christopher Breward, Becky Conekin and Caroline Cox, eds, (Berg, 2002)