Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life

Fashion Museum in Bath – Part 2

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The final section of the Fashion Museum includes the “Dress of the Year” exhibits. Each year since 1963, the museum has held an annual fashion award. A leading fashion expert is asked to choose a dress or outfit that represents the latest and most influential ideas in contemporary fashion. The selected outfit is donated to the museum by the designer or maker.

Only some are on display at the moment and these mostly represent the most recent outfits. This cut-off ballgown which is actually worn with black silk trousers is design by Christian Dior. The embroidery is exquisite.

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This was the 2013 dress by Christopher Kane: It’s an interesting dress – until you get close up you don’t realise that the black strips are gaffer tape! Weirdly, you wouldn’t expect it, but it just seems to work.

2013

This creation, I’m not so sure about. It is the 2014 outfit by Gareth Pugh. Yes, you are right, it is made of plastic and consists of a plastic coat and calico trousers. Pugh has been described as the “latest addition to a long tradition of fashion-as-performance-art”

2014

It’s difficult to know whether these most recent Dress of the Years represent contemporary fashion well. I think it was interesting to look back at the older dresses. I can certainly see the defining features of sixties, seventies and eighties fashion here, but perhaps it is more difficult to see anything defining the decades for the last three decades.

A tour of the Assembly Rooms is included in the price of the Fashion Museum ticket, and I particularly wanted to take a look at the Assembly rooms. Every year in September, a Regency Ball is held in the Assembly Rooms and it has long been on my list to go to this ball. It is certainly a beautiful setting and hey I want to live out my Elizabeth Bennet fantasies.

I almost missed the tour, though! I got to the appointed meeting point outside the shop well ahead of time, but seeing no one was yet there, I just popped in the shop to look around for a few minutes. Big mistake! The tour left without me; they certainly didn’t hang around! After a bit of misdirection and finding myself on the wrong side of locked door, I eventually found the tour group! I’m very glad I did as the tour was excellent. So, here is a short history of the Assembly Rooms.

The Assembly Rooms were designed by John Wood, the Younger in 1769. They were built to serve the newly built fashionable area which included The Circus, Queen Square and the Royal Crescent and were for balls, concerts and gambling. Originally they were called the “Upper Rooms” or the “New Assembly Rooms”. The previously built Assembly Rooms near the abbey became known as the Lower Assembly Rooms, but they closed soon after the Upper Rooms opened. The Assembly Rooms opened with a grand ball in 1771.

The Assembly Rooms are composed of four main function rooms; a 30 m (100-foot-long) ballroom — the largest Georgian interior in Bath; the tea room; the card room; and the octagon.

The first room we visited was the Ball Room. Jane Austen set two of her novels in Bath, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.  They both mention the Assembly Rooms.

Mrs Allen was so long in dressing, that they did not enter the ball-room till late. The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could. As for Mr Allen, he repaired directly to the card-room, and left them to enjoy a mob by themselves.

— Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
It was certainly true that the Assembly Rooms could be very crowded. One concert in 1779 was apparently attended by around 800 ladies and gentlemen and 60 members of the nobility were present. The high ceilings provided good ventilation on crowded ball nights; I can just imagine how hot it got with all that dancing and the crush of all those bodies. The windows set at this high level also prevented outsiders from peering in.

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Ballroom

Bath’s most famous Master of Ceremonies was Beau Nash, legendary gambler and socialite. In Georgian days, The Master of Ceremonies would arrange “society’s social life” – balls, dances and social gatherings and ensure their smooth running. Nash played a leading role in making Bath the most fashionable resort in 18th-century England. He drew up a code of conduct for polite behaviour in society; swearing was banned, as was the carrying of swords to reduce the risk of disputes ending in violence. He put in place rules that governed what time public balls could begin and end and that the opening dance was always to be a Minuet.

In Regency times, the Bath season ran from October to early June, during which the Upper Rooms held two balls a week, a dress ball on Monday evenings and a fancy ball on Thursdays. The ball consisted of two hours of minuets, followed by an hour of more lively country dances until tea at 9 o’clock. More country dances followed until the evening’s entertainment finished, promptly at 11 o’clock.

There are nine chandeliers in the rooms, five in the ballroom. The most famous manufacturer of chandeliers in the Georgian period was William Parker. Parker was given the task of making 3 chandeliers for the Tea Room and Jonathan Collet was commissioned to make 5 chandeliers for the Ballroom. However, one of the arms fell during a dance in the Ballroom and Collet was asked to remove his chandeliers. Parker made the five chandeliers that are now in the Ballroom.

Unfortunately, Collet had problems paying back the money he owed the Assembly Rooms so it was agreed to keep the large chandelier as long as it was made safe. It now hangs in the Octagon Room.

Parker’s design for five Ballroom chandeliers are considered to be among the finest eighteenth century chandeliers in the world. He abandoned the  style for chandeliers which incorporated a large ball as the centre from which the arms extended. Instead he designed a vase shape. The chandeliers were originally lit by candles, but later gas lighting was used and today the electric cables run through the gas pipes that were installed during Victorian times.

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During the Second World War, the chandeliers were removed for safe-keeping to caves in Bristol. Our guide wasn’t sure, but I suspect they were stored in Redcliffe Caves under St Mary Redcliffe Church. This was a fortunate move as during the Bath Blitz, one of the retaliatory raids on England known as the Baedeker Blitz, the Assembly Rooms were hit and badly damaged. The ballroom ceiling had to repaired and the cream-coloured Bath stone in the Tea Room was tinged a pink colour by the heat of the fire.

The next room we moved to was the Octagon. This room has four fireplaces and was used for gambling. Gambling was very popular in Georgian society and the Assembly Rooms catered for this by providing rooms which were open for card games every day except Sunday.

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Finally we took a look at the Tea Room, which was set out for a private function. In Georgian times, on ball nights, everyone was required to pay an extra sixpence on entrance for supper. Supper was served in the Tea Room. There were also public teas on Sundays when admission cost sixpence per person. Tea was served weak and black but sometimes with arrack and lemon. Tea was so expensive at this time that the used tea leaves were also sold afterwards from the kitchens.

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I hope you enjoyed my tour of the Fashion Museum and Assembly Rooms. If you ever find yourself in Bath, these are both very much worth a visit.

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Author: steelyseamstress

Sewing a new wardrobe

3 thoughts on “Fashion Museum in Bath – Part 2

  1. Is that hand beading and embroidery on the first dress – just lovely! And so smart to preserve the chandeliers during the war. Someone has taken great care to keep everything in perfect condition.

  2. Wow, these pics are fab! The angles make some of them look like they’re taken of a miniature dolls house.

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