‘Prêt-a-Toucher’ – Inside A Very Special Fashion Archive

Fashion exhibitions are generally curated and presented is such a way as to distance the clothing from the viewer – a ‘do not touch’ rule applies.  It’s not hard to understand why, considering the need to preserve and protect the fabrics and construction.  However, it significantly limits our ability to understand the garments and to a degree forces us to see them only as aesthetic objects in static form.  So much about clothes is in the construction, underpinnings, drape, weight, linings and stitching – the heart, the soul – especially in couture, which is made entirely by hand.  You need to look inside to see it through the eyes of the craftsmen and women who made it.

The Temporary Fashion Museum at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam allows just that.  With an exhibition presenting the archive of Eva Maria Hatschek, a Swiss woman who had an extraordinary collection of clothes designed, but (oddly in today’s terms) not made, by designers including Hubert de Givenchy, Coco Chanel and other couture masters of the 1940’s and beyond.

tmm_collected_by_1_foto_johannes_schwartzCollected by Eva Maria Hatschek – Image: Johannes Schwartz

Eva Maria Hatschek was a great appreciator of fabrics, colour and texture and from the 1960’s to 1980’s kept a diary of swatches, photographs and notes about outfits she would have designed by the great designers mentioned above then created by her own seamstresses, usually from Swiss textiles.  Incredibly, at that time (from the late 1940’s)  she would buy the paper patterns for the garments from the great designers and her staff would amend and cut them out and construct them in the fabric of her choosing.  She never threw anything away and the collection is comprised of 1700 pieces in total. 

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While discussing Mrs Hatschek’s collection with the museum staff they explained that it was unclear as to whether there were any limitations on the fabric selection imposed by the designers.  Given our current age of intense copyright and IP protection the selling of fashion house-created patterns to individuals to use at their will seems strangely open and relaxed, although it was very typical of that time.  Some of the fashion houses even provided labels for Mrs Hatschek to have sewn into the garments. 

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Eva Maria Hatschek not only wore custom made pieces by her seamstresses, but she had a vast collection of couture created by Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy and Coco Chanel.   Incredibly, Mrs Hatchek wore most pieces once only or not at all.  She was a true collector and appreciator of clothing for the sake of the beauty of the textiles, the techniques and craft, not ‘fashion’ as a notion of perpetual newness.  There were no fashion magazines found at her residence, only hundreds of archive boxes and her sketchbooks full of notes on the pieces she had bought and had made.

The fascinating exhibition is displayed as an industrial shelved archive and was made possible by the Swiss Textile Collection, which took custody of the immense collection (of which only one third is available to view in this exhibition) from Mrs Hatschek’s family after she died.  The Swiss Textile Collection wished for viewers to be able to interact with the textiles and understand the nature of the garments through close inspection and touch.  It’s a great privilege to be able to inspect in detail the work of such skilled crafts-people and understand the techniques of stitching and finishing they employed.

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There is a beautiful ceremony around the process of viewing the pieces.  You are first presented with a catalogue, from which you can select garments/outfits to view.  The exhibition staff then locate the appropriate box in the open-shelved archive and once gloved, lay the garments out on tissue paper for the viewer to unfold and inspect.  I see a Chanel three-piece boucle suit which is archived as an ensemble with a silk shirt and matching scarf and boucle shawl.  The textiles are incredible and it is evident that the boucle’ yarn has been woven for the three piece suit, knitted for the shawl and crocheted for the shawl trim.  It shows a great understanding and exploration of textile techniques and creation of complimentary pieces – the same way a fashion designer might explore textiles within a collection and extend their use in different ways across different garments.  It is also a reminder of a historic way of dressing where an outfit was designed and created to be worn as a whole, without styling variation, in stark contrast to the contemporary way of dressing. 

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The Chanel suit reveals inner markings on the waistband which are believed to be the signature of one of Mrs Hatschek’s seamstresses – a star-like motif that can be found on a number of garments.  It’s a hallmark of pride and craft and is a wonderful secret that would have been contained had these garments been exhibited in a traditional way on mannequins. 

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Exclusive fashion made inclusive.  The way it should be and poignantly in line with fashion’s current digital evolution.

The exhibition entitled Collected by Eva Maria Hatschek runs until May 8th.  For further insight into the great fashion collector read the Instituut’s interview with Rosmarie Amacher of the Swiss Textile Collection.  

Header image by Johannes Schwartz

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2 thoughts on “‘Prêt-a-Toucher’ – Inside A Very Special Fashion Archive

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