AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 4.

As anyone who has ever met me can attest, I am no fashionista: I dress not to stand out but to blend in. But once I realized that truly high-end fashion, the haute couture of runway shows, often isn’t meant to be worn in any kind of real-world setting, I began to take more of an interest in fashion. Once I got past the knee-jerk, who-would-actually-wear-this-stuff? mindset and started thinking about couture as wearable art, it become much more intriguing.

The Met’s special fashion exhibit, “AngloMania,” is a case in point. Much of the garb on display is outrageous and completely unwearable, but it’s marvelous not just despite that but also because of it. The exhibit revels in wild juxtapositions, the “tradition and transgression” of the exhibit’s subtitle. Consequently, the curators have, for example, displayed one of Queen Victoria’s black mourning dresses next to an Alexander McQueen dress with a ghoulish memento mori in the form of a “spine corset” (external aluminum ribs and vertebrae) designed by jeweler Shaun Leane.

That particular pairing is meant to evoke British pageantry surrounding death, exemplified by Victoria — whose formal bereavement following the death of her husband lasted more than two decades — and reimagined by contemporary artists such as Leane and McQueen. That whole exhibit, in fact, examines how mythologized British culture — grand deathbeds hung with black crepe, well-bred gentlemen’s clubs, bounteous English country gardens — affect contemporary British fashion.

It’s all a bit high-concept, but I understand exactly what the curators mean when they write, “Englishness is a romantic construct, formed by fictive and imaginary narratives,” created by Europeans, Americans and British people themselves. In high school, my girlfriends and I watched the five-hour BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice numerous times, nearly always in single sittings, so that we could coo dreamily over Jane Austen’s classic story and, of course, Colin Firth, who played Darcy. We didn’t care that the BBC had souped up the melodrama and downplayed much of Austen’s wit. We conveniently overlooked the dire economic straits of the Bennet sisters and the stifling community in which they lived. All we wanted to do was revel in this glorious fairy tale world, so much more beautiful and charming than our own. We concluded that an English accent alone could make a man much more attractive. We happily embraced the romantic myth of England.

That same sort of giddy joy can be seen in Vivienne Westwood’s gorgeous interpretation of a traditional hunt ensemble as a cascade of red wool, black velvet and leather and Hussein Chalayan’s quirky garden-inspired dress, in which hundreds of pink nylon rosettes turn the mannequin into a kind of human topiary. Other fashions sneered at the romance of England instead of embracing it: Aggressive punk ensembles from Westwood and Malcolm McLaren seemed ready to attack the dignified, buttoned-up suits in the same room.

But what do punks have to do with crisp English dandys in the first place? The accompanying text explained: “Like dandyism, Punk — and the atavistic, brutal aesthetic it championed — marked a paradigm shift in fashion, introducing the language of post-modernism in much the same way that dandyism introduced the language of modernism.” So … okay. Frankly, I’m not sure I buy all the hyper-intellectual commentary, though I got a kick out of it: It reminded me of my days as an English major.