When Britain really did rule the waves, the high-point of her Britannia arrogance and verve was the 1851 exhibition. A huge house of glass – a ‘crystal palace’ – was constructed in Hyde Park. Queen Victoria, her handsome consort Albert and their 9 children were resplendent in matching costumes: a visual hit of majesterial alchemy. Exhibits from the Empire wowed crowds who had never left seen Dover’s white cliffs, as well as foreign guests and exhibitors who wanted to display the latest designs, inventions and innovations. 100 years later, to cheer ourselves up after WW2, Britain decided to hold another exhibition based on those same national pride principles, albeit now in a world where not only was the Empire and our certainty shrinking, those participating and attending had survived a war beyond all wars and still six years later wanted some fun and optimism after nearly a decade of post-war rationing.
The 1951 Exhibition saw the building of The Southbank: a concrete modernist Ark of artistic endeavour cutting a sharp swathe across the recently bombed southern side of the Thames: from Royal Festival Hall, to National Theatre, art lived on here in its mid-century absolutism. The glass house which had encased the original exhibition was bombed and destroyed in its South London suburban location; what people needed was a boost, a sense of hope, yet like all British institutions, one founded upon a memory, an old idea made good, a sense of the past, of continuity into new ideas.
Which leads me to vintage: when I started buying old clothes, they were that, old clothes, secondhand was the name used and they were: 60s cocktail dresses bought from charity shops, deco bags at jumble sales, Victoriana from Portobello, as a teenager my penchant for silk velvet grew unabated as I would forego supper to buy something which I believed enchanted. I can’t quite remember when secondhand morphed into vintage: perhaps when the prices went up? Perhaps when others en masse showed how they too shared my love affair with the old, with the stories, the craftsmenship and the unique beauty these clothes hold in their seams and darts.
Last Friday, my mother, my god daughter Zoe, my old friend Sukie and my 3 month old baby all went to Vintage at Southbank. An homage to all things nostalgic curated by the Hemingways of Red or Dead infamy, to celebrate 60 years since the 1951 with a party/shopathon/fete/festival celebration of Twentieth Century modes in music, art, design and fashion. Transgenerational, we moved from Abigail’s Party installation, to retro Art School printing class. But it was the shopping, oh my friends the shopping, where my girls of all ages swooped on pieces of beauty, while my baby snoozed on magnificently. You see he was already wearing the best in vintage: for I had prized onto him that morning a wondrous 1950s playsuit, baby shower gift from the lovely Mica, offset with a red and black check pair of M&S Vans. I am sure if he could speak he would say ‘Mummy vintage rocks’. Somehow too vintage has become a noun and for that I applaud last weekend, as a celebration of the best in past memories reshaped into something tantalising and hopeful.
The next day we went to Kew Gardens: both for Jeremy and Dukey their Palm House debuts. For a still-standing glass palace and a relic of Victorian splendour in a cozy corner of South West London, I can recommend no greater way to spend a sun-kissed day.