Zandra Rhodes Exhibition – 50 Years of FabulousNovember 14, 2019
Zandra Rhodes is queen of the wiggle: her wiggle is iconic. Not a Marilyn Monroe-style wiggle, which starts with the hips: Rhode’s wiggle starts with the hand; a wiggly line. Her distinctive type of wiggly line appears over and over again in the Zandra Rhodes exhibition : 50 Years of Fabulous. A beautiful quilted jacket from 1977 features it, and so does a design for the San Diego Opera opera, created far more recently.
In 50 years, Zandra Rhodes has not much changed her design style, but then, most great artists don’t. Nowadays the team just pick classics from the archives and tweak them a bit to appear on the catwalk for the current season’s collection. Which is fine, because the floaty asymmetrical chiffon summer dresses from the 70s are extremely wearable today.
Zandra Rhodes Exhibition – Designs from all Eras
Pyramidal displays show the clothing from different time periods. I really like the Charles James-esque quilted jacket, and she also used quilting on other jackets and to add structure to waistbands. The influence from other countries is clear, particularly a lavish sari and salwar kameez from the “India Revisted” collection in 1985. It’s all complemented with Perspex masks and headpieces especially made for the exhibition by Piers Atkinson.
Dotted around are various pictures of Zandra herself. Her own image is certainly part of her identity – and why not? Her distinctive pink hair is still worn today, at the age of nearly 80. It probably originated in the 1970s, when she was celebrated as a “punk princess”. There are some clothes here in jersey with safety pins (though still in Zandra’s favourite hot pink) but it feels more like Rhode’s was inspired by punks than was one, really. Her rather sunny love of colour, decoration and world design influences seems to have more to do with the hippies than the nihilistic punks.
The designs she has made for the San Diego Opera’s Magic Flute in 2000 are beautiful. Here her theatricality can really come to life. They are each inspired by wildly disparate countries and time frames though. I confess I’ve never seen the opera so these designs might be in character. One outfit is ancient Egypt brought to life in turquoise and gold. One outfit looks like the Tin Man. And one, a set of majestic pink and orange robes with a pink flower garland and an Indian style pagoda hat, looks like it could be worn by her best friend, the jewellery designer and initiator of the Alternative Miss World, Andrew Logan, any day of the week. I wonder if the outfits of the contestants ever inspired her? There is certainly enough colour and pizazz in those shows for her to enjoy.
The most fascinating display shows Rhodes at work screen printing with an assistant. Because she starts the design process with the fabric, it is the most important part of the proceedings. These designs are generally conceived full scale to the width of the fabric and sometimes to the shape of the garment. Screen printing is a two-person process, as Zandra stands one side and pulls half of the print, passing the squeegee to the assistant to seamlessly complete the other half.
The design is tried on paper first, and then different colour ways are experimented with on fabric. The exhibition shows the tools and parts of the working process. The design printed on acetate becomes the blocked off screens, the paper screen prints, fabric versions and finally finished dress is shown. The skirt of the dress is scalloped around its oversized sunray design and emphasised with beading. The bodice and sleeves are printed to exactly fit.
Many of Rhode’s fabrics are displayed. They are long panels of chiffon to the ground, and because of the translucent fabric the shadows on the wall reflect the design in beautiful monochrome traceries.
Do a Drawing a Day – Even if it’s Embarrassing!
Finally, in a room jam packed with visitors who also sat on the floor while I was there, is a video of Rhodes talking about her design process. If you haven’t met her, it is a lovely way to see the way her character informs her work. She speaks about the necessity of drawing in a funny and wry way, explaining how important it is to do at least one drawing a day – even though it necessitates going out in public where people will look over your shoulder at your work in progress and might not judge it favourably. Clearly not some arrogantly impervious diva, convinced of her own genius, she shrugs and says you just have to get used to that.
Pages from her sketchpads are blown up on the walls. They show what beautiful paper she sketches on, as well as her sometimes quick, loose and of course colourful drawings.
This is an excellent exhibition for people who would like a tour of a designer who feels ubiquitous yet under appreciated. Or anyone who appreciates a cheering pop of colour on a rainy day.
Zandra Rhodes – 50 years of fabulous is at the Fashion and Textile Museum until the 26th January 2020.