London in summer: Fashion on the Ration at the Imperial War Museum

IMG_6755Those of you who have been here before know I like to dip my (peep)toe into vintage waters with increasing regularity; I don’t have a set era as such and quite enjoy mixing things up, but mid-century is as good a description as any – by which I mean roughly 1940-1965.

Enter the Imperial War Museum, whose Fashion on the Ration exhibition arrived – presumably by design – in the midst of a mixure of vintage hipster trendiness, the resurgence of traditional skills during a period of austerity, and the popularity of various fashion exhibitions in London (spearheaded by the V&A, whose Savage Beauty – a spectacular Alexander McQueen retrospective – is also still on, though only until 2nd August, and very much worth seeing).

IMG_6758The IWM’s exploration of 1940s street style is a short but rich, beautifully curated show, taking in the beginnings of clothing rationing in the UK – which lasted into the 1950s – and with a thorough look at the Utility clothes era. This, for those unfamiliar with this period of history, was the point at which the British government got directly involved in clothing design through the creation of affordable, long-lasting clothing that aimed to achieve greater efficiency and equality in the use of precious clothing coupons. It ended up being the basis for modern clothing and fabric quality standards – and the bright prints, use of durable fabrics like rayon and elegant but simple styling so as to use resources sparingly all contributed strongly to what we probably have in our minds when we think of “1940s fashion”.

Drafting in well-known designers of the day helped to make Utility clothes desirable – they were originally greeted with suspicion, unsurprisingly – and a particular look emerged that balanced shabby chic (when it didn’t look good to be too well turned out with a war on) with morale-boosting looks said to support the war effort (can’t have the enemy see us looking dispirited!).

What makes this collection particularly lovely is the individual element; it’s peppered with stories about the original owners and makers of the fashions on display. One of my favourites was a gorgeously cut onesie for wearing over a nightie if an air raid happened overnight. It was accompanied by a note from the original owner expressing her surprise at owning such an item, and it had something noticeably lacking from the recent resurgence in popularity of jumpsuits – a rear flap for attending to a call of nature without having to disrobe!

The exhibition also makes the point that we’ve gone somewhat full circle with fashion – after a post-war boom period of disposable, quickly cycling trends, we’ve headed back into a make do and mend-inspired, thrifty era of slow fashion. And since 1940s and 1950s fashions were often built to last, some of the original fashions of the day continue to survive and be wearable – though of course every finite resource will suffer increasing scarcity.

Photography inside is prohibited, so below is a gallery of a few details from the gift shop in case that kind of thing tickles your fancy. Standard adult entry is £10 (concessions are available), under 5s go free and the rest of the museum is free to enter and packed to the gills with things to see, so you can make a bit of a day of it. Though Fashion on the Ration is only on until the end of August, it was easy to find available tickets, so while I’d recommend advance booking,  if you haven’t and you’re in the area I’d even chance it on the day.

No disclosure needed as this was a private trip.

Fun with the kids this summer: The Power of Poison (!)

Kids… Poison… Well, as irritating as they get sometimes, I don’t think those are things people usually put together. I joke, of course, but despite its unsettling topic, this intriguing and beautifully curated exhibition – adapted from one created by the American Museum of Natural History in New York – is a fun family-friendly activity perfect for the upcoming summer holidays.

For one reason or another, work has been quite crazy lately, so I’ve been really trying to make the most of downtime and focussing on doing fun things with my daughter. The PR team behind The Power of Poison kindly invited me to a VIP family day at the exhibition, and it was simply perfect timing; a chance to do something out of the ordinary together that was child-focussed and might even teach us all a thing or two. We do take her to museums relatively regularly – she’s developing a healthy fondness for my favourite place in all of London, the V&A, and it’s been heartening to see how many places go out of their way to offer activities for younger visitors. Two weeks later, though, she’s still telling us that the Power of Poison was her favourite ever, and promises it isn’t just because there was a Mad Hatter’s tea party and facepainting afterwards (the much appreciated VIP bit!).

At a little under 5, my daughter is probably at the younger end to fully appreciate the details of the exhibition, but it’s a curious little treasure for all ages. Making the most of the dark, labyrinthine space of the Old Truman Brewery, the collection is wonderfully immersive, plunging you immediately into a jungle scene with a mixture of real and fake reptiles and bugs, deftly teaching the difference between poisonous and venomous. Kids are given a fun activity sheet which encourages them to actually read the display information and answer questions, and then it’s on to the next few rooms, with  a mixture of models, projections and video to keep visitors of any age interested.

My favourite was a beautifully projected shadow-theatre rendition of the stories of Hercules and Medea onto Greek urns; there was also a stunning book of poisons as a lead-in to a section on poison in literature that I gawped at for a while, and a truly eerie Snow White in her glass coffin. Anything Alice is bound to attract my attention, and the section on mercury poisoning and the Mad Hatter was very elegantly arranged. On top of all of this, there is then the detective section; at all times there are iPads set up in front of displays that allow children to work through three poisoning scenarios – a dog that might have eaten something in the yard, a ship’s crew that suffer terrible illness and a decidedly dead owl – and solve the mystery by collecting clues and examining symptoms. Throughout the day in this room there are also live and pre-recorded presentations that take the audience through a real-life case of poisoning and the history of the use of forensic evidence in British courts, all in a child-accessible yet engaging way.

I had previously been to the Art of the Brick exhibition in the same space and had found it a little bit oppressive – but also, sadly, I just didn’t feel particularly moved by that particular collection (technically brilliant, but it just felt a bit lacking in story, or depth). The Power of Poison uses the space so much more effectively, and really delights in casting a creepy yet captivating light over what is a dim cocoon of a place. Although we were fortunate to be given some tickets for the purposes of this post, it’s definitely an experience I would have paid for, at £9 for adults and £5 for children (with concessionary prices, family, group and school tickets available).

The Power of Poison runs daily at the Old Truman Brewery in London until the Sunday 6th September, and you can book in advance online.

Disclaimer: For the purposes of this review we were invited to a family day including exhibition entry, tea and facepainting. All opinions are our own.