Fashion Museum Curation and Why Chronology Matters

It is interesting to note that Tate Britain has rearranged its collection into chronological order. The aim is to permit a more ‘neutral’ viewing [1]. I admire this decision: curation can so often be biased, and an objective method may be the best way to invite new observations of old masters.

Last year, I visited the Fashion Museum in Bath. I was frustrated by the fact that the dresses were not arranged in chronological order. I saw no explanation of the curator’s intentions; the clothes seemed to be arranged into aesthetic categories (colour, for example). The problem with this is that it is not reflective of one of the fundamentals of fashion. Fashion is progressive – it moves forever forwards.

The fashion cycle may draw on the past, but at its core is chronological progression. Fashion evolves: hems and waists creep up and down, colours fade in and out. It is only possible to trace this evolution if historical collections are displayed chronologically.

I assume that a central reason for displaying historical garments (as opposed to recent fashions) is to demonstrate how clothes have changed over the years. Change, in this case, is the difference between garments created before an after one another. This difference can be most easily recognised and understood if we are aware of where artefacts lie in a temporal sequence.

Many fundamental observations about fashion rely on chronological observation.  Fashion is identified as ‘an evolutionary outgrowth and elaboration of the previous fashion'[2]. Fashion styles are distinct from ‘fads’ because they are not independent anomalies; instead they follow an evolutionary cycle.

If garments are not displayed in the context of progression, we may only appreciate each garment on its own individual merits, not its position in social, cultural or political history.  Each dress becomes a mere curiosity, removed from historical context.

Fashion museum curation

If fashion museum curators do not arrange garments chronologically, it is difficult to appreciate them as ‘fashion’. ‘Fashion’ is, by definition, temporal. If historical costume is removed from chronological context, it limits our understanding of the significance of garments on display.

Despite my criticism, the Fashion Museum is well worth a visit. 

[1] ‘Tate Britain Rearranges Collection To Reveal Chronology Of 500 Years Of British Art,’ Huffington Post, 13 May 2013,
[2] Miller, Christopher M., McIntyre, Shelby H., and Mantrala, Murali K. (1993) ‘Toward Formalizing Fashion Theory’, Journal of Marketing Research 30 (2), (May, 1993), 145.