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50 Years of Fashion

Start Date 19 September 2015
End Date 03 September 2016
Venue Chertsey Museum
Location Surrey, UK

It is fifty years since Chertsey Museum first opened its doors in 1965. In order to celebrate this important anniversary, we are delighted to present a display of fashionable women’s wear dating from the 1960s to the present day. The pieces shown in this gallery are selected from the nationally significant Olive Matthews collection of dress, which is held here at Chertsey Museum. 

The past fifty years has been a period of unprecedented cultural and technological change. Breakthroughs in space exploration, global communication and travel have all taken place, as well as scientific discoveries, not least relating to the manufacture of new synthetic materials. At the same time, living standards have improved for the majority of people in the western world, and greater freedoms have led to enhanced social equality for many. Fashion has kept pace with society; morphing and mutating in new and often unpredictable ways. The very nature of fashion itself has changed. The mini skirt of the 1960s was perhaps the last ‘universal’ fashion, and the subsequent rise of individualism has fundamentally altered the way that fashion works within society. Now personal choice reigns as a plethora of different styles emerge concurrently and increasingly swiftly, allowing us to select looks according to our own personal circumstances and those of our peer groups. 

In the whirl of beautiful and eye-catching styles displayed here a number of themes can be traced. The exhibition is set out chronologically which helps us to understand how fashion progressed. However, when we look back it is easy to fall into the trap of remembering the styles of the past fifty years in terms of the fashions that characterised each decade. When closely considering the looks which emerged over the period, it is clear that they do not fall into such neat categories. The styles of the early 1960s were far more in keeping with those of the late 1950s and the same can be said of each successive period; established and, with hindsight, ‘typical’ fashions only emerged during the middle years of any given decade. 

Though it is fun to look back at the trends which were adopted during each successive era, a number of other fascinating themes can also be traced. The growing importance of the younger generation within society as a whole is clearly in evidence. This can be seen in the styles from the mid 1960s onwards which celebrate a youthful body above all things – a quality which has been afforded enormous value by the fashion industry ever since. It is also possible to chart the emancipation of women as they emerged from their tight-waisted and often cumbersome early ‘60s clothes into garments which allowed for more practical participation within society. As well as the adoption of clothing which allowed greater freedom of movement, a conscious shift into the ‘male’ sphere of office work is particularly evident in the ‘power dressing’ of the 1980s. No less fascinating are the more subtle developments that can be linked to fashion trends. For example, the economic downturns of the 1970s and late ‘80s to early ‘90s periods are characterised by nostalgia with historically-inspired clothing as the fashion world sought to retreat into the romance and relative safety of the past. By contrast, economic upturns saw designers pushing boundaries; experimenting with new and forward-thinking concepts as well as indulging in lavish materials. Other social developments such as the greater affordability of overseas travel are also reflected in garments which incorporate exotic and far-flung influences. 

In addition to charting different visual links between particular garments, it is hoped that this exhibition will allow visitors to immerse themselves in the fashions of the past fifty years through a range of alternative methods of interpretation. Our dressing up area features replicas and garments inspired by those on display, whilst fashion-related film clips will inform and jog memories. Evocative perfumes from each era are also captured in the coloured scarves found in the reading area. Everyone who views this exhibition will come to it with their own set of recollections and experiences of fashionable styles. We hope that you will take time to reflect on the similarities and differences between these garments and your own personal preferences through the years. A comment book in which you can write down your reactions to the display, including any memories it may have sparked, is located nearby.