Furniture, Textiles & Fashion Department

Ron Arad, ‘This Mortal Coil’, bookcase, 1993. Museum no. W.18-1993

Ron Arad, ‘This Mortal Coil’, bookcase, 1993. Museum no. W.18-1993

The Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department was formed in 2001 by the amalgamation of two former curatorial departments of Furniture & Woodwork and Textiles & Dress.

The department collects, displays and provides information on objects in its care. It is responsible for the care and wellbeing of every object entrusted to that department together with the assistance of the Collections Services Department. The department lends to temporary exhibitions, both in the UK and worldwide, as well as providing long-term loans to other museums and national institutions within the UK.

Furniture

The Furniture collection consists of more than 14,000 pieces from Britain, Europe and America, dating from the Middle Ages to the present day. It is predominantly of furniture, but also includes related objects such as architectural and decorative woodwork, musical instruments, leatherwork, treen and clocks. The collection also includes complete rooms, some of which are on display in the newly refurbished British Galleries.

Visiting the Furniture & Woodwork Stores

Some of the Furniture Collection is stored off-site but can be viewed by appointment. The stores are about 30 minutes journey from the Museum, in West London. We offer regular times for appointments, but we require a minimum of two weeks notice.

Audit of the Collection

Please note that we may have to close for short periods during the year for auditing and this will affect some services such as appointments and enquiries. Public displays are not affected.

Photography in the Stores

Photography in stores is permitted for private study purposes only; photographs taken of V&A objects must not be published. The use of flash is permitted. For commercial research and support for professional use of the collection, contact V&A Images. Telephone: +44 (0)20 7942 2966 or e-mail vanda.images@vam.ac.uk

Enquiries

As well as offering an opinions service, we answer enquiries about the collection and furniture history in general. It helps us provide a better answer if you write, fax or email us, rather than telephoning. When enquiring about a specific object, please send a photograph if possible. Access to further information on objects is available in departmental files and catalogues. Appointments to consult such material can be made by telephoning +44 (0)20 7942 2294.

Other V&A departments holding furniture and furnishings or related items

Please direct enquiries to the relevant departments:

  • Furniture from China and Japan, India, South East Asia and the Islamic World is part of the Asian Department. Telephone:+44 (0)20 7942 2322
  • Metal furniture and clocks are part of the Metalwork Section of the Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics & Glass Department. Telephone: +44 (0)20 7942 2617
  • Designs for furniture are part of the Designs Section of the Word & Image Department. Telephone: +44 (0)20 7942 2563
  • Children's furniture is part of the Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green. Telephone: +44 (0)20 8983 5200
  • The literature (books, catalogues, periodicals etc) of the history of furniture is part of the National Art Library (reference only) in the V&A.

Enquiries about furniture and woodwork: furniture@vam.ac.uk

Other contact details

Textiles and fashion

Sleeved stays, English, 1660-70. Museum no. T.14-1951

Sleeved stays, English, 1660-70. Museum no. T.14-1951

The national collection of Textiles and Fashion covers a period of more than 2000 years. It has a broad geographic range with a particular emphasis on Europe. Most techniques are represented, including woven, printed and embroidered textiles, lace, tapestries and carpets. These are classified by technique, countries of origin and dates of production. Particularly rich areas of the collections are the early silks from the Near East, lace, European tapestries and English medieval church embroidery (opus anglicanum).

The V&A has collected both textiles and dress since its earliest days. For many years garments were only acquired if they were made of significant textiles, as fashion had a low status within the decorative arts.

The importance of fashion is now fully recognised and the Museum’s collection of dress and accessories is of international importance. It covers fashionable dress from the 17th century to the present day, with the emphasis on progressive and influential designs from the major fashion centres of Europe.

Enquiries about textiles and fashion: textilesandfashion@vam.ac.uk

Other contact details

Access

The Collections can be accessed via a range of facilities and services from online access through Collections Online, Gallery Talks, and Lectures. Staff are continually working to improve access to the collections through an ongoing project to research, photograph and catalogue the growing collection. The Department maintains, updates and redisplays objects in various galleries and has a role in the Museum’s FuturePlan project.

As well as providing information on objects within the collection the department also answers enquiries on furniture, textiles and fashion in general in addition to offering an opinions service to the public on the first Tuesday afternoon of every month.

The department contributes to the Museum’s dynamic exhibitions programme, mounting both exhibitions and displays in collaboration with the Exhibitions Department and also stages a regular series of live catwalk shows called Fashion in Motion within the galleries of the museum.

The Clothworkers' Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion

The Clothworkers' Centre  opens on 8 October 2013. It is located at Blythe House, at Olympia in West London. The aim of the Centre is to provide the best possible access to the Museum’s outstanding collection of textiles and fashion in a relaxed and peaceful environment.

Read more about the Clothworkers' Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion

Furniture, textiles and fashion collecting

Since the 1960s curators of the now-combined department have increasingly concentrated on the study of furnishing and interior design, and the choice of items for acquisition has reflected these interests rather than the narrower connoisseurship of objects that had characterized earlier scholarship. Objects for acquisition are selected with special emphasis on their history and provenance as well as their individual quality as examples of high-style design and manufacture or craftsmanship. The department holds 65,878 objects.

As cataloguing and review of the collections for new Museum projects continues, shortcomings in certain historic collections are noted. Future projects in the Department will involve not only investigation and interpretation of aspects of the existing combined collections but also new initiatives, including the study of contemporary interiors.

New ideas are still developing on collecting and reflecting contemporary fashion, including digital forms of documentation in addition to, or in certain instances in place of, tangible acquisitions. The Online Museum has been a particularly valuable means to disseminate information about the collections and special exhibitions with the creation of dedicated micro-sites. It also provides opportunities to create links to other fashion collections and stream live events such as London Fashion Week.

Certain aspects of the collections, including such items as architectural woodwork and period rooms, carriages, musical instruments, textile tools and equipment, and regional dress, are substantially closed collections, though acquisitions might be made of exceptionally fine and well-provenanced examples should they come on the market or be offered as gifts. Other aspects of the collections, such as early textiles or 18th-century furniture from North America with particular relationship to the British tradition, are effectively closed because of the rarity and high cost of suitable examples but, given the opportunity, exceptional pieces might be acquired.

Furniture and woodwork

The Furniture and Woodwork collection contains nearly 13,000 objects, dating from the medieval period to current times. Most are from Europe or from areas influenced by the European tradition. Although furniture dominates, there are also substantial holdings of interior architectural woodwork and smaller, though important, holdings of musical instruments, leather, treen and papier-mâché. The collecting of clocks is shared with the Metalwork collection, reflecting the V&A’s interest in case design rather than technical design (which is the province of the British Museum). Historically, we have held many Islamic objects but these are currently in the process of being transferred to the Asian Department.

The geographical and chronological range of the collection is unique. However, our greatest strength lies in the holdings of British furniture made between 1700 and 1900. Our international 20th-century holdings are uneven but are rivalled by perhaps only one other institution (the Vitra Design Museum). They are extensively used by students and scholars. In certain areas, the numbers of objects may be small but include particularly rich examples, as of 18th-century furniture from the German states and 15th-century Italian furniture. Considerations of space must always inform acquisition and it is for this reason that certain types of furniture (e.g. beds, large bookcases, office furniture, or extensive sets of furniture) may only be represented by a few examples in the collection. The question of acquiring 18th-century or earlier furniture made in North America did not arise until recent years and consequently we hold almost no items of this date and provenance. Furniture from South America, Australia and New Zealand is also scarce, and furniture from African states (except a few items of Islamic North African) has not been collected.

Although Western furniture is now seen as the core of the Furniture and Woodwork collection, it originated (as did most collections in the Museum) in the purchase of fine examples of woodworking techniques/craftsmanship for the Government Schools of Design at Somerset House in the 1840s. The earliest acquisitions, of contemporary French parquetry and carving from the Paris Exhibition of 1844, were typical of the kind of material acquired in the first 20 years of the Museum’s life. Though historic pieces were acquired from 1848 onwards, the emphasis for acquisitions of all dates was on technical excellence and the value of such pieces as examples for current practitioners. Purchases included European and Asian woodwork of all kinds, with lacquer and carving particularly strongly represented. It was the Great Exhibition of 1851 that prompted the acquisition of contemporary furniture, both British and from continental Europe, but again, technical virtuosity was the prime criterion for selection.

A powerful tool in the development of the Furniture and Woodwork collection in the 19th century was the acquisition of complete personal collections. Amongst the largest of these were the Soulages Collection of Italian and French Renaissance objects (acquired between 1859 and 1865) and the Jones Collection of 18th-century decorative arts (bequeathed in 1882). Such additions continued in the 20th century with the Bettine, Lady Abingdon Collection of 24 pieces or pairs of French Empire furniture, bequeathed by Mrs T R P Hole in 1986, being the most recent.

From the 1880s onwards the preference for highly decorated Continental furniture and woodwork gradually gave way to a developing taste for English furniture made before the 19th century. At the same time, the interest in contemporary furniture waned, as the fashion for antique collecting gripped the middle classes. From this time, for more than a generation, the Museum concentrated on acquiring British furniture of the 16th to the 18th centuries. It was in this period (1890-1930) that the Museum acquired many of its period rooms. In the early 20th century these became a popular aspect of the displays and continue to be so in the new British Galleries.

Given the greater protection for historic interiors in recent year, it is unlikely that the Museum would ever acquire another period room, though the possibility should not be ruled out and, indeed, an exceptional interior by Frank Lloyd Wright (the Kaufmann office) was acquired by gift in 1974 and was displayed between 1992 and 2005.

Contemporary collecting, which had formed such an important aspect of the Museum’s collecting in its early years, was almost entirely abandoned in 1909. The long series of acquisitions from international exhibitions in the 19th century had culminated in the presentation by Sir George Donaldson of a number of pieces of Art Nouveau furniture shown at the 1900 Exhibition in Paris, as mentioned above. This unfortunately generated a great deal of  criticism, and contemporary collecting was not taken up again systematically within the department until the 1960s, although some pieces had been courageously collected by the Circulation Department as early as the 1920s and 1930s and were distributed to the appropriate material-based departments when Circulation was disbanded in 1977. Currently, collecting of contemporary material is a strong priority.

The collection of Furniture and Woodwork is recognized as the most comprehensive in the world. Unlike most national collections (rich as many are), the V&A has historically collected items from a wide range of countries and thus offers a unique opportunity for comparative study. Staff in the collection exercise expertise in British and European furniture from the Medieval period to the 19th century and internationally in the 20th century and in the field of contemporary furniture across an international spectrum.

Although the collection is designated as the National Collection, we recognize its place as part  of the wider national collection held in museums, houses, churches and public buildings throughout the UK. The V&A has always encouraged other institutions in the UK to develop particular collections of furniture and woodwork and the Department continues this tradition.  We maintain active relationships with staff in regional museums and those working for other organisations (such as English Heritage and The National Trust) who are responsible for other collections of national and international importance. Certain public institutions, notably the Wallace Collection, Temple Newsam House, Leeds, the Lady Lever Art Gallery (National Museums Liverpool) and the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, hold important collections of a particular date or origin that complement those of the V&A. However, none of these museums offers the wide range of furniture that makes the collection at the V&A pre-eminent.

It has generally been the case that the interests of other bodies have mainly been in British furniture and largely (certainly until recently) pieces made before 1900. Whereas some institutions, such as Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum (for Cotswold furniture) and, more widely, the Arts and Crafts movement), the Judges’ Lodgings, Lancaster (for pieces by Gillows), acquire objects representing the history of their own local craft or industry, many other areas and aspects of production are neglected, with regional museums having to adopt ever more selective collecting policies. As a result of this the V&A has had to take a particularly active role in many different areas to ensure that national collections are as representative as possible of  high design from all major centres.

In the past, some items have been acquired with the specific intention of returning them on loan or by transfer to other institutions. In the case of furniture, examples include the Mary of Modena bed, now shown at Kensington Palace, and the giltwood table designed by Vardy, now shown in Spencer House, London, together with the suite of chairs designed by him for the Painted Room there. With the work on the new British Galleries came a long-awaited chance to lend back to Sizergh Castle (National Trust) the late 16th-century panelling sold from the house in 1891 and, most recently, a bed from Boughton House, given by the Duke of Buccleuch in 1916, has been returned on loan. The allocation to the V&A of furniture under the AIL scheme, with agreement for its retention in situ, has brought furnishings at Longleat and Houghton into the collection in recent years, with the furniture remaining in situ but on loan.

Our aim is to develop and enrich the established areas of the collection of Furniture and Woodwork, covering primarily Western furniture and woodwork made between the Medieval period and the present day. We would like to enlarge our holdings of high-style furnishings showing the influence of the European, and especially the British, tradition from all areas of the world not covered by the holdings of the Asian Department. The collecting of 20th - and 21st- century material will be a particular priority, as will items for use in gallery displays, and in particular for the gallery of the materials and techniques of furniture, when it opens in 2012, will present Western traditions alongside those of Asia.

Textiles

The Textile collection is the world’s largest and the most wide-ranging of its kind. The joint collections of Textiles and Dress contain almost 53,090 items, or sets of items, of which over two-thirds are textiles and just under one third dress items. Although some fragments of Greek embroidery date from the late 5th century BC, the bulk of the Textile collection extends in date from the 3rd century AD to the present day, while geographically it concentrates on Western Europe. Previously, it included about 3,600 textiles from the Middle East which are in the process of being transferred to the Asian Department. The Textile collection is classified according to technique, within the broad categories of woven, printed, embroidered, lace, etc; it is further divided chronologically and geographically. Many of these groups are remarkable for their variety and comprehensiveness, and the collection of about 24,000 British textiles is the finest in the world.

The Museum’s Textile collection began with the formation of study collections for the Government Schools of Design in 1842. As that collection grew, there was a revival of interest in historical patterns and in their potential for adaptation, and so, when the Museum was founded in 1852, it began to acquire medieval textiles, many of which had survived in the form of vestments. There was also intense interest in the manufacture of lace and attempts were made in several countries to revive the lace industries in the middle of the 19th century. The Museum responded by acquiring and exhibiting many fine examples. Although contemporary woven and printed textiles were acquired from the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Paris Exhibitions of 1855 and 1867, the initial emphasis was on acquiring pre-19th-century material, possibly because it was thought that contemporary textiles did not conform to the principles of ‘good design’. The Museum showed little interest in contemporary embroidery, probably reflecting its original concern with the manufacturing industries rather than with craft.

Apart from individual purchases, gifts and bequests, many important and large collections of historic textiles were acquired, notably 500 medieval textiles from the Bock collection (1863), 450 16th - and 17th-century textiles from the Forrer collection (1877), 62 18th-century Greek embroideries from the Wace collection (1919) and 700 18th-century Greek and Turkish embroideries from the Dawkins collection (1950). From the beginning of the 20th century to the 1930s the Museum made an effort to collect textiles from the period 1600-1750. English domestic embroidery from the 17th century is well represented and includes large furnishings as well as small, exquisite items of dress. The collection of Continental textiles from the 17th century is large and extraordinarily varied.

In more recent times, re-organization of the British Textile Industry led to the acquisition of  major collections of 18th- , 19th- and 20th-century textiles from leading UK manufacturers including the following collections: Warners (1972 and subsequently – 1,215 textiles and pattern books), Mortons/Courtaulds (1977 – 87 textiles), Hull Traders (1989 – 73 textiles), The Wilton Royal Carpet Factory (1992 – 157 samples), Heals (1999 – about 1,150 lengths of furnishing) and Courtaulds (2001 – an archive of over 6,000 items covering a wide range of manufacturers and dates).

Contemporary collecting, which had an erratic early history, was almost entirely abandoned in 1909 when it became the responsibility of the Circulation Department until that department was disbanded in 1977, when the Textiles collection once again resumed contemporary collecting and inherited the Textiles Collections formed by the Circulation Department. In 1934 the collections of the British Institute of Industrial Art were acquired by the Museum. The Institute had collected contemporary textiles on an annual basis from 1919 to 1932 and the Museum undertook to continue the tradition by collecting those textiles which were judged to be the best of each year’s international production. In this way an extensive and unique collection of 20th-century textiles of both industrial and craft production has been formed to complement the historical collection. In 1979 and 2002 many fabric samples previously held in the Manchester Design Registry were acquired, to enhance the collection of early 20th-century textiles. The Textile collection is the world’s largest and most wide-ranging assemblage of such material.

The Textile collection is designated as the National Collection. Like the Furniture and Woodwork collection, it differs from many fine and well-established national collections in Europe in terms of its international coverage over a wide-ranging historical period, as detailed above. As with the Furniture and Woodwork collection, its designation as a National Collection is taken as representing also a support role for the many smaller collections of textiles held by museums throughout Britain which are important elements in the wider national collections. In recent years, the decline of both expertise and active collecting in regional museums has presented particular problems for this Department as for others in the V&A. Although some regional collections, such as the Macclesfield Silk Museum and the Paisley Museum, make strenuous efforts to develop their collections relating to local trades and industries, few regional museums (other than the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester) are able to maintain and develop collections of textiles with a wider scope, leaving the V&A with the responsibility for maintaining the breadth of the nation’s collections.

Fashion

The Fashion collection is the premier collection in the UK and consists mainly of European (predominantly French and English) fashionable clothes and accessories for both sexes, with, additionally, 20th century holdings of American and Japanese fashion. The collection spans four centuries, with some rare pieces dating from the 17th century, though its strength lies in the 18th century and later. It has steadily developed in scholarly importance, while at the same time remaining one of the most popular collections with general visitors.

Like the Textile collection, the Fashion collection has groups of objects which are important for their depth of coverage (such as 1930s evening wear, 1960s daywear, wedding dresses, 18th-century men’s waistcoats, post-war couture, fashion dolls and shawls). The collection includes many outstanding items, including two magnificent mantuas from the 1740s, Worth evening gowns, a Charles James padded satin jacket of 1937, the seminal New Look suit, ‘Bar’, by Christian Dior and Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Boucher’ dress and ‘mock-croc’ blue platform shoes.

Despite its current high profile, the Fashion collection had a less than auspicious start. The history of dress figured nowhere in the hierarchy of arts when the Museum was founded. It was not until well into the 20th century that the discipline of dress studies became firmly established and not until 1957 that the first curator for fashion was appointed. Only in the later 1970s did the collecting of contemporary fashion and accessories come to be seen as a major responsibility of the Department.

Garments were acquired as early as the 1840s, but only if the textiles were considered significant. Gradually this approach changed and clothing was acquired for other reasons, such as fashionable cut and construction, provenance, rarity and the aesthetic appeal of the garment design. The collection developed slowly and in a sporadic fashion, chiefly by means of the gift, purchase or bequest of individual objects. Occasionally items came as part of collections of historical fashion, including accessories. These collections included the Brooke Collection (1864 and 1865 – 30 items of fashion and ca. 200 textiles), that of Sir Matthew and Lady Digby Wyatt (1876 – 124 fans), the Isham Collection (1900 – 31 items of dress and textiles), and the collections of Harrods (1913 – 1,442 items of dress) and Madame Tussauds (1977 – 15 items of dress).

It was not until the 1960s that the Department began actively to collect 20th-century fashion, though individual items had been acquired from the 1930s. The 20th-century fashion collection grows around six major holdings: the Board of Trade Utility Collection (1942 – 34 items of dress), the V&A Collecting 26 Plan 2010 Heather Firbank Collection (1960 – 110 items of dress), the Cecil Beaton Collection (1971 – 1,200 items of dress), the collection formed in association with the exhibition StreetStyle (1993-1995 – 1,253 items of dress), the Jill Ritblat Collection (2000 – 459 items of dress) the Costiff Collection (2002 – 178 full outfits by Vivienne Westwood) and, most recently, the Mark Reed collection of menswear.

Given the enormous quantities of clothing generated annually by the fashion industry, it is possible only to acquire a limited selection of a designer’s output. We work closely with other dress-collecting museums in Britain (approximately 100) to direct appropriate objects and collections to them. Fashion is a key aspect of the V&A’s National-Regional partnerships and we look for opportunities to work with other museums with strong fashion and textiles collections to set up a programme of sharing skills, expertise and displays. In 2009 we worked as a consortium with the Museum of Costume at Bath and the Bowes Museum to acquire a group of Vionnet couture gowns which were the subject of an export stop (the first such for 20th century couture). Our aim is to use such partnerships and other initiatives of the V&A, such as the Collections Online programme, to make all the collections of the Department more accessible throughout the UK, as a means of encouraging and disseminating expertise in our fields of study.

The Fashion collection is designated as the National Collection. It is currently the largest and most comprehensive collection of dress in the world, only rivalled in the field of contemporary dress by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Musée de la Mode et du Textile, Paris, the Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris and the Kyoto Costume Institute in Japan (which has a concise but important collection) . In terms of material from 1600 to 1800, the V&A’s collections are the largest anywhere and our collection of 20th-century sub-cultural fashion is unique in range and size.

We aim to develop the collection of British and other European textiles from 1850 to the present, and the collection of British, Continental and North American fashionable dress from the 18th century to the present, by acquiring pieces of superlative aesthetic quality, technical construction, and interesting provenance. The need to provide additional high quality items of 18th - and 19th-century fashion for display remains a priority if we are to maintain a comprehensive and educational display in the Dress Gallery, with regular rotation of exhibits.

Our primary emphasis however will be on contemporary material, including technologically advanced fabrics and their use in the fashion industry, acquisitions made for specific exhibitions or generated through Fashion in Motion (in particular London designers), emerging fashion centres such as Belgium and a broadening of acquisition policy to include ready to wear. Recently, work by designers for the high street (2005-2010) has been acquired as a discrete collection. Given the global, fast changing nature of twenty first century fashion, and the role of the internet these were, fittingly, acquired on e-bay.

Private Group Tours & Talks

We offer a wide range of tours to meet your group requirements. Whether a group has a special area of interest, wishes to explore a particular gallery or just get an overview of the Museum's collection the Groups Team can help.

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Seventeenth-Century Women's Dress Patterns: Book One

Seventeenth-Century Women's Dress Patterns: Book One

This innovative and breathtakingly detailed book from the V&A's fashion collections presents dress patterns, construction details, embroidery and …

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Event - A Question of Fashion: Elizabethan & Jacobean Pregnancy Portraits

Wed 14 January 2015 15:30

Art historian Karen Hearn will discuss when, and why, the most fashionable physical outline became that of a woman “great with child”.

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