Spanning five centuries, the V&A's Fashion collection is the largest and most comprehensive in the world, containing thousands of objects full of fascinating details – many not visible to the naked eye. In 2016 we embarked on a major project to unlock some of the secrets of this collection through X-ray photography.
X-ray photography is a unique tool for museums as it allows us to see below the surface of an object – revealing unseen details of its interior structure, materials and construction. To create the image, X-rays have to pass through an object and make an impression on the film behind – a dangerous and expensive process. Since 2016, we've been collaborating with artist Nick Veasey, a specialist in the field of X-ray photography, to make high-quality X-ray studies of our Fashion collections. The resulting images are both beautiful and forensic, as Nick puts it, "the combination of science and art".
I am drawn to X-ray as it is a study of the subject from the inside out. Normally we see the reflected light from the surface of an object, but X-ray reveals what, and often how, things are made. It is an honest scientific process. I like the results as they have integrity – they show things for what they truly are.
Nick has been experimenting with X-ray photography for more than 20 years. It was his idea to build a mobile X-ray facility, which would allow for V&A objects to be safely X-rayed within the confines of the Museum. Nick modified the truck himself, creating a state-of-the-art, portable studio, which comprises a darkroom, a preparation area and a lead-lined X-ray room. Given the fragile and precious nature of the subject matter, the production of each X-ray is like a surgical operation. The X-ray is produced on a sheet of film, which is processed and edited before passing through a scanner to become a digital file. Many of the finished photographs are made from multiple sheets of film which have been stitched together to form a seamless picture.
X-ray is particularly useful for looking at textiles as it can reveal hidden folds or layers of fabric (denser materials appear lighter on the X-ray, while thinner areas appear dark). Among the garments we X-rayed was a pair of 18th-century English stays (a type of boned bodice worn as an undergarment). The X-ray revealed a second, concealed line of eyelets in the stays, suggesting they may have been repurposed at some stage. Another highlight was the 'Blitz' denim jacket, made by Levi Strauss & Co., and customised by Leigh Bowery in 1986 – one of a series of unique commissions from Blitz magazine. The jacket is lined with plastic silver discs, while the exterior is covered with hair pins, creating an arresting, frenetic energy on the X-ray image.
By X-raying these invaluable and mostly irreplaceable garments in isolation we have made a collection of scientific examinations that let the clothes reveal their story... The X-ray highlights the textures, the nuances, the structure, the tailoring, the rhythm of the garment... I think what has manifested is beguilingly beautiful and interesting. It shows fashion in a new light, an X-ray light.
Three of Nick's spectacular life-size X-rays will feature in the upcoming V&A exhibition Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, alongside the original garments.