Launched a few years ago as a way to attract a younger generation of museum visitors, fashion exhibitions have rapidly turned into cash cows for many institutions. You can at present choose between monumental events sponsored by powerful brands and fashion houses, and smaller but well-curated exhibitions that will surprise you for the way the curators or the artists involved cleverly managed to use the tiny budgets allowed to them.
Then there is another type of "fashion exhibition - the archival event built on heritage pieces with a corporate twist about it (we have already explored the meanings of pernicious words such as "archive" and "heritage" in a previous post, so refer to it to know more about the current meaning of these words). A perfect example is "Fully Fashioned: The Pringle of Scotland Story", currently on at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The event seems to be well-deserved as the company celebrates this year its bicentenary, having been founded in 1815 in the Scottish Borders town of Hawick when the firm of Waldie, Pringle and Wilson started to trade from Whisky House Mill. Later on, Robert Pringle and his son Walter, established Robert Pringle and Son.
"Fully Fashioned" opens with woollen hosiery: Pringle first started producing a small range of high quality and high cost undergarments and knitted stockings before turning into a successful international fashion knitwear brand.
By the 1870s the company introduced cashmere, establishing itself as the leading supplier of luxury undergarments, while cleverly applying to its knitwear the unique properties and techniques of knitted woollen undergarments, guaranteeing to the wearer freedom of movement and ending up playing a key role in the emancipation of women (as their sporty clothes made their way into their wardrobes revolutionising the way women dressed).
Genuine knitwear fans and designers will enjoy these displays and the ones that focus on the Argyle patterns - pioneered by Pringle - and on the twinset, a fitted sweater with a matching cardigan that has played a central role in the development of the company since the 1930s.
Pieces from royal wardrobes are particularly important to the Pringle story: HM Queen Elizabeth II received indeed a piece of Pringle of Scotland knitwear every year since 1947.
In return she wrote (every year) a thank you letter to the company (a sweater worn by Queen Elizabeth II and a thank you letter are part of one of the displays dedicated to these royal connections).
But further royal links are explored through the cashmere cardigan with glass buttons from the 1960s owned by Princess Grace of Monaco (who also passed her sweaters to her daughter, Princess Caroline).
The exhibition also features pieces from the Hawick Museum and the Women Golfers' Museum, including a 1933 outfit worn by golfer Gloria Minoprio.
Celebrity endorsement and artistic partnerships are remembered through photographs of actresses.
In the 1950s "sweater girls" - Jean Simmons, Margaret Lockwood, Deborah Kerr, Brigitte Bardot, Margot Fonteyn and many more - all wore Pringle and made it famous.
Modern day influencers include instead Tilda Swinton, who, in 2010, "designed" for the company a piece that was actually based on a Pringle of Scotland twinset which belonged to the Scottish actress's grandmother.
The exhibit in Edinburgh features more or less the same displays and contents showcased in London at the Serpentine Gallery during London Fashion Week, in February 2015.
While it is the norm for most exhibitions to feature the same contents wherever they may travel, it is surprising that the curators didn't seem interested in tailoring the event to the country where Pringle was born.
The cashmere cardigans created in 1934 by Austrian industrial designer Otto Weisz (the first full-time designer at Pringle) remain for example one of the highlights of the exhibition especially when we consider the local connections that Weisz developed.
During the '50s and the '60s Weisz called designers from Glasgow School of Art to create with them collections that combined cultural heritage with technical innovation.
Maybe this local connection could have been explored a bit better.
There are actually other points that could have been analysed more in depth.
The event closes with a 2014 cable-knit polo-neck sweater featuring 3D printed elements combined with hand-knitted construction.
The piece was designed by current Creative Director Massimo Nicosia in collaboration with architect and material scientist Richard Beckett, a teaching fellow at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London.
The 3D printed panels integrated in Nicosia's designs for Pringle's Autumn/Winter 2014 and Spring/Summer 15 collections that look like chainmail were created using the selective laser sintering (SLS) process.
They were then woven through small hooks on the underside or stitched into the wool.
This perfect example of traditions mixed with innovative technology to produce a fluid piece with an added tactile dimension about it, could have definitely attracted a younger generation of museum visitors.
More local knitwear and fashion designers, but also 3D mavericks and labs could have been involved in organising workshops and related events at the National Museum of Scotland explaining and exploring the possibilities of combining traditional yarns with innovative plastic based materials, yet this aspect seems to have been neglected.
There is actually one great link with Scotland and one intriguing part in the exhibition - the three short films commissioned to the Michael Clark Company. This project continues the tradition of collaborating with Scottish creatives - including David Shrigley, Douglas Gordon, Robert Montgomery, and Alasdair Gray.
The films explore the role of knitwear in the development of the modern wardrobe and the importance of key qualities such as warmth, flexibility and breathability, and feature dancers clad in vintage and new garments from the S/S 2015 collection.
Yet as a whole this exhibition is not too convincing and visitors risk of being disappointed by quite a few things. First and foremost the long, rich and complex history that they talk about in the press releases seems to have been reduced to several memorabilia and brand imagery arranged in a very cold way through antiquated displays (you get the same feeling when you visit a historical company's HQ and you find displays about its history at the entrance or in the basement...).
You also wonder why they insisted on including specific historical images (photos of a sweater with a Corgi on it made for Princess Anne), when they do have more modern and eye catching pieces such as the twinset by Tokyo-based designer Julien David for Colette and made using a computer.
Visitors expecting a quintessentially Scottish view on local manufacturing will also be disappointed. Scotland has been in the spotlight last year with its referendum and now it is once again in the news thanks to the unexpected success in the British general election campaign of Nicola Sturgeon, current First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish National Party, but it must be underlined that Pringle is not Scottish at the moment.
After turning in the mid-'80s into a favourite with football casuals (another connection that not many seem interested in rediscovering since it is deemed rather embarrassing, but a connection that could easily win to museums who may organise showcases about "casual fashion" a good number of rather unusual visitors...), Pringle started losing its appeal and, in 2000, it was bought from Scottish firm Dawson International for around £6 million by Hong Kong-based S.C. Fang & Sons Company, Ltd, owners of clothing retailer Toppy Group.
This move marked the end of production at the factory in Hawick, with all manufacturing outsourced to Fang's third-party suppliers in Asia and some finishing still occurring in Scotland to allow high-end products to be marked as "Produced in Scotland".
The final verdict on "Fully Fashioned"? Rather than a proper fashion exhibition about a historical company, this is a way for National Museum of Scotland to test the waters in wait of the 2016 opening of new galleries of decorative art, design and fashion, while being also a corporate event for Pringle (it will be travelling to Asia and visit its current owners...).
Institutions organising this sort of exhibits should remember, though, that some visitors are becoming more demanding when it comes to the contents of fashion events and they are becoming more knowledgeable as well. They will therefore be able to spot the difference between a genuine fashion exhibition and a "corporate archival event revolving around heritage".
Images in this post
1. National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, by Anna Battista
2. Ladies combinations, PESCO of Hawick, 1920s
3. Pringle of Scotland Catalogue image 1940's.
4. Cashmere ‘golfer’ cardigan, mid-1950s. Courtesy of Jamie Mulherron.
5. Roll-neck sweater with Intarsia design, late 1950s.
6. 1947 United States market advertisement for Pringle of Scotland, courtesy Jamie Mulherron.
7. Keyboard twinset, Julien David for Colette, 2010.
8 -9. Pringle of Scotland, A/W 2014
10. VOGUE USA Cover, Model wearing Pringle of Scotland, April 1955.
Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos
Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos