Chintz: Cotton in Bloom at Fashion and Textile Museum

The Fashion and Textiles Museum, Bermondsey, is an unusual place. It doesn’t have a permanent collection and solely showcases temporary exhibitions. My experience of these exhibitions has been hit and miss: I’m still annoyed about the Orla Kiely exhibition, which was nothing more than advertising and a complete rip-off, but I enjoyed the one on 1920s and 1930s fashion. It’s quite a small space and full-price entry isn’t cheap at £12.65 but you can get in half price with an Art Pass, the best investment any museum lover can make. Of course, I’d still recommend the V&A for anyone looking for an overview of fashion history (and free entry).

The current exhibition Chintz: Fashion in Bloom has been curated by and showcases the collection of Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, placing the emphasis on the Dutch East India Company rather than the English country house style I think of when I hear the word ‘chintz’. These days, ‘Chintzy’ is often used as a pejorative to indicate a rather kitschy floral design in garish colours. The garments featured are both beautiful and intricate and the material highly labour intensive. The production of chintz involves ten steps requiring the utmost precision. Original Indian chintz featured both local and fantastical flora, whilst chintz produced for the European market (as seen in this exhibition) favoured more ‘natural’ floral designs.  

The first Indian chintzes were imported to Europe in the seventeenth century as luxury textiles for the wealthy (the oldest objects in the exhibition are wall hangings made for aristocratic dynasties) but by the eighteenth century, European imitations made it affordable across social classes and became part of Dutch sartorial identity. A particular kind of chintz became integral to the national dress of the Dutch coastal town Hindeloopen, Friesland, with different designs and colours for particular occasions.   

The durability of high quality cotton chintz can be seen in the selection of beautifully preserved children’s clothing (most likely off-cuts or cut down from adult garments), which isn’t something that you often see in exhibitions. The assortment of tiny baby jackets, hats and mittens are so touching and there’s even a collection of dolls’ clothing – perhaps cut down further from old baby garments.

Accessories and undergarments also take a prominent place, including a number of large straw hats with chintz linings (perfect for this weather!). There’s also a selection of kroplap short bodices that can be seen as an eighteenth-century precursor to the modern bra. A small amount of the colourful top edge would be visible, a bit like a lacy bra strap today.

Chintz went out of fashion in Friesland at the end of the eighteenth century and the exhibition rounds out with a selection of nineteenth-century English chintzes and an interesting video about current manufacturing practices in Thailand. Following this vibrant exhibition, it was very pleasant to have a meander around Bermondsey Street with its independent shops and cafes, followed by a walk around Hays Galleria and seeing the Thames up close for the first time in months. I’d love to go on a walking tour of Bermondsey as there are so many interesting-looking buildings and it must have changed immeasurably in recent years ­ – maybe Footprints of London will have one when normal service resumes.

Chintz: Cotton in Bloom can be seen at the Fashion and Textile Museum until 12 September 2021. Have you been to any exhibitions at this museum?