There is no denying the fact that fashion has existed for as long as humanity. The nature of fashion, however, has been subject to change – from functional to elaborate – and is largely reflective of the culture of the times. Throughout history, fashion has been both a way to influence society as well been influenced by global issues. Take for example the practical womenswear that sprouted as a result of the World War. As men took to the frontlines, women were required to take over their jobs, from farming to working in factories, which resulted in the gradual conversion of the flowing lines of the Edwardian era to more functional clothing like trousers and skirts. The war and the ensuing shortage of fabrics further emphasized the need for simple, practical clothing.
Fashion, as we know it today, is a result of a long evolutionary process spanning over centuries. Historical recordings help us understand the fashion of an era, with their chronology preserved and displayed in fashion museums around the world. Whether you’re a fashion history buff or simply looking for a better understanding of the evolution of clothing and accessories, Savoir Flair has put together a list of must-visit museums for fashion enthusiasts. Scroll down to discover the fashion museums that deserve a spot on your bucket list.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Housing the world’s largest and most comprehensive garment collection, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is an absolute must-visit for anyone who wants to understand the evolution of fashion throughout history. Spanning over five centuries, the visual chronology of garments highlights the most important changes in European fashion between the 17th and 20th centuries. The most fascinating items in the museum include rare 17th-century gowns, 18th-century ‘Mantua’ dresses, 1930s eveningwear, and couture from the post-war era. Other key items include the 19th-century garments worn by the elite in India, China, and Japan. The awe-inspiring collection also includes a range of accessories from around the world.
Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto
Shoes can now be instantly delivered to your front door hours after a new collection drops. But have you ever wondered about how shoes, as you know them, came to be? What function did they serve for our ancestors? Whether you’re interested in the history of footwear or are simply obsessed with shoes, The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto definitely earns a spot on your bucket list. Home to over 13,000 artifacts spanning over 4,500 years, this is the perfect place to study the history of shoemaking, as well as the changing habits, lifestyles, and customs surrounding footwear around the world.
From French chestnut-crushing boots to Japanese Samurai warrior shoes, the museum hosts artifacts from virtually every culture in the world. The museum’s archaeological collection includes footwear from some of the earliest civilizations to walk the earth. The most popular items, however, include a range of celebrity footwear, featuring Queen Victoria‘s ballroom slippers, Elton John‘s monogrammed silver platform boots, Elvis Presley‘s patent blue loafers, John Lennon‘s Beatle boot, and Karen Kain‘s ballet shoes among others.
Not planning to travel to Toronto any time soon? The museum also hosts online exhibitions, like its most recent: The Perfect Pair – Wedding Shoe Stories.
Musée Yves Saint Laurent, Paris
Escape into surrealism as the Musée Yves Saint Laurent takes you back in time to the luxury house’s golden Haute Couture days. Located in the heart of Paris, in the same building where Yves Saint Laurent spent 30 years designing his collections, the museum celebrates the life and work of the legendary couturier by alternating between permanent and temporary thematic displays.
The museum focuses not only on the designer’s creative genius, but also allows visitors an up-close-and-personal look at the couturier’s office space and his work process. The invaluable information preserved at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent includes hand-drawn sketches by the designer with a handwritten description of each piece, a textile swatch, and collection boards.
Simone Handbag Museum, Seoul
Designed to look like a purse, the Simone Handbag Museum in Seoul is dedicated to preserving the history of handbags while simultaneously exploring current and future trends. The museum features two wings – the ‘Historical Hall’ and the ‘Modern Hall’– showcasing handbags that reflect different historical time periods, with the highlight being the rare pockets of the 1500s. Focusing on how handbags contribute to establishing a woman’s identity, the museum helps provide an understanding of the cultural evolution of handbags. Embark on a virtual tour and explore the wonderful designs at Simone Handbag Museum from the comfort of your couch.
Musée Christian Dior, Granville
Located in Granville, Christian Dior‘s childhood home is a cliff-top belle epoque style house overlooking the sea. In 1997, all the floors of the house were converted to a museum dedicated to the couturier and his work. Not only does the Musée Christian Dior house the exquisite work of Dior himself, but also that of other designers — Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, John Galliano, and more — who designed for the Maison.
Gucci Garden, Florence
Gucci currently enjoys the status of one of the most sought-after labels of our times. Few of us, however, are familiar with the Italian powerhouse’s journey in becoming the giant it is today. Gucci Garden in Florence is a museum dedicated to understanding the evolution of the label and exploring the key shifts in fashion through Gucci’s design archives.
Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris
A museum entirely dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the decorative arts, this is one destination you don’t want to miss when in Paris. Located in Pavillon De Marsan wing of the Louvre, it was designed by Gaston Redon and houses a mind-boggling collection of decorative arts including over 150,000 fashion pieces.
Visitors can see clothes dating back to the Middle Ages all the way up to modern day designs. Aside from various exhibitions held at the museum, important pieces donated by influential early 20th century designers which include Paul Poiret, Madeline Vionnet, and Christian Lacroix are also on display. Its exhibition titled ‘Christian Dior, Couturier Du Reve‘ held in honor of the couture house’s 70th anniversary was one of their most successful exhibits till date and was seen by over 700,000 people.
The Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology, New York
Reopening on August 6th 2021, The Museum at FIT is known for its innovative and award-winning exhibitions and is the only museum in New York solely devoted to fashion. Its permanent collections houses 50,000 garments covering 250 years of fashion with a strong focus on contemporary avant-garde pieces.
There are three main galleries at the museum: The lower level gallery is dedicated to special exhibitions, The ‘Fashion and Textile History’ gallery presents a rotating selection of approximately 200 historically and artistically significant objects from the museums permanent collection while ‘Gallery FIT’ is for students and faculty exhibitions. If you’re in New York this summer, be sure to catch its upcoming exhibit, ‘Ravishing: The Rose in Fashion’, which explores the significance of the rose in fashion and dressed appearance from circa 1750 to the present. Alternatively, you can view its virtual exhibitions which are free.
Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria, Spain
A lesser known museum, yet an important one when it comes to fashion history, a visit to Spain would be incomplete without paying a tribute to the couturier at Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa. Located in his birth town of Getaria in Spain, the museum houses 1,200 garments from the designer including some very rare pieces too. Balenciaga revolutionized women’s fashion with his unique shapes – at the museum, you can see his iconic sack dresses, balloon hem gowns, the iconic babydoll dress, and balloon jackets. Also on display are accessories along with a personal collection of photographs, letters, and objects belonging to the couturier.
Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
With 30,000 pieces spanning over seven centuries, the Costume Institute at the MET boasts the most comprehensive costume collection in the world, giving visitors an unparalleled understanding of Western fashion history. Due to the fragile nature of the textiles, Institute’s collection is never on permanent view but is instead rotated depending on its latest exhibit.
Known for its spectacular thematic exhibitions, which explore the influence of fashion trends from different eras (punk, camp, and superheroes amongst others), the institute also organizes special monographic exhibitions centering on a specific designer. These illustrious exhibits have included Coco Chanel, Alexander McQueen, and Charles James. Furthermore, its themed exhibitions attract an astounding number of visitors from all over the world and its ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’ exhibition was seen by 1.65 million people making it the MET’s most visited in history.
Musée Yves Saint Laurent, Marrakech
It is impossible to think of Marrakech without instantly associating it with Yves Saint Laurent. So loved was the city by the designer, that after his death his ashes were scattered in the Majorelle Garden in Marrakech. It comes as no surprise that his partner, Pierre Bergé would open a museum dedicated to Yves Saint Laurent in the city.
Set to reopen on October 16, 2021, the museum is home some of his most important designs which include the legendary Piet Mondrian dress, the pea coat, and the ‘Le Smoking‘ jacket. The exhibition hall features an immersive display, where garments are shown alongside audiovisual elements like photographs, runway shows, voices, and music. In the Theater Lobby of the museum, visitors can get a glimpse into the designer’s love for the stage and cinema through photographs, sketches, and drawings of costumes he designed for various actors including Isabelle Adjani and Catherine Deneuve.