Exhibition Archives: Zandra Rhodes – 50 Years of Fabulous

Introduction

To survive for fifty years in the give and take of the fashion world is no mean feat. To remain an independent spirit, plowing your distinctive furrow while the winds of change swirl about you is an extraordinary one. Dame Zandra Rhodes is one such designer.

This exhibition celebrates the founding of Rhodes’s fashion house. Since 1969, the British textile and fashion designer has brought her distinctive vision to the collections she produces twice a year. Designs from every year are featured, alongside the unique printed textiles that are the hallmark of Rhodes’s work.

Zandra Rhodes – 50 Years of Fabulous looks at the sketchbooks that are the starting point for everything that Rhodes designs; the process that takes a sketch and transforms into a textile and then a garment is illuminated. The catwalks that Rhodes so famously filled with spectacle after spectacle will be seen in rare archival footage. Recent work also includes costumes designed by Rhodes for the opera, also highlighted here.

The Fashion and Textile Museum invite you to experience the creative spirit of this unique designer.

Beginnings

Zandra Lindsay Rhodes was born in Chatham, Kent, in the southeast of England. Her prodigious talent for art was evident early on. Surviving sketchbooks of her school art projects show a keen eye for observation, a skill that will inform her work as a professional designer.

Zandra painting in Austria, 1952.

Rhodes’s initial thought was to be an illustrator; this only changed after studying with the influential textile designer Barbara Brown, whose work for Heal’s was some of the most well known of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

This experience changed the course of Rhodes’s future career plans; it was then that she decided to study textile design. With Brown’s prompting, Rhodes applied to the Royal College of Art, at that time the most important art school in the country. This masters-only programme took the best and the brightest of the country’s young talent; what made it special was the mix, students from across disciplines would interact and exchange ideas.
During the years when Rhodes attended, the Royal College was the fulcrum of Pop Art, and the presence of students like David Hockney (who was already gaining a following) and Derek Boshier would in turn influence the work of Zandra Rhodes.

During the years when Rhodes attended, the Royal College was the fulcrum of Pop Art, and the presence of students like David Hockney (who was already gaining a following) and Derek Boshier would in turn influence the work of Zandra Rhodes.

Rhodes attended the Royal College of Art from 1962 to 1965, the three year course providing the designer with numerous opportunities to explore her chosen medium of printed textiles. It was her time at the Royal College that continues to define Rhodes as a designer, and artist. The interaction with other artists and designers at the RCA would provide her with an interdisciplinary approach that has allowed her to blur the boundaries of textile design, painting, performance and fashion throughout her working life.

Zandra pattern cutting, 1960s.

The First Collections

To create her first collection under her own label, Rhodes turned to the environment around her. New currents were beginning to move through contemporary culture, as the youthful and future-looking ideals of the 1960s gave way to a longing for the past and simpler times. This would inform much of the cultural movement in the 1970s, which favoured a more eclectic and varied approach to style.

Zandra Rhodes sitting in Fulham Roads Clothes Shop, 1968.

These currents were picked up by Rhodes, who turned to traditional folk costumes as documented by the Victorian ethnographer Max Tilke. These simplified forms, clearly laid out in Tilke’s illustrations, provided a starting point for Rhodes’s fantasies. The designer exaggerated sleeves, added gathers and volume, and put seams on the outside of her garments; the use of printed fabrics with textiles by Rhodes only added to the fantasy.

The ‘Knitted Circle’ collection drew inspiration from bedspreads in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the illustrations in knitting and stitching instruction books. The prints were huge circles of drawn chain stitches and knitted flowers – these the designer transformed into kaftans and dresses, quite unlike anything anyone had seen. With the ‘Chevron Shawl’ and ‘Indian Feather’ collections, Rhodes introduces another feature of her work – the cutting around of the printed pattern to create shape, detail and structure. The ‘Chevron Shawl’ print of 1970 was inspired by Victorian shawls, particularly the fringed edging. Rhodes draws the fringe and tassels into the print; she then cuts around the drawn tassels to create the illusion of fringing. Constructed in soft chiffon or in stiff calico, these essences of fringed tassels define the shape of the garment itself.

Zandra Rhodes in her quilted calico coat from the S/S 1970 ‘Chevron Shawl’ collection, 1970. Photo by Caterine Milinaire.

Similarly, the seminal ‘Indian Feather’ prints which Rhodes created following a trip to New York City featured a similar technique. The designer drew the feathers on traditional Native American costume, including the porcupine quill stitches which held them in place.

These initial drawings were translated, stitches and all, to a series of textile prints. The borders, edges and joins were the printed feathers, cut around and hand rolled. This circularity – a drawing of a feather embellishment cut and sewn to create the ill r embellishment – was typical of Rhodes’s approach.

The Printed Textile

One of the keys to Rhodes’s designs has been her knowledge of the physical processes of designing and printing silk screened textiles. What appears to flow so effortlessly from the designer is in reality a carefully thought-out print, with months of cutting apart and re-adjusting the pattern to get the exact effect. It was in her second year that Rhodes chose to specialise in dress fabrics; the trend at the time was for furnishing fabrics. This choice, to create printed textiles to be worn rather than hung as a curtain, would lead the designer to her most innovative ideas.

Rhodes began to explore the relationship of the printed fabric to the body underneath it; that the form of the human figure underneath the textile provides a constantly changing ‘landscape’ the print interacts with and defines anew.

By creating paper patterns that she would pin and wrap around her own figure, studying the effect in mirrors to create a distance between the designer and the print, Rhodes would explore the potential of the printed material to shape the garment itself. Cutting into the fabric was more than a case of laying out a dress pattern for Rhodes – judicious use of the printed pattern would guide the cutting of the fabric and the structure of the garment. What may not seem overly radical today was an innovative approach then.

Zandra wearing her Button Flower Coat, 1971. Photo by Duggie Fields.

The Process

The creation of a garment, in Rhodes’s term a ‘Butterfly’, has followed a remarkably consistent approach. Often, an idea for a new print springs from a page in one of the designer’s ubiquitous sketchbooks; Rhodes has a rule that a drawing should be done every day and her sketchbooks are never far from her hand. Working with her studio, the print is drawn and redrawn on large sheets of paper, often being cut apart and reassembled. The sense of the ‘hand’ in Rhodes’s printed textiles is characteristic of her work.

When the final print is decided, it is transferred to a silk screen via handpainted kodatraces and then a series of colour tests are worked out to achieve the desired combination. Sample lengths are produced and working with the printed textile a dress is developed, from initial sketches and draping on a dress stand.

The interaction of a body under the printed fabric is key to Rhodes’s work, and toiles are produced and tested on models. The final pattern for a dress is then drawn on card that has been silkscreened with the design; as many of Rhodes’s looks are in chiffon, the printed, sheer fabric is laid on top and aligned with the printed pattern card. The dress is then cut, sewn and finished in Rhodes’s studio. The construction of the dress is usually the work of a single seamstress, rather than an assembly line approach. This, with the hand printed feel of the fabrics, makes a Zandra Rhodes dress special, something crafted with care, rather than mass production.

At The Opera

In 2000, Zandra Rhodes began to design costumes for the San Diego Opera’s new production of The Magic Flute. This would be the first of three major opera productions that Rhodes would be involved in. From the costumes in The Magic Flute, to the costumes and sets of both The Pearl Fishers and Aida, Rhodes has embraced the challenge in designing for opera.

The artistic element of the projects – the idea that Rhodes is creating something to be enjoyed and appreciated outside the context of commercial fashion – allowed the designer scope to let her imagination flow freely. The results are some of Rhodes’s most creative amongst her prolific career; the designer references her own work, mixing elements of print and pattern in both costumes and sets.

The Sketchbooks

Zandra Rhodes is never far from her sketchbook. Early training at school and art school instilled in her an understanding of the importance of drawing within a creative practice. The designer’s very disciplined approach to her sketchbooks includes drawing every day; she also does not remove pages from her sketchbook. In them, each drawing, whether it is judged successful or not, has an intrinsic value to Rhodes.

These observational drawings form the basis of her print designs. Over the years a visual language has developed in Rhodes’s work; the dialogue between source material and printed textile is always evolving. Elements of the textiles, such as the Rhodes’s wiggle, appear in the drawing – perhaps acting as a part of shading or to define
a landscape or a cloud.

Want to discover more about Fashion and Textile Museum founder, Dame Zandra Rhodes? Download the full exhibition guide and explore with the exhibition images below!


We do hope you’ve enjoyed exploring the Fashion and Textile Museum online. If so, please consider making a donation, to help us continue our work during this difficult time.

Every donation will support us in showcasing contemporary fashion and textile design during our closure, and will assist us in welcoming you back to the Museum when we reopen on Wednesday 5 August.

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