Fashion is an important part of human behavior and culture. It’s also a very fleeting creature. Depending on what is considered modern and chic at any given time, fashions change with the cultural winds. That doesn’t apply only to clothes but also to behavior. Think about being fashionably late, and even travel destinations. One day a certain place is all the rage — where everybody flocks to. The next, it’s outdated. Fashion as a status symbol, an outward expression of your place in society, and many more aspects in life make it such a worthwhile subject to consider in relation to history.
Fashion museums are a neverending source documenting what has been considered essential (and over-the-top) over centuries, giving insight into the drastic changes in male and female clothing and, last but not least, the evolution of the use of fabrics and accessories. Fashion is creativity and art, and not just a frivolous fad as some people seem to think. It affects everything, from makeup and hairstyles to body shape (from Ruben’s voluptuous ladies to Twiggy) and etiquette.
It’s no surprise that fashion museums have sprung up all over the world, either to celebrate the work of a specific designer who has become an icon or to show the evolution of accessories, for example, shoes and handbags.
Follow us on a journey through the world’s most beautiful and popular fashion museums and the fabulous cities they are located in.
1. Yves Saint Laurent Museum
For many years, French designer and couturier Yves Saint Laurent owned a fabulous villa and garden in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh. The name of the sumptuous villa is Oasis, and the lavish, exotic garden is known as Majorelle, after the first owner of the property.
In 2017, the museum YSL opened, located next to Villa Oasis and Majorelle Gardens, so you can easily combine a visit to the museum with a stroll through the property. The 43,000-square-foot museum is a modern structure, combining cubic forms with a façade of terracotta bricks, handmade in Morocco from local materials, and designed to resemble the threads of fabric. It contains 5,000 items of clothing, 15,000 items of couture accessories, and thousands of sketches as well as a book shop, a café, and an extensive research library. Known for inventing tuxedos for women and the safari look, Saint Laurent was the creator of expensive one-of-a-kind frocks, and he also made ready-to-wear fashion available to the less wealthy public. Comfort and elegance are the keywords of his style. The museum provides an extensive overview of all aspects of his creativity as well as the evolution of women’s fashion from the 1960s onward.
2. Victoria & Albert Museum
Located in leafy Kensington, London, the V&A is the world’s largest museum of applied and decorative art and design with 2.27 million objects. Founded in 1852 and named after Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, the fashion department features over 14,000 outfits reaching from the 1600s to the present day. Here you can see how lavishly men used to dress centuries ago and how women finally discarded restricting corsets. Many international designers are represented, and you’ll see outfits worn by celebrities like Audrey Hepburn. Admission is free but a donation is always welcome, and you must now book a tour in advance.
3. Fashion Institute Of Technology
Located at 227 W 27th Street, this museum opened in 1969 and, in yearly changing shows, reflects the world of fashion during the last century. The themes of the shows vary, from Hollywood designer Gilbert Adrian to Denim, Black Fashion, and Queer History of Fashion to Elsa Schiaparelli and Alexander McQueen. It’s a paradise for modern fashionistas. Although it’s part of a college campus, the museum is open to visitors.
4. Ferragamo Museum
Milan may be the fashion capital of Italy, but Florence is the home of the most famous Italian shoemaker: Ferragamo. Located in the basement of the medieval Palazzo Spini Feroni, which was acquired by Salvatore Ferragamo in 1938 as his company seat and workshop, today, the museum houses some 10,000 sketches and shoes as well as wooden lasts of so-called famous feet. Ferragamo’s shoe designs soon became famous and fashionable with rich customers and were featured in movies. They still are coveted because of the quality of the craftsmanship and the instantly recognizable designs. The company now also makes belts and handbags. The building itself, which was restored in 2000, is a delight to behold.
5. Handbag Museum
Handbags are of course an important fashion accessory, and the most famous museum of the history of handbags and purses was in Amsterdam. Sadly, I have to use the past tense, because the museum, located in a building in historical Herrengracht, became a victim of coronavirus and closed permanently in April 2020. You can still admire the building and others of the same style in this canal district. Still-open museums of this kind (which are rare) are the Simone Handbag Museum in Seoul, South Korea, and the ESSE Purse Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas.
6. Lace Museum
As long as it has been made, fine lace has played a major part in adorning garments and hence fashion. The Museum for Lace and Fashion in Calais, France, located in a lace factory, is a treasure trove of all things lace. Whereas lace was originally made entirely by hand, the invention of the loom by the English changed matters. You can learn about the tradition of lace-making in France in this museum as well as admire sumptuous frocks adorned with lace on the first and second floors of the building.
7. Balenciaga Museum
Cristobal Balenciaga was born in Getaria, located some 15.5 miles west of the lovely port city of San Sebastian in the north of Spain, and Getaria is the seat of the museum dedicated to his work. Regarded by many, including his peers like Coco Chanel, as the ultimate couturier as opposed to a fashion designer, he was most famous for the quality of his creations, predominantly ball gowns with swishing skirts and ruffles and wedding gowns. One of his most famous clients was Grace Kelly, and he made the wedding dress for Spanish-born Queen Fabiola of Belgium.
You can reach the museum, which houses about 1,500 items, by bus from San Sebastian. Note that due to current regulations, you must book in advance. Don’t miss a tour of San Sebastian, one of the seven best foodie destinations in the world, or the opportunity to sample the exquisite cuisine while in the area.
8. Frida Kahlo Museum
Known as the Blue House, this museum was the home of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. It can be reached from Mexico City by bus or car as it is only some six miles away. It’s called the Blue House because of its cobalt blue walls. The house contains her paintings, a collection of pre-Columbian sculpture, and, through the lovely garden, her dresses. Frida was as creative and original in her clothing as she was in her artwork, so a visit to the Blue House gives you a unique insight into the life and creativity of this outstanding, often ill, artist.
9. Christian Dior Museum
The founder of one of France’s most prominent fashion houses, Christian Dior, grew up in Villa Les Rhumbs, a grey and pink mansion perched on the edge of a cliff In Granville, Normandy. His childhood home was a source of inspiration for his creations and is now the seat of the Christian Dior Museum. Probably best known for his first collection, named New Look, with its rounded shoulders, full skirts, and cinched waists, Dior quickly made his name as couturier to the stars, including Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe. His sketches and many of his dresses, donated by former customers, can be admired in the beautiful villa. Don’t miss visiting the garden.