Review: A Century of Style: Costume and Colour 1800-1899, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum


Agnes Checka

As an art lover without any particular interest in fashion, upon entering Kelvingrove’s Costume and Colour exhibition, I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, after seeing the array of vibrant, stunning pieces in all their glory, I have to admit that fashion is not to be dismissed as inferior to any other art form.  

Located in the downstairs area of the museum, the exhibition offers a glimpse into the world of nineteenth-century fashion, presented in a well-crafted historical and social frame of reference. Beautifully laid out, it is divided into nine small sections, each corresponding to a different colour. The first section is grey, clearly playing on the modern-day assumption that the 19th century was dreary and devoid of colour. Unsurprisingly, the exhibition then challenges this presumption, contrasting the grey with an explosion of varied colours and textures.

Exceptionally stunning and complex dresses are displayed on spinning plates, and this, coupled with strategic placement of large mirrors along the walls make it possible to admire the pieces from all angles. The quality is outstanding, and some pieces are so utterly timeless that they might even be considered fashionable today, from chunky-knit capes and quirky crocheted bags, to sequined evening dresses. This exhibition is a prime testament to the cyclical nature of fashion, to the tendency of trends to resurface in different eras.

As well as aesthetically pleasing, the exhibition is also highly informative, detailing the ways in which particular hues were achieved pre-chemical colouring and mass production, as well as the meanings conveyed by these colours, such as the societal status of the wearer. For example, a deep red colour held connotations of royalty, but to achieve this lasting colour required a delightful combination of dung, blood and urine. Another interesting detail to be gleaned from the exhibition is that the first analine dye, used to achieve a purple shade, was discovered by William Henry Perkin in 1856 when he was trying to extract an artificial form of quinine, a drug used to treat malaria. With his new-found purple substance, he went on to produce the dye commercially in the late 1850s.

The only downside to the exhibition is its dim lighting. Presumably, this is necessary to avoid damaging the delicate fabrics with exposure to harsh light, however, it unfortunately means that in places the descriptions are hard to read, and it is difficult to see some of the finer details of the pieces, so any sticklers for detail might want to bring a torch!

The Costume and Colour exhibition will take you on an eye-opening and enjoyable journey through nineteenth-century Glasgow’s fashion industry and craftsmanship, whilst simultaneously teaching you about the city’s societal structures, customs and superstitions. If you have £3 and an hour to spare, head to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum to experience it all first-hand – it’s worth every penny.

A Century of Style: Costume and Colour 1800-1899 is now showing in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, tickets £5/£3