A great European tour wouldn’t be complete without some great art, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the Mona Lisa. But fashion is also an art. And whether you’re visiting a country or taking a multi-regional Eurail pass tour, you can experience some great fashion and design exhibits to visit. Best of all, these exhibitions are scattered across the continent, not just in Paris and Milan, so you can learn about the history of fashion wherever you go.
Victoria and Albert Museum – London, United Kingdom
One of the largest museums of decorative arts and design, the Victoria and Albert Museum was founded in 1852 with support from Prince Albert and the Society of the Arts. Stroll through the gallery of Greek and Roman sculptures, explore exhibits from South Asia and the Islamic Middle East, then take a tour of the Fashion Rotunda. The V&A’s historic fashion exhibit is permanent and, like the rest of the museum, free to the public. Find the start of the exhibition in the 17th century, and follow the chronology of circular costumes to the 20th century. (This room is a bit dark for photos, unfortunately.)
In the center of the rotunda is a special rotating two-story exhibition for which you will need a separate ticket to enter. Previous special exhibitions include the hugely popular Christian Dior exhibition, which was a fashion fantasy land; an exhibition on Mary Quant’s influence on fashion in the 1960s; an exhibition on the history of Indian textiles; and studies on the intersection of food, design and sustainability.
Depending on the special exhibit, tickets can sell out quickly, so you may need to purchase one online a few weeks or more in advance. Often there is more than one fashion, design or textile exhibit that is installed in another wing of the museum. For free permanent exhibitions, book an hourly ticket online the day before or the morning of your scheduled visit.
Fashion Museum – Bath, United Kingdom
From London Paddington Station, the Bath Fashion Museum is around 90 minutes by train and 15 minutes on foot. Make it a day or weekend trip and also visit the Roman Baths, the American Museum (yes, American!) And the sites of Jane Austen. If you’re particularly interested in Jane Austen or the Regency Era, you can even plan your trip around the annual Jane Austen Festival, which features balls and other events for which you can rent Regency costumes.
The Fashion Museum features 17th-century artefacts (like most fashion exhibits, as older textiles are rarer and harder to keep). It is closed until March 2021, when it will open with the “Biodiversity”, “Myths and Monsters” and “Shoephoria! The shoe exhibit will feature the museum’s oldest shoe, an embroidered red velvet mule from the 1690s, as well as wooden designs with an iron ring, which are referenced in a description from Bath in Austen. Persuasion. General admission tickets to the Fashion Museum cost £ 9.50. Be sure to also check out their annual Dress of the Year selection online.
Rijksmuseum – Amsterdam, Netherlands
The Rijksmuseum is the national museum of art and history in Amsterdam, first founded in 1798. With its many exhibitions on Dutch art, design, applied arts and fashion, you can see the famous Rembrandt and Vermeers on the upper levels (also available online), then descend to the lower floors of the museum for magnificent historical costumes. The costume collection has 10,000 pieces in total (although not all of them are on display at the same time) and mainly covers upper class clothing from the 17th to the 20th century. From home, you can explore their online exhibition, “Inner Beauty,” which features 24 themed collections, including fancy hairstyles, Art Deco fashion platters, saints and their attributes, and various Japanese motifs (waves, wisteria, flowers plum tree).
General admission to the Rijksmuseum is 19 euros, and anyone under 18 is free. If you are interested in a special exhibition, you can reserve a time slot online at no additional cost. Check out the museum shop for beautiful floral home decorations (specializing in tulips!), As well as excellent books on art, history, and fashion history (many in English).
Costume and Fashion Museum at Palazzo Pitti – Florence, Italy
The Pitti Palace looks more like a fortress than a palace, and it might not look as big as museums of obvious monsters such as the Met or the V&A, but it still deserves devotion. a full afternoon or two, depending on your interests. Not only is the Pitti home to many works of art, but the core of the building itself dates back to the 1400s, with other wings added in subsequent centuries.
Several floors of the Pitti are devoted to Renaissance art to 1900. The Palatine Gallery displays over 500 Renaissance paintings from the private Medici collection. Famous works include pieces by Rafael, Titian, Caravaggio and Rubens. You will find works of art depicting biblical scenes that go beyond the typical depictions of the Nativity, Annunciation, and Crucifixion. Then explore the Royal Apartments, where you can see lavish 18th- and 19th-century hangings, four-poster beds, and ornate furnishings that rival those in Versailles. On the top floor (3rd floor, but this is Europe, you may have to take five flights of stairs to get there!) You will find the Museum of Costume and Design.
Most of the costume exhibition is dedicated to the 18th and 20th centuries, although there are a few rare 16th-century pieces as well, including a dress worn by Eleonora of Toledo. Spanish nobility, Toledo married the Medici family in 1538 and became the Duchess of Florence. Her dress is on display at the Pitti, and a portrait of her wearing said dress can be seen across the Arno at the Uffizi. The exhibition includes many other court and gala dresses, as well as a number of theatrical costumes collected by Umberto Tirelli, a tailor and collector who outfitted actors for theater and cinema in the 20th century.
Objects in the costume exhibition are displayed in display cases often far from the walls so that visitors can see from several sides. Like the rest of the Pitti, the costume showrooms themselves are works of art and contrast quite a bit with the minimalist showrooms at museums such as the Met and the V&A.
Tickets for the Pitti Palace are 16 euros. You can book an hour of entry online and also purchase tickets for a second day at Boboli de Pitti Gardens, which sprawl over 11 acres and stretch for 800 meters to the city gate.
If you are in Florence for a while, you can also visit the Gucci Museo and the Ferragamo Museo. However, like many branded museums, these focus on their design houses and generally offer less history and context.
Palazzo Morando: Moda Immagine Costume – Milan, Italy
Palazzo Morando is a historic Milanese house originally built in the 16th century and then “updated” in 1651. Today the Palazzo is still decorated and furnished from this period. You can walk through galleries of paintings depicting both everyday life and historical scenes from the history of Milan from the 17th to the 19th century.
In the newer wing across the central courtyard, Costume Moda Immagine features clothing from the 17th to the 21st century. Exhibits are easier to see than some other museums that put clothes in cases against the wall. Here, Costume Moda displays many items in the center of the room, which is ideal for clothing so you can examine the embroidery on the sides of the sleeves or the trims on the back of a coat. You can also explore the Costume Moda archives online, although you may need to translate the page to English to read the details on each item.
Costume Moda is free to the public and located in Milan’s old city center, on an upscale shopping street about a 10-minute walk from the Duomo.
Palais Galliera / Fashion Museum – Paris, France
The Fashion Museum is located near the Jardins du Trocadéro and almost directly across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. The Fashion Museum divides its archives into several collections: one collection for each from the 18th to the 21st century, as well as the Haute Couture collection, the Underwear department and the Accessories department. There are also collections dedicated to fashion photographs, prints and drawings. The variety of images includes sample ads, advertising photographs, candid images of forward-thinking models and celebrities, as well as fashion plaques and studio sketches. You can preview around 25-30 items from each collection online.
The Fashion Museum is currently closed, but plans to reopen in October 2020 with its first exhibition on Chanel, “Gabrielle Chanel.” Fashion manifesto. Tickets are 12 euros for 18-26 year olds and 14 euros for over 26 year olds.
If you have more time and like fashion and design, you can also visit the Fan Museum, the Design Museum and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris.