The glamorous of the West End fashion boutiques has long been fed by people working in the East End, and now an exhibition pulls back the curtain to tell the stories of these often overlooked people.
More than that though, it looks at the very specific contribution made to London, and the UK’s fashion industry by one group of people – Jews – at a time when a staggering 60% of Jewish migrants arriving in London worked in the clothing trade.
Opening with the arrival of people seeking a better life, the exhibition tells the story of families that took up one of the few trades they could get work in, and while some escaped to riches, many lived in East End poverty, and sometimes in destitution.
It’s a cleverly laid out exhibition, almost a series of shops, so familiar to people who have visited the Museum of London’s Victorian Streets or Sailor Street.
There are a lot of occasionally familiar names, some of which you might not have consciously thought about having been started by a single person who gave their name to the firm, there are many examples here. A replica tailors workshop reminds us how grim the working conditions were with the posters for the Great Strike of London Tailors demanding better pay and working hours.
The exhibition, having explored the dingy working conditions of the East End catches the tube to get to the glamorous West End fashion boutiques.
The East End boys and West End girls
The exhibition enters a totally different world now, of high end fashion and stories of storied persons who lunched and shopped.
The ladies shop feels like you’re stepping back in time to a rarified era when people were born rich and knew it. A dress worn by Princess Diana is here, alongside some of the drawings by David Sassoon that accompanies the designs. The menswear focuses on the later Carnaby Street era, and the songs played are all tracks from pop stars who wore the clothes displayed here.
Dot Cotton’s overcoat is a reminder that it’s not all high-end fashion, M&S bras are just as lauded as any catwalk dress. It turns out that none other than Doctor Who was dressed by the same man who invented the Kipper Tie.
While this is an exhibition filled with clothes and accessories, it’s really much more of an exhibition about the people who created the clothes, both the forgotten makers toiling away in the East End and the famous designers of the West End.
There are a lot of labels telling the family stories of generations of tailors, some of whom are still on the high street today, others scarcely remembered even by the people who bought their clothes.
The stories are what makes this an excellent exhibition to visit and learn about an often overlooked aspect of London’s history. It’s also a cleverly laid out exhibition, evoking the contrasting atmosphere of the tailors and the boutiques, and using a replica tube station to get from the east to the west (with authentic sound effects) is inspired.
The exhibition, Fashion City: How Jewish Londoners shaped global style is open from today at the Museum of London Docklands and until 14th April 2024.
Adults: £12 | Concessions: £8 | Children (12-17)/Student: £6 | Children (<12): Free
Tickets should be booked from here, or bought on the day. The museum is a short walk from the Canary Wharf stations for the Elizabeth and Jubilee lines and the DLR.