Review: Fashion City At Museum Of London Docklands

How did London become a fashion powerhouse? Largely thanks to the contribution of Jewish designers, says a new exhibition at Museum of London Docklands.

I can’t say I’ve ever given much through to London’s fashion history. I tend to dress in off-the-shelf Tesco, and the nearest I’ve got to a boutique is playing Barbie with my kids. But Fashion City at Museum of London Docklands appealed even to me, with its deep dive into the capital’s clothing history.

From a famous red coat worn by Princess Diana to the unique garb of Dot Cotton from Eastenders, Fashion City pursues the F word from every angle and social class. At its core, though, are the contributions to fashion made by London’s immigrant communities, and particularly the work of Jewish designers.

Dot Cotton’s coat (left)

The show unfolds among loose mock-ups of London’s streets — a bit like the old Victorian shops of the closed MoL site, or Sailortown upstairs at the Docklands museum. And it’s a show of two halves, starting in the Jewish East End of the late 19th and early 20th century, and concluding in the fashionable West End with a counterfeit Carnaby Street and reproduction Regent Street. In a neat touch, the two fashion epicentres are connected by a pastiche Central line passage.

The Jewish East End is explored in the first half of the exhibition

There’s much to see in both sections. The opening half reminds us that some 100,000 jewish immigrants were living in the East End in the early 20th century, and perhaps half of them worked in some form of tailoring or clothes making — a staggering stat. Besides showing examples of the work undertaken (including an early garment from Moss Bros), the exhibition also explores related themes such as Jewish education. I was astounded to learn that, in 1900, the Jewish Free School in Spitalfields was possibly the largest in the world, with 4,000 pupils.

High couture of Regent Street

The second half of the exhibition feels like a very different world. We’re on the brightly lit streets of the West End, with stylish couture bursting out of every corner. Here you’ll find the coat worn by Diana when she announced her first pregnancy, the more avant-garde creations of Carnaby designers (often of Jewish background), and that iconic second-hand coat worn by Dot Cotton (“we hope Dot will forgive us placing it in the West End section”, quips the label).

It’s true, the exhibition will appeal more to those with a strong interest in fashion, dressmaking and tailoring. But there’s enough social history here to ensure the show is well suited (pun intended) for the more casual visitor. Perhaps it’ll even inspire me to look beyond the clothes rails of Tesco…  

Fashion City opens at Museum of London Docklands on 13 October 2023 and runs until 14 April 2024. Adult entry from £12.

Leave a Comment

Subscribe Now and get 5% discount on your first Booking