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All dressed up and somewhere to go

Clothes are meant to be worn. But those in museum collections hardly ever are. Until now. Nicki Household sashays into the Vamp;A.

Drop into London's Victoria and Albert Museum and you may be treated to the surprising sight of stylish fashion models strolling through the galleries wearing the latest creations by leading British designers. Fashion in Motion is a new monthly event, designed to bridge the gap between catwalk shows, which few of us ever attend, and photographs or static museum displays.

The idea is to exhibit the work of cutting-edge British designers such as Jimmy Choo, Deborah Milner and Alexander McQueen as it is meant to be seen - in motion.

This parade, at 1pm and 4pm on the second Wednesday of each month, is one of several initiatives aimed at enlivening the Vamp;A's presentation of fashion. Others include On the Street, an exhibition of photographs taken on January 1, showing what people chose to wear on the first day of the new century, and (later in the year) Influenced By ..., in which leading designers will display their clothes alongside the museum's period garments that inspired them. Vivienne Westwood can sometimes be seen sketching 18th- or 19th-century outfits in the dress gallery.

"What the collection shows, above all, is how the past informs the future," says Valerie Mendes, chief curator of the dress and textile department. "It's a great inspiration to designers because, in one room, they can time travel through four centuries of style, including underwear, hats, shoes, fans and other accessories." The collection, covering women's and men's dress from 1540 to the present, concentrates on high fashion, fine workmanship and innovative design.

We are all so used to seeing period dress in costume drama that we probably don't appreciate the rarity of genuine historical garments.In the past, clothes tended to be worn out, thrown out or remodelled by thrifty owners, so very few survived intact. However, all the clothes in the Vamp;A's permanent exhibition are bona fide examples, preserved (like James II's wedding suit of 1673) because they were made for a special occasion.

Each outfit is mounted so that it looks as it did when it was worn, with all the appropriate supports and undergarments, and the mannequins, though lifelike, have pale wigs and shadow make-up so as not to detract from the clothes.

Since textiles are biodegradable, lighting in the gallery is subdued to slow the inevitable fading and disintegration of the garments.

The 20th century is well-represented. Dresses have been donated by people such as Dame Margot Fonteyn (a 1955 Christian Dior cocktail dress that showed off her 20-inch waist) and the Duchess of Windsor (a frothy black number that she wore in her sixties), as well as designs from Mary Quant, Jean Muir and Zandra Rhodes to Lanvin and Balenciaga. Sometimes the museum requests exhibits - such as the Vivienne Westwood platform shoes that Naomi Campbell famously fell off.

"Teachers can get almost anything they want from the dress collection," says Ms Mendes. "Obviously, it's wonderful for art and design at secondary level. But it can also bring the past alive for younger children, sparking discussions about the kind of houses people lived in, the way they sat and whether the ladies did housework. Clothes are easy to relate to and children always have strong opinions about the ones they like."

* Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2RL. Tel: 0207 942 2197. Open daily 10am-5.45pm.

Admission free to school parties who have booked through the education department. Teachers' handbooks available.

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