6th October 2000 at 01:00
Serendipity. That's the posh word for it (not to mention everybody's favourite, according to a national poll). Actually, I was lost - only briefly, but it's easily done at the Victoria and Albert Museum - and I found myself in an enchanted world of paper frocks. Papiers a la mode is an exhibition of exquisite period gowns made out of drafting paper, lens cleansing tissue, glue and a few beads and sequins. It comes as a shock to read the caption to a perfect, apparently silk, 18th century "robe a l'Anglaise": Isabelle de Borchgrave and Rita Brown 1993-1998. There are talks on the exhibition - which may be found in the European Dress section and which is in place until January - on October 11 and 18.

The little digression was a useful one. I was on my way to see Imperfect Beauty: the Making of Contemporary Fashion Photographs in the Vamp;A's Canon Gallery and it was striking that this exhibition is, in contrast, not much about clothes at all but very much about the construction of images. Leading to the main displays is another related exhibition, Attitude: a History of Posing, which offers a fascinating insight into the artistry that went into early photography. As well as familiar portraits of rustic sitters by Julia Margaret Cameron and famous public figures such as Queen Alexandra and the Queen Mother when young, there are some surprises from the 19th and 20th centuries. Often there is nothing at all casual about the subject - a boxer, say, in 1860, his knuckles at the ready, or representatives of the upper classes dressed as toffs from an earlier era at a fancy dress ball in 1897 - but there is never anything casual about the photographer's intentions. Note Ian MacDonald's portrait of Mark Osborne, a third year in a Cleveland comprehensive captured "during the morning art class on a dull day". The sitter looks steadfastly out of the frame, rather as children's portraits of each other do.

But this is just the hors d'oeuvre. Imperfect Beauty itself graphically demonstrates the methods by which those glossy fashion spreads are achieved. By gathering Post-it notes, snaps, polaroids and chatty comments from designers, photographers, stylists, hairdressers and make-up artists the exhibition clearly demonstrates the care and team work - and often the serious artistic intention - which go into fashion photography.

Many of the names will be familiar only to those in the business, but the work is instantly recognisable. This is an exhibition of practical use to the student, but it also raises all kinds of questions about how we see each other, how we can be persuaded to attempt to look like someone else and how attitudes to beauty (and by implication its opposite) are shaped. There are other displays and a book on the subject as well as events for students, including a study day on October 28. For information: 020 7942 2197; Later that day I attended my first fashion show. Antoni and Alison had made a jokey video to accompany their very skinny models, each with scraped-back hair and sooty eyes, as they appeared in turn in a sort of exploded potting shed. There were A-line skirts and teeny hot pants, and influences ranging fro Gothic horror to an egg. The point is that the video was a cross between Monty Python and Gilbert and George. Is art fashion? Are Gilbert and George artists? To help the class discussion try the relevant web site: Go to Apocalypse at the Royal Academy and you and your students may be even further from a definition of "art". You begin by entering Gregor Schneider's "Cellar" and experiencing claustrophobia (or you can just get the idea from a video). This exhibition has some supposedly shocking elements but the first thing to understand is that it requires time. Only one person every six minutes is allowed into Mariko Mori's cool, white-canopied "Dream Temple", so you will need to arrive earlier in the day than I did to see the video inside. Maurizio Cattelan's model of the Pope literally carpeted by a meteorite, "La Nona Ora", is no longer particularly shocking, having been photographed so often, but the catalogue makes it the starting point for a religious debate.

Jake and Dinos Chapman's "Hell,1999-2000" consists of cases full of thousands of tiny tortured plastic figures and includes Nazi references. One grainy photograph of a pile of shoes at Auschwitz would be infinitely more telling. I wasn't in a very good mood when I entered the final room and thenI I cheered up. I defy anyone to encounter Jeff Koons's gorgeous, huge, shining, red "Balloon Dog" and not smile. It's probably art, but I didn't particularly care either way.

There is an impressive schedule of accompanying events, including Beauty and Horror: A Debate on November 17 when the curators will discuss the exhibition with Andrew Marr and Howard Brenton. Information: 020 7300 5839; The first of four Stilgoe Saturday Concerts for families and schools takes place on October 14 at the Royal Festival Hall. Young musicians will take part with the witty composer, including 12-year-old Matthew Palmer playing Haydn's trumpet concerto. Tickets: 020 7960 4242.

Black History Month is being celebrated in style at North Westminster School in London with an impressive programme of events featuring Asian dance and drama until November 21 in the Borderlines festival. For information: 020 7641 8424.

Hull Truck Theatre is touring Thick as a Brick, a musical comedy by John Godber set in Common Road High, a problem school. Mary Clifford goes back to teaching after a 15-year break and finds that some adjustment is necessary. The headmaster is played by Roger Butcher, a teacher for 30 years until he became an actor in 1997. The tour takes in venues from Bury St Edmunds to Scarborough, Mold and Dorking between now and December. Information and tickets: 01482 323638.

Tomorrow sees the last day of Under the Blue Sky at the Royal Court in London. Three teacher couples sort out their relationships. To my mind the first two sets are caricatures, but there is a touching performance from Sheila Hancock in the funny, gentle final section. This play is one of those reviewed on the TES hot news website: Others include the RSC's Henry V, Julius Caesar at the Young Vic and the National's Cherry Orchard.

Heather Neil

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