A European grand tour wouldn’t be complete without taking in some of the great art, from the Sistine Chapel ceiling to the Mona Lisa. But fashion is art too. And whether you are visiting one country or taking a multi-region Eurail pass tour, you can find some stunning fashion and design exhibits to visit. Better yet, these exhibits are sprinkled throughout the continent, not just in Paris and Milan, so you can learn about fashion history wherever you go.
One of the largest museums of decorative arts and design, the Victoria and Albert Museum was founded in 1852 with the support of Prince Albert and the Society of the Arts. Stroll through the Greek and Roman sculpture gallery, explore the South Asian and Islamic Middle Eastern exhibits, and then circle round to the fashion rotunda. The V&A’s historical fashion exhibit is permanent and, like the rest of the museum, free to the public. Find the start of the exhibit in the seventeenth century, and follow the circular costume timeline around to the twentieth century. (This room is a little dark for photos, unfortunately.)
At the center of the rotunda is a rotating two-story special exhibit which you will need a separate ticket to enter. Previous special exhibits include the uber-popular Christian Dior exhibit, which was a fashion fantasyland; an exhibit on Mary Quant’s influence on fashion in the 1960s; a display on the history of Indian textiles; and studies of the intersection between food, design, and sustainability.
Depending on the special exhibit, tickets can sell out fast, so you may need to buy one online a few weeks or more in advance. There is often more than one exhibit on fashion, design, or textiles that is set up in another wing of the museum. For the free permanent exhibits, reserve a timed ticket online the day before or the morning of your planned visit.
From Paddington Station in London, the Fashion Museum in Bath is about a 90-minute train ride plus a 15-minute walk. Make a day or weekend trip out of it, and visit the Roman Baths, the American Museum (yes—American!), and Jane Austen sites as well. If you’re especially 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 shows items from the seventeenth century onward (as do most fashion exhibits, because older textiles are rarer and harder to preserve). It is closed until March 2021, when it will open with the exhibits “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 wood pattens with an iron ring, which are referenced in a description of Bath in Austen’s Persuasion. General admission tickets to the Fashion Museum are 9.50 pounds. Be sure to also check out their annual Dress of the Year selection online.
The Rijksmuseum is the national arts and history museum in Amsterdam, first founded in 1798. With its extensive exhibits on Dutch art, design, applied arts, and fashion, you can see famous Rembrandts and Vermeers on the upper levels (also available to view online), and then descend to the lower floors of the museum for gorgeous historical costumes. The costume collection numbers 10,000 pieces in total (though not all of it is on display at once), and covers mostly upper-class clothing from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. From home, you can explore their online exhibit, “Inner Beauty,” which features 24 themed collections, including Fancy Headgear, Art Deco Fashion Plates, Saints and Their Attributes, and various Japanese motifs (waves, wisteria, plum blossoms).
General admission to the Rijksmuseum is 19 Euros, and anyone under 18 is free. If you are interested in a special exhibit, you can reserve a time slot online for no extra charge. Check out the museum shop for gorgeous floral home décor (specializing in tulips!), as well as great books on art, history, and fashion history (many in English).
The Pitti Palace resembles a fortress more than a palace, and it may not look as big as obvious monster-museums such as The Met or the V&A, but it still warrants the devotion of a full afternoon or two, depending on your interests. Not only does the Pitti house extensive artwork, but the core of the building itself is from the 1400s, with more wings added over the next few centuries.
Several floors of the Pitti are dedicated to art from the Renaissance to 1900. The Palatine Gallery features over 500 Renaissance paintings from the Medicis’ private collection. Famous works include pieces by Rafael, Titian, Caravaggio, and Rubens. You’ll find art depicting biblical scenes that go beyond the typical portrayals of the Nativity, Annunciation, and Crucifixion. Explore the Royal Apartments next, where you can see eighteenth- and nineteenth-century lavish draperies, canopy beds, and ornate furniture that rival that of Versailles. On the top floor (floor 3, but it’s Europe so you may have to take five flights of stairs to get there!), you can find the Museum of Costume and Design.
Most of the Costume exhibit is dedicated to the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, though there are also a few rare pieces from the sixteenth century, including a dress worn by Eleonora of Toledo. A Spanish noblewoman, Toledo married into 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 river at the Uffizi. The exhibit includes many more court and gala gowns, as well as a number of theatrical costumes gathered by Umberto Tirelli, a tailor and collector who outfitted actors for theater and film in the twentieth century.
Items in the costume exhibit are displayed in glass cases often set away from the walls so that visitors can see from multiple sides. Like the rest of the Pitti, the rooms of the costume exhibit are works of art themselves and quite a contrast to the minimalistic display rooms at museums such as The Met and the V&A.
Tickets for the Pitti Palace are 16 euros. You can reserve an entrance time online and also purchase tickets for a second day at the Pitti’s Boboli Gardens, which encompass 11 acres and reach a half-mile down to the city gate.
If you are in Florence for a while, you can also visit the Gucci Museo and Ferragamo Museo. However, like many branded museums, these focus on their design houses and generally offer less history and context.
The Palazzo Morando is a historic Milanese house originally built in the sixteenth century and then “updated” in 1651. Today, the Palazzo is still decorated and furnished from that period. You can wander through galleries of paintings portraying both everyday life and historic scenes from Milan’s history from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century.
In the newer wing across the center courtyard, Costume Moda Immagine features clothing from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century. The exhibits are easier to see than some other museums that set clothing 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 sleeves, or trimmings on the back of a coat. You can also explore Costume Moda’s archives online, although you may need to translate the page into English to read the details about each object.
Costume Moda is free to the public and located within Milan’s old city center, on an upscale shopping street about a 10-minute walk from the Duomo.
Palais Galliera / Musée de la Mode – Paris, France
The Musée de la Mode is located near the Jardins du Trocadero and almost directly across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. Musée de la Mode divides its archives into several collections: one collection each for the eighteenth through the twenty-first century, as well as the Haute Couture collection, the Undergarments department, and the Accessories department. There are also collections dedicated to fashion photographs, prints, and drawings. The variety of images include samples of advertisements, publicity photographs, candid pictures of models and fashion-forward celebrities, as well as fashion plates and studio sketches. You can get an online glimpse of about 25-30 items from each collection.
Musée de la Mode is currently closed, but plans to open again in October 2020 with its first exhibit on Chanel, “Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto.” Tickets are 12 euros for ages 18-26, and 14 euros for people age 26+.
If you have more time and love fashion and design, you can also visit Paris’s fan museum, design museum, and decorative arts museum.