The Museo del Tessuto in Prato is currently holding an exhibition called Mr & Mrs Clark to showcase the impressive fashion collaborations between dress designer Ossie Clark and fabric creator Celia Birtwell from 1965 to 1974.
Just a short distance from Florence, Prato is a city that was built on the textile industry, and the city’s Textile Museum showcases this incredible history. The Mr and Mrs Clark temporary exhibition, which will run there until January 8, 2023, is the first in Italy to be dedicated to the husband-and-wife designers, who helped to shape the fashion scene of Swinging Sixties London.
Though small in scale, the exhibition does an excellent job at showcasing the individuality of both designers and the way their arts came together to create something spectacular. In the first room, a video interview with Celia Birtwell is projected onto the wall, in which she speaks about how she met Ossie Clark at the Royal College of Art in Manchester, her relationship with him as a business partner and as his wife, and what made his work and their collaboration so successful. The following experience feels more personal after being introduced to Birtwell in this way and gaining a deeper understanding for the couple. On either side of the projection are collections of sketchbooks and designs providing insight into the creative processes of each stylist and the differences between them. For example, Birtwell’s sketchbooks show the soft shapes and two-dimensional drawings that make up the designs of her prints, and these are shown alongside the finished fabrics. On the other hand, Clark’s drawings are far more three-dimensional and utilise much sharper shapes in order to design the cuts and silhouettes of his clothing. Included among these drawings is a design for a famous suit that he made for Mick Jagger.
Moving into the main room, a section is dedicated to Birtwell’s rapport with artist David Hockney, who painted the famous Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1971), which is at the Tate Modern in London. There is also an exhibit showing the works of photographers who captured the impressive power of Clark and Birtwell’s dresses, and this provides as much context as possible for the main event, which lies just beyond: 40 mannequins wearing beautiful examples of the womenswear clothing lines that were the result of the two designers’ marriage of ideas. The outfits include stunning original dresses and two-piece suits, many bearing bright prints. Along the wall towards the back is a projection showing mesmerising footage from Ossie Clark’s fashion shows, which are particularly impressive for being among the first to combine fashion with music and dance. At the very back of the room is a collection of paper dresses bearing bold designs, contrasting the carefully made womenswear with an intriguing but popular 1960s phenomenon of cheap single-wear dresses that could be customized with just a pair of scissors.
The rest of the Textile Museum is equally fascinating, beginning with an exhibit that demonstrates the evolution of fashion over time, with fabrics and clothing from the late 18th century to the 1950s. Included are many captivating examples of men’s and women’s fashion history, with highlights being a Romantic-era 1830s dress, a bustled wedding dress from the end of the 19th century, and an embroidered 18th century men’s coat. Further exhibits include a tactile display of different types of textiles, a room filled with artefacts from the production of fabrics as part of local industry, and also a room with an immersive video explaining the history of Prato’s textile industry.
The Mr & Mrs Clark exhibition has guided tours available on certain weekend dates, twice a month. The Textile Museum is open 10am-3pm Tuesday to Thursday, 10am-7pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 3-7pm on Sundays. Closed Mondays.