X-Ray Artist Nick Veasey collaborates with the historic institution for a new look at their collection
For over 500 years the Victoria & Albert museum has represented the pinnacle of human cultural advancement in the fields of design, fashion, manufacturing and art. Throughout this time, the V&A has amassed tens of thousands of precious objects, garments and works that give us a rare insight into the infinite creativity of humanity.
The V&A fashion collection is one of the most lauded – composing of one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world with garments and accessories of all cultures and giants of the modern fashion industry featured in equal measure. However, maintaining such a collection and being able to understand and catalogue it properly has been a challenge since the start.
One of the key questions has always been how to fully understand the makeup of a garment without unstitching it open to analyse its construction. In 2016 the V&A embarked on a major project to solve this precise problem and unlock some of the secrets of their collection through X-ray photography.
Collaborating with renown x-ray photographer Nick Veasey, the V&A was able to go below the surface of their objects, uncovering new territory of interior structure, materials and construction. Revealing these unseen details is a tiresome, meticulous and significantly expensive process – nevertheless the project has continued and resulted in paradigm shifting insights and a new collection of beautiful forensic photograph artworks – in Veasey’s words: “a combination of science and art”.
I am drawn to X-ray as it is a study of the subject from the inside out. Normally we see the reflected light from the surface of an object, but X-ray reveals what, and often how, things are made. It is an honest scientific process. I like the results as they have integrity – they show things for what they truly are.Nick Veasey
The idea behind the X-ray documentation was Veasey’s; he created a mobile truck and photo studio (which includes a darkroom, a preparation area and a lead-lined X-ray room) that would allow for the safe execution of the X-rays for the whole collection within the confines of the Museum’s buildings in South Kensington. Creating a state-of-the-art, portable studio was a tour de force in itself; as the museum’s own site puts it
“given the fragile and precious nature of the subject matter, the production of each X-ray is like a surgical operation. The X-ray is produced on a sheet of film, which is processed and edited before passing through a scanner to become a digital file. Many of the finished photographs are made from multiple sheets of film which have been stitched together to form a seamless picture.”V&A Website
Thanks to the efforts of this collaboration, academicians, historians and students of fashion have been able to study the textiles and fabrics to a deeper level than was ever thought possible. Highlights that arose from the process include a pair of 18th-century English stays (a type of boned bodice worn as an undergarment) which had a “concealed line of eyelets in the stays, suggesting they may have been repurposed at some stage” and the ‘Blitz’ denim jacket, made by Levi Strauss & Co. (later customised by Leigh Bowery in 1986 – one of a series of unique commissions from Blitz magazine) the X-rays revealed that the jacket is actually “lined with plastic silver discs, while the exterior is covered with hair pins, creating an arresting, frenetic energy on the X-ray image”.
By X-raying these invaluable and mostly irreplaceable garments in isolation we have made a collection of scientific examinations that let the clothes reveal their story… The X-ray highlights the textures, the nuances, the structure, the tailoring, the rhythm of the garment… I think what has manifested is beguilingly beautiful and interesting. It shows fashion in a new light, an X-ray light.Nick Veasey
Three of Nick’s spectacular life-size X-rays will feature in an upcoming V&A exhibition Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, alongside the original garment. This is one not to miss!