Installing Biba

As a Volunteer at the Beecroft Art Gallery I get to help set up fantastic exhibitions and this May I was particularly excited about the installation of Biba. In the build up to the grand unveiling of Biba, the Beecroft and Southend Central Museum became exciting hives of activity, ladders were ascended, cases were built, mannequins were mounted and signs were hung, all ready for the opening night.

In the costume store I was initially conserving items ready for display. I was able to search through a dizzying array of objects, from a glamorous gold-rimmed dining set to a jar of Biba branded stuffing mix (much better suited for exhibition rather than consumption…)

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Of particular delight to clean was a make-up counter display, still with its original eye-shadow palettes, for customers to sample. Dust had become ingrained in the grooves but with a little bit of coaxing it emerged shining and I could imagine myself as a client dabbing eye-shadow onto my lids.

As I worked through these items I grasped how Biba were champions of branding. One such box I cleaned was a black box printed with the distinctive art-deco Biba logo, and would have encased a customer’s catalogue order. Once I was finished cleaning these items they were ready to load up onto a crate for their voyage next door to Southend Central Museum to install.

The next day it was time to help set up the Beecroft exhibition space. As Ciara (Assistant Curator of Social History) and Claire (Museums Conservator) worked on the mannequins, Ruby and I helped Mark (Buildings & Exhibitions Officer) to hang sheer gold curtains, continuing the atmospheric gold and black theme that Ciara had created. We developed quite the system, tying knots in nylon string and looping the fabric onto wooden hangings. My self-modelled D.I.Y attitude would continue the following day, as Mark constructed a feat of engineering to hang the snazzy gold curtains in the next-door gallery. Whilst I have not mastered the art of carpentry quite yet I am now able to change a screwdriver head and am highly adept at climbing step-ladders, essential skills in installing!

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Yet it was not all joinery, as the costumes next needed to be carefully steamed, so that all garments were looking their very best prior to installation. Steaming itself was a precarious balance between carefully maintaining intended pleats whilst not creating unwanted creases. Nevertheless much satisfaction was to be had, of particular delight to me was the beautiful pair of silken dressing gowns in the far case. Both were in a slightly sorry creased state but after a steam they emerged smooth and shining.


Biba bikini and catalogue order packaging

Following steaming, the mannequins were placed in cases and on plinths. Flat display spaces in the middle of the gallery were also filled to provide insight into the Biba brand. In one case Ruby and I arranged Biba catalogues from the early 1970s. On top of these we laid out a dinky pink bikini, the very same as the one advertised in the catalogue below. Similarly, the lacy ‘siren suit’ printed on the pages of another catalogue could be seen mounted on a mannequin opposite. It was interesting to see how these garments were styled in the catalogue with sultry, dark art photography to capture gamine Biba girls.

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This distinctive Biba girl was recreated in the exhibition, especially with the curled wigs gracing the mannequins’ heads. Each wig was in fact formed by pinning individual pieces of curled crin fabric, which is used in millinery.

After receiving teaching from Ruby I lent my hand at cutting, winding and heating the crin into curls. Once in the proficient hands of Claire, these curls became transformed into natty hairstyles that were the finishing touch to each mannequin.

After each mannequin had received her new hairstyle it was time to complete the last job and hang labels next to the mannequins. We then quickly changed into our glad-rags, ready for the private view. I had had such a good time helping to set up and I was excited to hear people’s reactions. Walking around and listening to guests it was satisfying to hear their enjoyment of the exhibition and overhear a few Biba tales!  And now I can’t wait for next year’s exhibitions…

Iona Farrell  – Museums Volunteer






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