11 fashion museums worth visiting around the world

In the great capitals of fashion design but also in smaller towns where tailoring and style have always been crucial, these institutions safeguard and recount the history and art of clothes. 

Fashion is not mere clothing, but a social, cultural, and political phenomenon which reflects the society’s values and beliefs in each time period, promoting significant changes.

And it was precisely to move away from the antiquated power structures prior to the first world war that in the 1920s men’s clothing underwent a simplification or that in 1946 bikinis – just like the miniskirt in the 1960s – become the symbol of a freer attitude towards women’s bodies, or even like in the 1990s grunge apparel became the voice of the rebellion of young people against the materialism of the previous decade.

Courtesy Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum

We’ll have to wait until the end of the 1980s for fashion to become the subject of sociological, anthropological, semiotic, and psychological studies, diverging from the frivolousness and inconsistency that for centuries – and wrongly so – defined it. To aid this popular recognition was not only the growing number of texts published on the matter, but also the institution of museums that, from that moment onward, started to spread around the world and devote major retrospectives to it. “Many art, design, and history museums started to collect fashion pieces, in part as a source of inspiration for future designers and students, in part as a way to educate the general public on how fashion history is part and parcel of cultural history. Just like paintings, it had become clear how fashion could represent and haul past into the present, becoming a source of inspiration for future generations,” explains Valerie Steele, researcher and director of The Museum at FIT in New York.

This guide will lead you to the discovery of various museums that give space to fashion, safeguarding and spreading its narratives through an intimate and faithful dialogue with architecture. Historical places full of anecdotes, fundamental stages of a journey inside and outside Europe, in order to remember – paraphrasing strategic consultant and fashion writer Andrea Batilla – that “there is, indeed, a need for change in fashion, but change always starts from knowledge.”

1. Victoria and Albert Museum, Londra, UK

Initially known as ‘Museum of Manufactures’, the foundation stone for the enlargement work designed by Aston Webb was laid by Queen Victoria herself in 1899. The project included the white marble façade and the addition of long galleries that stretch along Cromwell Road, interspersed with a three-story octagonal structure surmounted by a dome that breaks the monotony of the façade. Upon adopting the name of the Queen and her consort, Prince Albert, the building was inaugurated in 1909 and became one of the largest museums of applied and decorative arts in Europe.

Despite not being a museum devoted exclusively to fashion, the V&A represents an essential stop for all fashion experts and enthusiasts, since it houses the most complete permanent collection in the whole world: covering a time span of five centuries, it hosts rare garments from the 17th century, “mantua” gowns from the 18th century, evening dresses from the 1930s, day dresses from the 1960s and post-war high fashion, in addition to important clothing from the 19th century from the Indian, Chinese, Japanese elite. Moreover, major fashion retrospectives always hold a key role in the program of temporary exhibitions of the V&A: the 2015 “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” is still today one of the most visited exhibitions in the history of the museum.

2. Palais Galliera, Paris, France

In the dream of the Duchess of Galliera, an Italian philanthropist, there was a museum in which to exhibit a broad collection of art, in addition to her own pieces. The project was entrusted to architect Léon Ginain, who completed it in 1894 – after about 16 years of work – and opened it to the public. Surrounded by a garden and freely inspired by Palladianism, the Palais Galliera is an example of the well-known ‘Beaux-Arts,’ very popular in the 19th century and often employed for public buildings.

It was turned into a museum of fashion only in 1977, when he permanently welcomed about 200,000 pieces between clothes, accessories, sketches, and photos from 18th century onwards (among which Marie Antoinette’s gowns) and promoted temporary exhibitions focusing on the most significant time periods and figures in modern and contemporary history.

3. Christian Dior Museum and Garden, Granville, France

From house to museum. It’s a transformation that often occurs in the art world, but not so much in the fashion field. And in fact, Dior’s Villa Les Rhumbs, on the edge of a cliff in Northern France, is today the only "Musée de France" dedicated to a couturier. At the end of the 19th century before Christian Dior’s parents bought it, it belonged to the ship owner Beust: the villa in fact takes the name of an old nautical term used for the thirty-two points of the compass, symbol that also appears on the decorative mosaic on the entrance floor.

The idea of making it into a museum came from Jean-Luc Dufresne, curator and cousin of Christian Dior, who, in 1997, allowed the study of the garments that belonged to the fashion designer’s family and collaborators that shaped an era. Since 2010, in addition to an annual exhibition, this lovely light pink house has been hosting the "Une maison, des collections" (One Maison, Many Collection) exhibition, which includes permanent collections and the most recent acquisitions.

4. ModeMuseum (MoMu), Antwerp, Belgium

Established in 2002, the Fashion Museum of Antwerp is part of the 19th-century ModeNatie building, one of the buildings that shaped the architectural identity of the city. In 2020, the B-architecten studio was assigned with the much-needed renovation and redesign intervention and they chose to look back to the original Marie-José Van Hee’s project and intervene in synergy with her vision.

Following the desire of the Museum to keep open all year long with two temporary exhibitions, the ground floor was redesigned with a bright new entrance and new exhibition areas. Moreover, the institution permanently houses more than 30,000 pieces, offering an exhaustive overview of Belgium’s historical and contemporary designers and of Western European women’s garments, from the 18th century to today.

5. MET, New York, USA

The origin of the MET, which today hosts more than two million art pieces, dates back to 1866, when a rich group of Americans in France, among which lawyer John Jay, sensed the potential of an institution that could bring the art language to Americans. Businessmen, collectors, and philanthropists took part in the project and on April 13th, 1870, the museum opened to the public, but it reached its current address on Fifth Avenue only ten years later.

The Evening Post reported that, thanks to the Richard Morris Hunt’s project, New York at last boasted a Neoclassical palace of art, defining it “one of the finest in the world, and the only public building in recent years which approaches in dignity and grandeur the museums of the old world.” Many additions were made between 1971 and 1991 by architects Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, among which the Robert Lehman Wing, the Sackler Wing, and the Ala Lila Acheson Wallace Wing. 

Like the V&A, the MET has become a benchmark for the fashion industry, despite not being a museum specifically dedicated to that field. Its major exhibitions on the crossroads between fashion and society, culture and history are still today an important filter through which to observe the present. Demonstration of this is Michelle Obama’s inauguration of the “Anna Wintour Costume Center,” the permanent wing that hosts the collection of the Costume Institute and is named after Anna Wintour, the current chair of the MET Gala.

6. The Museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, USA

Established in 1969, today it boasts about 100,000 visitors every year, the impressive result of exhibitions that educate, inspire, and promote the cultural importance of clothing and fashion. Among these, “London Fashion,” which received the first Richard Martin Award for Excellence in the Exhibition of Costume by the Costume Society of America and “The Corset: Fashioning the Body,” which delved into the most controversial garment in the history of fashion.

FIT moved to its current location in Manhattan in 1974, in a building that reflects the essence of the institute as a center of learning and innovation in fashion. In addition to the permanent collection of about 50,000 garments and accessories from the 18th century to the present – among which some from Balenciaga, Chanel, and Dior – the museum hosts other two galleries: one at the lower level, dedicated to special exhibitions, like “Paris, Capital of Fashion” and “Ballerina: Fashion's Modern Muse;” and the FIT Gallery, located on the main floor, which is dedicated to exhibitions of students and professors, like the Graduating Student Exhibition organized every year in May, which fills even the lower floor and the foyers of the entire campus. 

7. Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, Parigi, France

We return for one last time back to France to spotlight one of the most acclaimed destinations in terms of fashion. We are talking about the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris inaugurated in 2017 inside the Fondation Pierre Bergé at 5 Avenue Marceau. Yves Saint Laurent lived here for over thirty years and this is where he designed his most emblematic haute couture collections – those created from 1974 to 2002.

The 450-square-meter space, today, celebrates the couturier’s creativity and innovation with a permanent collection of designs, sketches, photos, and videos. In addition to its monographic ambitions, the museum also addresses the history of the 20th century and the haute couture traditions through thematic exhibitions and great retrospectives. Scenographer Nathalie Crinière and interior designer Jacques Grange curated the exhibition; both of them are long-time collaborators of the Fondation, who managed to recreate the original atmosphere of the fashion house within the building.

8. Museo Cristóbal Balenciaga, Getaria, Spain

Opened in 2011 to pay homage to the Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre in his birthplace, the Museum is in a new wing built as an annex to the beautiful Palacio Aldamar. Located on a hill that overlooks Gateria, the building was originally the residence of the Maquis and Marquess of Casa Torres, grandparents of Queen Fabiola of Belgium and mentors of Balenciaga in the first stages of his career.

Fruit of the collaboration between Julián Argilagos, the creative mind behind the volumetric and structural design, and AV62arquitectos, in charge of the overall elegant design, the Balenciaga Museum has a trapezoidal structure, bold curves, and a glass wall that stretches from the ground all the way to the ceiling. The front façade frames the main entrance with a dark vertical plane that folds on itself, allowing the historical Palacio Aldamar to rise in all its symbolic splendor. Inside, three suspended areas accommodate the permanent and temporary exhibitions, engulfing the visitors in an environment full of charm, accentuated by the dark walls decorated with metallic cuts in the shape of large flowers.

9. Palazzo Museo Fortuny, Venice, Italy

That of Palazzo Fortuny, the largest late Gothic-Venetian style residence in existence, tells a story of charm and beauty that has been fueled for centuries by the events and life projects of its numerous owners. Facing Ca’ Michiel, the large building was commissioned by Benedetto Pesaro between 1460 and 1480, a Venetian nobleman who wanted to connote it with significantly valuable solutions, such as the four poliforas on the first and second piano nobile and the large rooms in between the two facades. Typography, musical academy, printing workshop, the building changed its identity many times, until all Pesaro's heirs scattered, and this magical place became abandoned.

In 1898, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, mesmerized by the magnificence of the building, decided to buy it and turn it into its atelier of silk and velvet clothes and fabrics. Fortuny began, patiently and consistently, the recovery work of the spaces which he later enhanced and enriched with printed fabrics he made himself on the walls, silk chandeliers, armors, antique carpets, and furniture. After Fortuny’s death in 1949, the building was donated by his wife Henriette to the City of Venice to “perpetually used as a center of culture in relation to the arts.” This came true in 1975 with the opening of the Museum to the public, which today hosts, in the same evocative atmosphere, the clothes and textiles realized for the theater by Fortuny’s Atelier, the art pieces he collected and created and those donated by collectors Giuseppe and Giovanna Panza.

10. Kobe Fashion Museum, Kobe, Japan

In the industrial and cosmopolitan heart of Japan, Kobe is home to a structure that is both a cultural institution and a gem of architecture: the Kobe Fashion Museum. Inaugurated in 1997 and designed by the Showa Sekkei studio, the building surges into the cityscape with a design that deliberately evokes a UFO.

The museum program is divided into temporary exhibitions and permanent collections, installed over a surface of 17,000 square meters spread over four floors. With the aim of returning a detailed and comprehensive overview of fashion through the centuries, among the main collections, we draw attention to the one on European men’s and women's clothing from the 18th century and the one dedicated to folk and ceremonial costumes from about 70 different countries, such as the ceremonial robes of the Chinese Qing dynasty, embroidered with unparalleled manual craftmanship.

The KFM also celebrates modernity by exhibiting piece by some of the greatest fashion designers of the 20th century, such as Gabrielle Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, Alexander McQueen, and Martin Margiela. Not to be missed is the section dedicated to photography, posters (including some signed by Irving Penn and Richard Avedon), and about 1,500 patterns from historic publications such as Gazette du bon ton e Modes et manières d’aujourd’hui.

11. China Silk Museum, Hangzhou, China

Opened in 1992 and later renovated in 2016, the China Silk Museum is located near the picturesque West Lake, which reflects the historical relevance of Hangzhou as a center of silk production and trade. From an architectural perspective, the museum mixes elements from the Chinese traditional architecture with modern details; it stretches over a large surface through various galleries, among which the Silk Road Gallery and the Intangible Culture Gallery. Indoors, the natural lighting exalts the delicate textures and colors of the various types of silks on display.

In terms of collections, the museum hosts a broad range of ancient fabrics, both silks and other fibers, and costumes from all over the world. In addition to temporary and permanent exhibitions, the museum plays an active role in researching and preserving fabrics, also thanks to the Chinese Center for Textile Identification and Conservation (CCTIC) founded within the museum in 2000. The museum is also a place where intangible cultural treasures, like sericulture and silk weaving techniques, are studied and safeguarded. Thanks to these initiatives and the collaboration with international institutions, the China Silk Museum can keep on being a global reference for silk history and culture.

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