In December the V&A announces that it has acquired a burkini – a full-body swimming costume. The garment, first launched in 2004 to encourage Muslim women into sports, became a symbol of national identity politics in France this summer, as women were fined for, and in some cases banned from, wearing the garment in public.
The burkini joins other timely acquisitions including a flag designed for the first ever Refugee team to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games, and a Vote Leave campaign leaflet distributed in the run-up to the UK’s referendum on European Union membership.
All objects are now on display in the Museum’s regularly updated Rapid Response Collecting gallery exploring how current global events, political changes and pop cultural phenomena impact, or are influenced by, design, art, architecture and technology.
The Museum acquired the burkini from Melbourne-based fashion designer Aheda Zanetti. Zanetti invented the swimwear garment in 2004 through her brand Ahiida as a solution for Muslim women wanting to dress more modestly when participating in sport.
The garment comprises a long-sleeved knee-length top with close-fitting hood and trousers and a wide graphic transfer printed across the chest area to prevent it from clinging to the body. Since its launch, over 700,000 Ahiida burkinis have been sold worldwide and the design has been appropriated and mass produced by a number of large retailers in Britain and internationally.
The burkini hit headlines around the world and ignited social media debate this August when the Mayor of Cannes introduced a ban on the garment on the grounds that it contravened the strict secularism enshrined in French law to keep religion out of public life – a move initially supported by the French Government. The ban was overturned on the 26 August 2016 by country’s highest administrative court, the French Council of State.
“Design is a mirror to society,” says Corinna Gardner, Acting Keeper of the V&A’s Design, Architecture and Digital Department. “The objects that the V&A collects through its Rapid Response Collecting programme are evidence of social, political, technological and economic change and therefore mean more than their material value.”
Refugee Nation is the not-for-profit creative project set up to support the first ever refugee team to compete in the Olympic Games. The organisation commissioned the artist and Syrian refugee, Yara Said, to design its team flag, now in the V&A’s collection. Through the flag’s design, Yara wanted to reflect the lifejackets worn by many fleeing conflict around the world, including herself: “For me, the lifejackets are a symbol of solidarity for all those who crossed the sea in search of a new country. I myself wore one, which is why I so identify with these colours,” she says.
While the International Olympic Committee did not allow the team to fly the flag in official processions, numerous spectators and fellow athletes displayed it in acts of unity during the 2016 Rio Games drawing global attention to the current refugee crisis.
“These objects have become newsworthy because they advance what design can do, or because they reveal truths about how we live today and how we might live tomorrow,” says Gardner. “Rapid Response is a permanent legacy of objects to help future visitors and researchers make sense of the world we live in today.”
Also on display for the first time is one of the 4.2 million ‘Help protect your local hospital…’ leaflets distributed by the Vote Leave campaign ahead of the UK’s European Union referendum. Featuring a blue logo similar to that trademarked by the NHS, the leaflet was part of a parliamentary inquiry examining the absence of fact in the cases made for and against leaving the EU.
“Objects are collected in response to major moments in history that touch the world of design and manufacturing. This new strategy helps the V&A to engage in a timely way with important events that shape, or are shaped by design, architecture and technology.”
The treatment of the objects is the same as any other objects: conservation, storage, scholarly and future scholarly interest. The collection aims to act as a subject of debate and current discussions. These can be varied from Brexit and current affairs to Kone UltraRope lift cable.
“Eeach new acquisition raises a different question about globalisation, popular culture, political and social change, demographics, technology, regulation or the law.”
A pair of Primark cargo trousers in the collection, manufactured by New Wave Bottoms for Primark in 2013, was a way to respond and reflect on the collapse in April 2013 of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, near Dhaka, in Bangladesh. The building had several factories which manufactured garments for around 28 brands including Primark, which states it has paid £14m in aid and compensation.
“As curators we don’t live in a vacuum from our opinions but are extremely careful about what is said and use a fact-based approach.”
Every object goes on immediate display with a date, brief object label, designer, why acquired and its broader context. “So for example the burkini designed to enable women who want to dress modestly and take up sport. The museum has many objects in its collection that relate to sumptuary laws so this could be part of a future exhibition.”
The free display is in the V&A’s Gallery 74a.