Oxford Fashion Week’s headline show among the prehistoric fauna and Victorian architecture of the Museum of Natural History is a surreal triumph, Edward Elliott finds.

Catwalking with dinosaurs

By Edward Elliott

When suits and dresses of the most exotic and vibrant colours begin to parade in front of you, emerging from an exhibit on plesiosaurs and pterosaurs and disappearing behind a replica Triceratops skull, you might be forgiven for thinking you have had too much champagne. It can feel a little surreal sitting among the skeletons of the Museum of Natural History, bathing in the lights illuminating the Victorian steel-frame roof, buying drinks from a stand in front of a remarkably informative panel on iguanas, and loomed over by a T. rex.

Catwalking with dinosaurs

The Birds of Paradise show for Oxford Fashion Week began with a palette of flowing reds, yellows and greens. Drawn to the glossy, fitted, almost scaly fabric, the eye was enticed and allured into the vibrancy of the scene. Transitioning to darker shades, the mood began to change. The lights lowered, and lowered again. I felt I had descended into the night. Designer Hellavagirl's expansive, feathery shoulder-pieces and headwear transformed previously slender female figures into imposing and intimidating monsters. Passing silently between the two is a beautifully delicate design from Xiaolin Designs. Combining an immaculate replica headdress of a parakeet, or maybe dove (I'm no bird-watcher, sadly) with a feathered white corset, the intricate detail of the re-imagining is impressive.

Entering its fifth year, Oxford Fashion Week follows on the back of its highly successful March season. Featuring five shows and two parties, the November edition sampled the best of design from high street to high concept. Touring a number of unique runway locations including the Museum of Natural History and Malmaison (the former prison, now hotel), Fashion Week had something for all tastes, with a few eyecatching headpieces thrown in for fun.

With fashion weeks now a regular feature in many towns and cities across the UK — Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle and Birmingham, to name a few — differentiation can often be hard. To many, clothes are just clothes. But where Oxford Fashion Week finds its individuality is in the idea of fashion itself. Moving beyond exquisitely made jackets or refined high-concept gowns, OFW explores the links between the beauty of clothing and the elegance and sweep of art and architecture – assets that Oxford owns in abundance.

Catwalking with dinosaursWhether it be the exuberant Birds of Paradise show displayed amongst the specimens and exhibits of the Museum of Natural History, or the minimalism of the Lingerie Show (pun intended!) matching the monochrome halls of Malmaison's preserved Victorian jail, design mirrors its surroundings, each show fitted to its venue. Commenting on the choice of venues, OFW director Carl Anglim has described his wish that Oxford ‘speak through the collections’. Larger than a particular individual or design, there is a concerted attempt to present common themes throughout all aspects of the event. The festival exudes its style through the city, rather than regarding it merely as a ‘venue’.

This process of inspiration does not solely lie in Oxford's architecture. Current students and alumni make up the majority of OFW’s models and curators — Anglim himself went to Merton. Venturing into the crowded shows, at times I couldn’t help overhearing discussions of colleges and essays. With its participants and organisers, part of the University's culture — call it academia for shorthand — seems to have seeped into the event.

Catwalking with dinosaursConsider Hannah Zainuddin, curator of the Birds of Paradise show and a biology student. Drawing inspiration from the idea of the specimen and natural history in constructing the show’s design, this closing event of the week had a particular atmosphere of precision. Styles draw from the anatomical designs and artwork placed on the museum walls, encouraging a meticulous, scientific eye.

A gloriously dazzling conclusion to the week, the Birds of Paradise show still felt rooted in academia, in a good way. In a city such as Oxford, this may be impossible to avoid. It still comes as a surprise, however, when talking to Idroneel Charterjee, Face of the Fashion Week and recent Master's graduate from Oxford Brookes University, that his postgraduate study connecting neuroscience and marketing arises as freely in conversation as the designs he wears and the runways he patrols. For the University city, from the city and about the city, it is very much an Oxford Fashion Week.

More on the Museum of Natural History:

All images © Mark Hemsworth, reproduced with kind permission.