Attention all Motown fans! As previously reported, beginning on the 12th of May, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum will be hosting an exhibition of costumes that the iconic Motor City trio, The Supremes, wore during the group’s heyday in the 1960s. It’s entitled ‘The Story Of The Supremes From The Mary Wilson Collection’ and admission is £5.00.
The clothes on display go right back to the groundbreaking group’s early days when they were known as The Primettes. There are plenty of examples, too, of what the group wore once they became famous – there are several dresses designed by the so-called ‘Sultan Of Sequins,’ Hollywood designer Bob Mackie, as well as the memorable gold, bronze and yellow ‘butterfly’ outfits the group donned for the cover to their 1969 ‘Cream Of The Crop’ album.
The group’s remarkable rise to fame as well as its striking stage imagery is also contextualised in the exhibition, with photos and TV footage relating how The Supremes and the Motown sound helped to change perceptions and dissolve racial barriers during arguably one of the most turbulent times in US history. The group’s influence on other girl groups that followed in their wake also comes under the microscope.
All the costumes in the exhibition belong to former Supreme, Mary Wilson, who recently talked to www.soulandjazzandfunk.com’s Charles Waring about the display.
How did that the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition come about?
Well, the Mary Wilson and The Supremes’ gown collection is an exhibit that has actually been touring here in the United States for about three years. It started out in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum. The Supremes were conducted in 1988 and I started a relationship with them: we just started talking and pretty soon we got the idea that it would be great if they started showing some of my gowns at their museum. So they curated it for me and since that time I’ve had it at several places here in the States like the L.B.J. Library and Museum (in Texas), the Albany Museum and the Metropolitan Arts Museum in New York. The V&A exhibition is a much more extensive one though. I think we have over 50 gowns in London.
What prompted you to keep and collect the dresses?
Well, because everyone left and I was the last girl left standing! So everything was left to me. I just kept everything and paid the legal and storage fees. I’ve had all that stuff for years in my garage but I always knew that they were fabulous and that something could be done with them. I just decided when the time was right I would do it. It was such a huge undertaking that it probably took longer to get started than it should have done. If I had the finance earlier, I would have done it years ago. It’s very beautiful – some of the gowns we wore on the Ed Sullivan Show, and over there in England when we did the Royal Command Performance. We met the Queen Mother, or the ‘Pink Pearls,’ as we called her. One of those gowns will be in the exhibit.
What do you think the group’s legacy has been?
Well, I certainly think it’s far more than singing…it’s more a social sort of thing but it’s difficult for me to say because it’s like asking me to pat myself on the back. I’ve had friends like Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey who told me that The Supremes inspired them, so that’s quite an accomplishment.
Do you think the group helped to break down racial barriers in the United States?
Well, I think we were one of the few, I certainly do. There were far more pioneers out there before us – Sammy Davis Jr and Josephine Baker and people like that – but I do think The Supremes in the ’60s helped to change things. We were at that pivotal point when all issues seemed to melt away or became something that we could get beyond. We were definitely one of the visual things of what was a positive and beautiful movement. Someone recently said to me ‘perhaps you guys were ambassadors through your music to help bring people together.’ So, you know, that could be true, too.
The exhibition runs from 13th May to 15th October. After London, the exhibition goes north to Blackpool (November to March 2009), then back down to Birmingham’s Museum & Art Gallery (March to June 2009) before concluding its UK journey at Bristol’s The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum (July to August 2009).
To coincide with the launch of the exhibition, Universal is releasing a 2-CD tie-in set ‘The Story Of The Supremes’ on May 12th (look out for a review of it soon at www.soulandjazzandfunk.com).