V&A: Curating Fashion and Dress

My favourite place is London’s Victoria and Albert museum, so when they announced a short course on “Fashion Curating and Dress”, it was a dream come true. Thankfully my application was accepted and I hopped on the plane.

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The best place in the world.

It was a great opportunity to see inside the workings of this great design museum and meet like-minded people. Just getting backstage access was a daily treat, but even better was meeting the wide range of people who envisage and create the biggest and probably best fashion exhibitions in the world.

Many V&A exhibitions have toured Australia and so I was familiar with events like the Art Deco exhibition at the NGV, the Hollywood Costume at ACMI and the Golden Age of Couture at the Bendigo Art Gallery. My last UK visit offered me the incredible Alexander McQueen “Savage Beauty” and all of these and more were discussed during the course, and more. It was really helpful to be familiar with an event as a visitor, and then find out how it came about and all that was involved.

The course covers almost every aspect from the original curatorial idea, workshopping the theme, building up relationships with designers and suppliers (most of the purchasing budget is reserved for contemporary fashion, so donations and bequests are encouraged) to designing and building the displays and collections management. Then marketing, creating online components and educational programs.

Perhaps my favourite was the day we spent at Blythe House in West London, the archives of the V&A where anyone can make an appointment to view particular items in the collection. An amazing resource. I’d be signing up for this in a flash if I lived there.

Circa Vintage02Dior’s 1947 Bar jacket, seen as never before – and handled very carefully, naturally. It was nice to be able to see the padding within the lining that helps create the silhouette. The hand bound buttonholes showed tiny stitches suggesting unskilled repairs.

Circa Vintage101960s Balenciaga jacket, to be featured in an upcoming exhibition.

Circa Vintage04Vivienne Westwood original ’70s punk.

Here are some pics from Blythe House, where you can see how the V&A store their collection – most garments are hung but particularly heavy or fragile pieces are stored flat in drawers.

Circa Vintage06The stockroom of my dreams.

Circa Vintage07Garments are hung in pre-washed cotton bags, tied at the sides. A note attached to the outside provides details and a photo too.

Circa Vintage05Heavily embellished ballgown by Gareth Pugh lies flat in a wide drawer.

Circa Vintage08Part of the 18th century shoe collection, stored in a series of cabinets in a climate controlled room.

I’ve discovered that for some time I’ve been running my own private museum of fashion, but with limitations of time, space and money that the V&A don’t share, so it’s great to see that my systems aren’t bad, but you can do so much more with better resources.

Circa Vintage09Slashed 16th century mens costume. Unbelievable. Shows significant damage from being on display for too long in too strong light – which is why textile displays now have very low light levels. This outfit is featured in a famous Elizabethan painting, if you recognise it please let me know.

Another highlight was learning mounting fashion techniques: how to build up a mannequin to the right shape for a garment, to avoid putting stress on the fabric.

Photo ©Victoria and Albert Museum, reproduced with thanks. Hello lovely fellow students!

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We also got access to the conservation workrooms – it was enlightening to discover that the V&A don’t “restore” textiles and fashion like I do, they “conserve” which is to stabilise the material and prevent further damage. Now that I’ve started studying museum studies at Deakin I understand a lot more about why this is the case, but it was a real eye opener. Conserving and Restoring are two very different things I’ve found.

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Detail of a 1920s silk dress.

I had a quick chat with one of the conservators about this dress, which to my eyes displays significant damage from dry rot (I’m sure there’s a more technical name, I must find out) and if you’ve read my blog post on dry rot, you’ll know that it’s beyond hope. I was curious about what the V&A could do? Nothing either, it seems.

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Here are some body forms and mounting created for the upcoming exhibition on Underwear, along with some corsets.

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My time at the V&A went all too fast and it was time to hand my ID card back.

During the course I discovered a lot but it’s such a lovely place to be, I couldn’t resist scanning the job ads, to see if there was a use for me and my skills – if anything, with the modern focus of museums being self-sufficient and raising funds for their operating costs, there were several roles that I might be able to make a contribution but I need to finish my museum studies first though.

Applications are now open for the next course on Curating Fashion and Dress, starting in November. I thoroughly recommend it.

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2 comments

  1. Great peek behind the scenes (or should I say “seams”) of the V& A. Conservation is indeed a science and art one could spend a lifetime learning.

  2. That was a fascinating article, Nicole! I have been a fan of the V&A for a long time. I still get their email newsletter which tells me what they’re doing currently. Your article gave me a good insight into what goes on behind the scenes. I would love to see their archives as well, one day!

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