A few days ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Claire Wilcox, Senior Curator for the 20th century and Contemporary Dress Collections at the V&A. The creator of four seminal exhibitions including, most recently, ‘The Golden Age of Couture,’ Wilcox’s innovative ideas over the last decade have significantly restyled the Victoria and Albert.
Having created a brand-new approach to exhibition, with informed and exciting portrayals of fashion, Wlicox’s work begs me to ask the question: why choose a museum, in particular, as the site for a fashion revolution?
‘It wasn’t about working in fashion, it was about working in the V&A,’ Wilcox tells me as our interview takes off. ‘My passion was to work in a museum. I really liked the idea of working with textiles, but I just wanted a job there… to be part of a group of people who believed in the preservation and study of objects, and to understand cultural-social history.’ I soon realise that far from fashion alone, it is a love of pursuing and preserving knowledge that has inspired her.
The V&A, it seems, has always been something of a symbol to Wilcox. What seems to have really drawn her are its attitudes and values: a place founded for preserving knowledge and for housing the past, but also with the capacity for inspiring new generations in a community of learning.
Her exhibitions since 1999 have demonstrated the museum’s potential as a creative space: full of the past, yet ready for new interpretation, for re-fashioning. Wilcox’s ideas of exhibition as a moving, thinking, phenomenon, and a performance, remain intact today: bringing to our attention the importance of context and the interaction of objects in use; placing fashion not only in motion, but also amongst its cultural ancestry, as well as outside it.
It seems that knowledge for Wilcox is something that you can hold in your hands, examine, and perhaps reshape. She tells me, ‘I believe very very strongly that for the curator, the object is the beginning.’ And as with all objects, there is provenance, which as Claire enthuses, ‘is all’. She tells me about a Dior dress, ‘Zemire.’
It was already an exciting dress – made in scarlet, comprising a bodice, skirt and jacket, and discovered, after fifty years, in a cellar by the Seine. But Wilcox was absolutely intrigued by ‘looking closely’: ‘the more I looked, the more I saw. I found clues: hidden labels, evidence of alterations, and mysteries about fabric and watermarks.’
Describing how she worked on and prepared the dress for the exhibition, she tells me, ‘I worked on the history and our conservation department worked on the condition of the dress, and between us we put together an absolutely fascinating story… we even found the person who’d worn it and their descendants.’
So she recreated a history, a narrative, from one object. Now that the V&A is recognised as an institution interested in fashion, it acquires pieces from important collections more easily. In the past, however, curators had to be reactive, and wait to be offered clothing – not by the designers, but by a wealthy benefactor or other important individual.
The importance was primarily seen as lying in the fabric, and latterly in who had worn the clothes, but now that the item itself is primary, the design and the designer – those crucial elements in the selection purposes – have to come to the fore: a rearranged system that Wilcox is considerably responsible for.
Wilcox’s tale of ‘Zemire’ demonstrates that within history there is also ideology, and clothing is evidently interesting not simply visually, but also because of what it stands for.
Having asked Claire how she chooses what to exhibit, what is important, and why she should put on these exhibitions at all, she tells me about Radical Fashion, her 2001-2 exhibition which installed tableaux from twelve contemporary designers, including Comme des Garçons, Jean Paul Gaultier, Helmut Lang, and Azzedine Alaia, and which, in Claire’s words, ‘plotted the extremities of fashion.’
Significantly, she tells me that ‘the message from Radical Fashion is that fashion has the potential to be expressive, inventive and empowering,’ and this draws attention to the importance of fashion as art.
Drawing from her exhibitions for examples, she tells me how Vivienne Westwood’s confrontational and anti-establishment clothing was reactive as well as responsive to the times, ‘provocative’ by confronting and opposing the contemporary state-of-play and yet responding to sub-cultural antipathy: ripping it up and opening it up, ‘changing the mood of how people dressed.’
Whipping through fashion history she comments, ‘if you go back to the 1820s, neo-classical fashion was incredibly provocative and caused outrage… Channel’s early designs were very boyish; they’re quite asexual and that was seen as provocative. Flapper dressers were received by the establishment with horror.’
Yet Christian Dior’s New Look of 1947 was an example of fashion’s particular power to change the norm permanently. ‘It was a radical change to the fashionable silhouette.’
The New Look not only challenged the more masculine wartime fashions, glorifying the female form, but also confronted the contemporary situation itself, using lots of fabric when there was very little, and subverting the notion that clothing should be primarily functional – that attitudes should put extravagance and glamour in second place in the context of a contemporary wake of horror.
As The Golden Age of Couture pointed out, the New Look transformed society’s attitude towards clothes, particularly female clothes; an idea shared by Vivienne Westwood, that ‘clothes can be heroic’. ‘Vivienne was intellectually ambitious’ and ‘it wasn’t just about dressing up, it was about ideology’ she expands. ‘She genuinely believes clothes can make you a better person. You can have a better time if you wear fantastic clothes.’
I ask Claire whether mainstream fashion is still creative today. ‘I believe very strongly that every individual wearer, every body who gets dressed in the morning, everybody who chooses what clothing they’re wearing and what they wear together is in some sense curating their own appearance’ she says. But she extends this idea very specifically into the present, ‘the mass marketing of clothing, the influence of sports wear and casual dress and the cheapness of clothing has affected us’ she suggests.
‘The way you tie your laces has become a subtle sartorial code and that’s very much a youth driven way of customising readily-available clothing.’ This idea of possession and the continual human need for asserting our identities seems to lie at the heart of fashion’s fluidity.
We have talked about objects, and the preservation of the past, but by the close of our interview we are onto the present and the anticipation of the future. Wilcox talks of the creativity and the inspiration in fashion, its backbone which, by some unconscious chord, resonates with us as the physical embodiment of a moment, becoming a statue of history.
‘It seems incredible’ she tells me, ‘that given the relatively limited vocabulary in scale for clothing, that people could find such infinite subtle variations as to delight and surprise us and make us want it. Fashion’, she says, ‘is very powerful. Fragile, but powerful.’