Curating Through the Lens of Dress

Curating Through the Lens of Dress

Curating Through the Lens of Dress

Fashion exhibitions have become increasingly popular over the last years with Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty currently shown at the Victoria&Albert Museum as one of the most successful ones after being sold out weeks before it opened. Often times, blinded by the beauty of these inspiring objects, we are oblivious to the amount of time and work that go into each and every one of these presentations. But it was not until I attended a lecture by dress historian and curator Amy de la Haye on object based research that it became apparent to me how incredible the research work curators accomplish truly is.

In an interview with SHOWstudio Amy speaks about her exhibition Coco Chanel: A new Portrait by Marion Pike, Paris 1967-1971 and how it came about. After mentioning the Californian fine artist Marion Pike in relation to Chanel in her book Chanel: Couture and Industry, she was contacted by Pike’s daughter Jeffie Pike Durham, who kept the memories of this extraordinary friendship in the form of her mother’s paintings and memorabilia. This was the beginning of a journey and a great example of the extraordinary stories that lie behind each exhibited object.

In order to learn more about the remarkable work of a curator, I met Amy de la Haye to speak about her career and this increasingly popular field.

Valentina: Amy, after having worked on a variety of projects such as Fashion & Fancy Dress: The Messel Family Dress Collection 1860-2005, The Land Girls: Cinderellas of the Soil and of course Coco Chanel: A New Portrait by Marion Pike. 1967-1971, what would you say is the most challenging part of putting an exhibition together and which is the most rewarding?

Amy: ‘In my case it’s managing my ‘ideal’ according to the parameters of the budget. You can be always be resourceful regardless of the finances and the best things come out of it but often, when you have a bigger budget you are able to commission certain things you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Displaying dresses is enormously costly; the mannequins usually take half of the exhibition’s budget. So finance is usually one of the main concerns. The process as such is really rewarding and watching all these objects and stories you acquired and seeing them come together, is the icing on the cake. I like the solitary aspects of the work but I also like curating as a team, I genuinely like working with people. That balance of work suits me very well.’

V: Would you say you have a fix process to approach each project?

A: ‘No project is ever the same and it depends on the collections. For the land army exhibition I acquired the whole collection. The Pike/Chanel exhibition came all from one person’s archive. That was extraordinary and made it very easy; getting all the objects from one person rather than various sources, so it always varies. I always ask myself these three questions: Why this, why here, why now?’ And they determine the initial rational.’

V: In your opinion, what would you say is ‘fashion curation’ today?

A: ‘Fashion curation now is a much overused term. People say they curate a shop window I even heard someone the other day saying they curated a conference. When I started off it wasn’t a particularly fashionable term or profession but now it is.  Working with fashion was a double edged sword because back then people felt it didn’t do well placed in a museum but some people recognised that it was increasingly popular and I think this is when I started to work at the V&A in 1991. If someone would have said to me they would be exhibiting fashion in the Royal Academy of Arts or the Imperial War Museum I would have been incredulous. Now many exhibitions are curated through the lens of dress, even painting exhibitions. Everyone wears clothes and relates to them, it’s a universal medium. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, you are going to have a response, even if it’s only imagining wearing that.’

V: The industry as such has evolved vastly and technology plays obviously a mayor role with digital art and virtual curations becoming more established. How do you see this linked to your field?

A: ‘The more it happens the better. There is room for all sorts of projects. I mean, nothing will ever replace seeing a real object but for instance, the Museum of the City of New York did a wonderful online exhibition, showing images of garments designed by ‘Worth and Mainbocher’. Online exhibitions are inclusive to all sorts of people who can’t travel, for any type of reasons.’

‘Many of my students are interested in exploring how to present garments without showing the garments in order to preserve them and what the digital possibilities are. Therefore I’m very receptive to that. I personally am not very technologically savvy, so it’s not something I would pursue to do myself but I definitely would commission people to do it. You put so much work into an exhibition therefore you obviously want it to reach as many people as possible. Not all people that are interested will be able to visit your exhibition but if they have the possibility to the a glimpse of it somehow, I think that can only be a good thing.’

V: Before our wonderful conversation comes to an end, would you mind sharing a crucial moment of your career?

A: ‘It would be the day that I was with Lou Taylor and Eleanor Thompson looking at the Messel collection and we opened a box and it had a green Jacqmar dress in. On the top was a note written “Had a wonderful time in this, am ashamed to say. 1941!!” The dress was fascinating on its own but the note simply added other layers or meaning to what it meant to her and why it had been preserved. This is certainly one of the most magical moments when we knew we were on to something. Another worth mentioning was when we were unpacking Anne Messel’s wedding dress and it had lipstick trace on it. Considering how routinely museums would often remove that but to me it was a trace of a life lived. It seemed incredible poignant and I thought we should leave it.’

– Amy de la Haye is a practicing fashion curator and currently Professor and Rootstein Hopkins Chair of Dress History & Curatorship at London College of Fashion, working as Joint Director of the research Centre for Fashion Curation and Joint Programme Leader of the MA Fashion Curation course, with Professor Judith Clark. –


Interview by Valentina Egoavil Medina

Photos © De La Haye, Amy courtesy of London College of Fashion


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