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Claire Wilcox: 'When I look at clothing, I’m thinking about narratives’

Rachel Cooke
·13-min read
<span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Claire Wilcox thinks she makes for a highly unlikely fashion curator. “It’s a bit embarrassing, really,” she says. “I’m always complaining to friends that I haven’t got a thing to wear.” Ask what piece of clothing she most aches to own – you can have anything, I say, irrespective of cost or rarity – and she will talk not of Balenciaga or Schiaparelli, but of “Dorelia John-style peasant blouses.” (Dorelia McNeill, a painter and artist’s model, lived with Augustus John and his wife, Ida, in a menage a trois that sometimes took up residence in a Gypsy caravan). For the record, today she looks a touch Cossack in black lace-up boots whose provenance she cannot quite recall, matching trousers from Cos and – oh dear – a hand-printed shirt that she bought from the shop in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which also happens to be the institution where she has worked for the last 20 years.

Nevertheless, it seems to have been written in the stars that she would one day end up here in London’s South Kensington, thinking about buttons and ballgowns; about how, as she puts it, fashion exists “in the folds of time”, its roots always in the past, but also in the present, too, since human beings will never not need clothes. It all goes back to her childhood. First, there was the haberdashery her parents ran not so very far away in West Kensington: as a girl, she would often accompany her mother to work, spending her days among the paper patterns and the knitting wool, the rolls of rickrack and bias binding. Then there was the junk shop in Pimlico her father opened after she graduated from university. “He let me do his windows for him,” she says. “And I had grandiose ideas. I used to create these extraordinary stage sets with my brother, with columns and swags and mirrors. When people came in, you could tell they were thinking, ‘Oh, but the inside looks nothing like the window’ and I would get furious if he sold anything from the window because it would ruin my display.” Ever since, she has been the kind of person who gets “star-struck by objects rather than people”. Should she follow someone on the street, as she has occasionally been known to do, it will be their clothes she’s interested in, not their face.

Wilcox has been the senior curator of fashion at the V&A since 2004; she was responsible, among other blockbuster shows, for Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty and Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up. Today, however, we’re not here to discuss an exhibition – on the subject of her next big production, she is sworn to secrecy – but a memoir she has written in which she carefully stitches together the story of her life lived in and through clothes (a gingham bikini, a black wedding dress, a silk kimono) with scenes snatched from a long career in fashion history (a pair of early 19th-century breeches, an overcoat made of drab, a couple of epaulettes formed from the heads of baby crocodiles).

Patch Work, which arrives garlanded with praise from such novelists as Maggie O’Farrell and Jim Crace (the latter calls it, quite rightly, a “collection of treasures”), isn’t the usual kind of fashion book. Its author is, for instance, so little interested in brands that, even when they appear in all their strutting glory, the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen are not always named; not for her the “transformations” and “statement pieces” beloved of the glossy magazine editor. In the end, it’s a book about the quiet, everyday secrets our clothes hold and, sometimes, betray. What story do they tell? Wilcox asks, looking determinedly beyond the obvious narratives of power, money and social status (though she’s good on these, too). What particular sadness (or happiness) may be found in this worn heel or that frayed cuff? In the coat that is so pristine, we can only deduce that its owner gave it just a single outing?

Wilcox and I meet at the V&A on one of the days that, as a result of Covid-19, it is now closed. Thanks to this, its galleries are our own and for a while we roam them together, like two slightly crazed shoppers in the world’s most lavish store. Wilcox adores the museum – Patch Work is in part a love letter to it – and at moments it’s hard to know which of us is the more thrilled by this dazzling freedom (me, probably, but only just). In the Cast Court, where we gaze at plaster reproductions of Michelangelo’s David and Trajan’s column, she reminds me that there are aspects of costume to be found in every room at the V&A, even if we’re only talking togas. In the fashion gallery itself, where we stand in front of an 18th-century dress so voluminous it brings to mind a tea clipper in high wind, and beside it a dining chair so delicate-seeming, you wonder that it could take any backside at all for more than a second, she talks of the relationship between dress and furniture with such surprising vividness, I will never think of a sofa in quite the same way again.

At last, we go backstage. The work of Wilcox and her fellow curators would not be possible without the conservation department, where some 14 experts tend the costume collection (it includes about 100,000 items), and for a while we mooch around in the cold, clean space, looking at their current projects: a sinister little marionette, its skirts and hair creepily splayed on a pillow; an 18th-century man’s silk waistcoat that is still, miraculously, a cockatoo pink; an elaborate feathered headdress from the National Theatre’s 2017 production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies (a recent donation). Then we head to her office to talk. This is the first time she has been back since March (she has been shielding to protect her husband) and as she walks in the door, I hear her cry out. “Oh, I’ve missed my view,” she says, looking at the chiaroscuro rooftops. Wilcox is one of those rare and extremely lucky people who loves and takes immense pride in her work without relying on it wholly for her sense of identity – and perhaps this is one reason why her new book is such an uncommon delight. It lacks the horrible status anxiety that mars most fashion memoirs.

Wilcox began thinking about Patch Work at a difficult time in her life. “My parents had died within six months of each other and I was about to start working on the McQueen show,” she says. “So I was being buffeted by grief just as I was about to embark on the most challenging exhibition of my life, one that would deal with anger and loss as expressed through clothing – something that hadn’t really been explored in an exhibition before [Alexander McQueen, having long suffered from depression, killed himself in 2010; the V&A’s show was staged five years later]. This triggered an opening up of memory for me and it turned out to be an incredible liberation.”

On bus journeys and in other spare moments, she began scribbling fragments on the backs of envelopes. “My job means I have to be a very direct communicator. When I’m writing an object label, I must be crystal clear. But with Patch Work, I could think about the gaps between the words I would normally write. For instance, I describe a green maternity gown. In a label for this, I would write simply ‘unfinished and unworn’. In the book, I speculate. Did the wearer die before the baby was born? Or did she, perhaps, believe green was an unlucky colour? One garment presents so many unanswered questions. Sometimes, what we don’t know is more interesting than what we do. Suddenly, I didn’t need libraries any more. I could put something in the book that wasn’t necessarily true.”

She decided to use objects in a “Proustian way”, as a means of exploring her past as well as the past – though for me the book is most alive when she is at work: looking “for a head” in the V&A’s mannequin store (the museum does not fit clothes to them, or alter garments at all, for which reason Wilcox often finds herself up a ladder, looking for a certain waist or breast size); examining the Delphos gowns, as fluid and as silvery as water, that Mariano Fortuny kept in his showroom in Venice a century ago and which are now housed in a mahogany drawer, coiled into fat rolls to prevent their pleats falling out; performing an audit of objects in the textile store, the smell of naphthalene (for moths) heavy in the air as she works her way through a group of top hats (kept in bags marked with a skull and crossbones because mercury was used in their making and they remain toxic).

Curating wasn’t, Wilcox insists, a very desirable profession when she was young and she came to it in a roundabout way. After university in Exeter, where she read English, her first job was working in a sex shop. It was the summer of 1977 and she spent her time packing gift sets of jubilee knickers, “sheer and crotchless and trimmed with a satin bow”. She rather enjoyed snapping the boxes shut with elastic cord and it was funny to see how amused her friends were by this unlikely gig (once, she pinched some “arousal cream” for them; they told her that it burnt like hell). But she was sacked after a few weeks.

Then, one day, she took an item she’d found at a market stall – a folding wallet, lined with yellow silk on which was embroidered in gold thread “Sr William Portman Constantinople 1682” – to one of the V&A’s opinion afternoons. “They said it was wonderful and I thought, these are my people; they love objects, and I love objects, and I want to work here.” The wallet is still at the V&A, along with a pair of her old purple Biba boots – and so, of course, is their former owner. “I started by volunteering,” she says. “Then I got a three-month contract, then a six-month contract.” However, after four years, most of them spent in the fashion gallery, she decided to give it all up and go to art school in Camberwell. “I was at a crossroads,” she says. “I think one’s 20s are the hardest time of one’s life. You don’t know who you are. You have terrible relationships.”

I find aspects of fashion troubling. But I also think it is a complex subject, much more so than generally realised

Years went by. She married and had three children (two daughters and a son, who died when he was small). But she’d kept in touch with the V&A and when a job was advertised in the textile department, she went for it. “I was in my early 40s by this time. I thought I was eccentric, unemployable. But the museum was looking for new ideas and energy and I got so excited in the interview, I actually stood up at one point. I told them that I wanted to stage fashion shows in the museum and three months later, there I was, putting on my first Fashion in Motion [a live catwalk event].” She laughs. “I came back like a homing pigeon.” It’s a life that suits her perfectly, combining a certain kind privacy (time spent in the archives) with something much more flamboyant (staging the exhibitions).

Some people consider fashion a trivial pursuit; they disdain its shallowness, its frivolity, its vanity and expense. Others take it very seriously – far too seriously – unable to leave the house without the right coat, the latest bag. Where does Wilcox fall on this scale? “I’ve thought about this a lot,” she says. “I’m not fashionable myself and I do find aspects of fashion – celebrity culture, the wastefulness, the unhappiness it can cause – troubling. But I also think it is a complex subject, much more so than is generally realised. If you think about the range of inquiry into it, from weekly magazines, to Baudelaire writing about it in the 19th century, to John Flügel in the 1930s [Flügel, a psychoanalyst, is best known for his book The Psychology of Clothes]… fashion is part of clothing, but clothing is not part of fashion.” She is interested in the way that clothing connects to identity: Frida Kahlo controlled how the world saw her through her appearance, even if it wasn’t always quite what it seemed (blouses that looked like they were from Oaxaca had often originated in New York). But for Wilcox, there’s much more to it than this. “When I look at historical clothing, I’m thinking about other narratives. Where was the fabric woven? Why has it survived? Where has the rest of it gone?”

In the last decade, the V&A has worked with several big fashion houses on its shows, most recently Dior, and I wonder if this involves any conflict of interest. Wilcox insists not. “We’re very clear about our relationship with fashion houses. With McQueen, they left us pretty much to it. They were helpful, but respectful. We’re respected because we have independence. We can’t be bought. It’s interesting, though. Fashion houses didn’t use to have a great interest in the past. But now they often have climate-controlled museums of their own. They understand the value of their heritage.” Donations from designers are, she tells me, very welcome, but no less so than from members of the public. “People often have memories of the fashion gallery and when they start preparing to let things go, they think of us, the national collection of dress.” How far back does the collection go? The gallery displays begin around 1750. “Well, the 16th century is very partial; things are rare. From the 15th century, we only have the odd fragment.”

What’s her dream as a curator? If she could stage an exhibition about anything at all, what would it be? “That’s like offering me a plate of sweets and making me choose just one,” she says, looking completely delighted nonetheless. She thinks for a bit. She has been fantasising for a while about doing a show staged underwater, but the practicalities are extreme, so for now she’ll plump for something else: “I was reading Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise, a novel about a 19th-century department store that’s modelled on Le Bon Marché [a Parisian store now owned by LVMH]. It’s set at a moment when women had more freedom to go out and be consumers, to explore a fashionable world that went beyond clothing, and it’s completely wonderful: the luscious descriptions, the fabrics tumbling over bannisters, the entrance hall hung with carpets from Turkmenistan. It would be incredible to recreate such a store: visitors could even be hit by a blast of perfume as they come in.”

I agree that this would be wonderful – and resonant, too, given that the department store is now seemingly in its death throes – and for a few seconds we throw ideas around. She wants staff walking behind visitors, pretending to carry their purchases. I would like the exhibition catalogue to look just like a store catalogue. Together, we get quite excited. “OK, good, let’s do it,” she says, pressing her hands together. Even with a mask on her face, I can tell that she looks as if all her Christmases are about to come at once.

  • Patch Work is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply