Meet the Minds: V&A Exhibition Curators
Written by By Carmen Bellot
While many tend to focus on the fashion industry’s glamourised roles, there are thousands of positions outside of the ‘cool job’ category that can often be overlooked. In our Meet the Minds series, we aim to uncover the positions often hidden from the limelight; showcasing all the different ways you could make your mark in this creative sector.
This week, we’ve asked the curator’s of the V&A’s ‘Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear’ exhibition to dissect their job role, how they developed those necessary skills and why they love it.
Claire Wilcox, Senior Curator of Fashion at the V&A and Professor in Fashion Curation at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London
Co-Curator of Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear
“I became a curator in the fashion and textiles department at the V&A not long after leaving university, where I studied English. I had always been intrigued by the way that characters in novels were described through their clothing. I learnt on the job, and spent hours looking at garments in our collection trying to understand how they were constructed and researching the lives of the people who wore them. I became particularly interested in the way the great couturiers were able to sculpt fabric. What a miracle to turn an inert length of fabric into a three-dimensional form that fitted a client’s body perfectly but that also through time, space and movement, becomes a form of kinetic sculpture. Because of this, I started live Fashion in Motion events in the museum where designers could showcase their latest collections against the backdrop of history.
As time went by, I became fascinated by different methods of display and how to create visual narratives. I found I had a flair for curating exhibitions and was brimming over with ideas. I first started thinking about Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear after we staged Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. Although they are less well known, McQueen created some extraordinary menswear collections and this became the germ of the V&A’s first major exhibition devoted to menswear. It took a long time to come to fruition, but working with my co-curator Rosalind McKever and Research Assistant Marta Franceschini we brought together paintings, sculpture, photography and fashion from the past and the present to show how wearers, designers, artists and clients have used fashion to preen, protect and project their personalities.
What I’m most proud of is the ambition of the exhibition, from its visual impact to its bravery in challenging stereotypes. Fashion is a bit of a trojan horse – one can tackle quite difficult subjects in an accessible way. While respecting the seriousness of the exhibition’s content, I also love its moments of humour – for example, we displayed a pair of M&S underpants on a plinth next to a classical sculpture. The exhibition is divided into three parts: Undressed, Overdressed and Redressed and this structure helped keep us focussed while working through a pandemic. The subject of menswear through the centuries is so vast that we had to be selective. We talked everything through; every pairing of a suit and a portrait, every word in every label. I’m proud of the care we took.
My top tips are firstly, if you are staging an exhibition like Fashioning Masculinities make sure you work with a great exhibition designer – in this case we were lucky enough to work with Jayden Ali of JA Projects and his team. He realised our vision and made it even better than we could ever imagine. Secondly, if you are just starting up, show you really care. The museum profession is competitive and when I am teaching my students I always encourage them to develop a passion, whatever it might be. Museums need ideas, new ways of thinking as well as demonstrable expertise and a sensitivity to the objects in their care. Thirdly, be a good listener: who knows what ideas might arise from that conversation in a corridor. Finally, be patient. Expertise isn’t gained overnight and it could be a long haul to get where you want to be. But remember, that high level job you have your eyes on may not be as much fun as working with the collections. I would never want to swap mine for management!”
Rosalind McKever, Curator of Paintings and Drawings at the V&A
Co-Curator of Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear
“I always wanted to be a curator as I really enjoy talking with people about art, and working in museums allows me to do that with a variety of art and people. I studied art history and did a PhD in the subject, alongside working in lots of different museum roles and teaching in universities. This breadth of experience – working with art from different centuries and understanding how different parts of a museum function – has been enormously helpful in understanding the creative and practical aspects of curatorial work.
My role in Fashioning Masculinities was working with Claire Wilcox to produce an exhibition which brought together art and fashion like never before! That included identifying artworks and garments from across the centuries, which would speak to each other and developing an exhibition narrative which would frame those conversations. We worked closely with colleagues across the museum to plan every detail, from contacting other museums to ask to borrow a painting to thinking through how we would display and write about it, and how visitors might feel when they saw it.
I am proud of how the exhibition makes connections, between eras and identities, as well as art and fashion. In the research stages it was thrilling to see how the cyclical nature of fashion meant that aesthetics and trends resurfaced in different contexts. Since the exhibition opened, it has been wonderful to see the range of people drawn to it and hear the conversations it sparks.
My three top tips are to start out in smaller institutions where you can get valuable hands-on experience with fabulous collections and colleagues; to visit lots of exhibitions and as well as looking at the art, consider what worked well, from the lighting to the wall colour to the labels; and to remember that it is a small world so be kind and make friends.”
Behind the scenes photography by Jamie Stoker.