women's red coat

A memoir by the V&A’s fashion coordinator has been published. It details her life and the many dresses, shoes, and other items that the museum houses.

Clare Wilcox believes she is a very unlikely fashion curator. She says, “It’s a bit embarrassing, really.” Today she is a bit Cossack wearing black lace-up boots with a provenance she can’t recall, matching trousers from Cos, and a shirt she purchased from the Victoria and Albert Museum. This museum also happens to be where she has worked for 20 years.

It seems that it was written in the stars that she would end up in London’s South Kensington thinking about buttons, ballgowns, and other fashion-related things. She spoke about fashion’s “invisible roots” – its roots in the past but also the present. Because clothes are essential for every human being, she said that fashion is always there. All of it goes back to her childhood. Her parents had a haberdashery in West Kensington. As a child, she used to accompany her mother to work. She spent her days among the patterns, knitting wool, rolls of rickrack, and bias binding. After she graduated from university, her father opened a junk shop in Pimlico. She says, “He let me do his Windows for him.” “And I had grandiose plans. With my brother, I created these amazing stage sets with columns, swags, and mirrors. People would come in and say things like, “Oh, but the inside doesn’t look like the window” and she would be furious if that happened. Since then, she’s been more interested in objects than people.

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 is praised by Maggie O’Farrell (the latter calling it a “collection of treasures” and Jim Crace. It’s not the typical fashion book. For example, Patch Work’s author is so indifferent to brands that even though they are in full strutting glory in their photos, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood are not always mentioned. Not for her the “transformations”, and “statement pieces,” beloved by the glossy magazine editor. It’s about the everyday, quiet secrets that our clothes keep and sometimes betray. Which story does it tell? Wilcox questions, looking beyond the obvious narratives about power, money, and social status. (She’s also good at these). What is the meaning of this worn heel and frayed cuff, and what are their feelings? The coat is so perfect that we can only conclude that it was worn once.

women's red coat

Wilcox and me meet at the V&A one of the days that it has been closed due to Covid-19. Its galleries have become our own, and we spend a lot of time together in them, as if we were two rambunctious shoppers in the most extravagant store on earth. Wilcox loves the museum. Patch Work is partly a love letter. At times it can be hard to tell which one of us is more excited by this amazing freedom. Me, most likely, but not nearly enough. 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. The fashion gallery is where we are seated in front of an 18th century dress that makes us think of a tea cutter in high wind. Aside from it, a dining chair that is so delicate you wonder if it could hold any backside for more than a second. She talks about the relationship between furniture and dress with such vividness, that I will never look at a sofa quite the same again.

Finally, we return to the stage. Wilcox and her colleagues would not have been able to do their work without the conservation department. There are 14 experts who tend to the costume collection, which contains about 100,000 items. We spend a while looking at their projects. A sinister little marionette with its skirts, hair and hair creepily spread on a pillow. A 18th-century silk waistcoat worn by a man is miraculously still cockatoo pink. an elaborate feathered headdress from the National Theatre’s 2017 production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies (a recent donation). We then head to her office for a conversation. She has been hiding to protect her husband since March, so this is her first visit back. I hear her scream as she enters the office. She looks up at the chiaroscuro roofs and says “Oh, my view has been lost.” Wilcox is one those people who takes great pride in her work and doesn’t depend on it for her identity. This is perhaps why Wilcox’s new book is such a rare delight. It doesn’t suffer from the terrible status anxiety that plagues most fashion memoirs.

Wilcox was going through a tough time in her own life and began to think about Patch Work. She says that her parents died in six months and she was about to begin McQueen’s show. “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]. It was a great liberation for me.”

She began to jot down fragments on the back of envelopes while she was on bus rides and other idle moments. “My job requires me to communicate clearly. I have to be clear when I write an object label. With Patch Work, however, I can think of the gaps between words that I might normally write. A green maternity dress is one example. This label would simply say “unfinished and unworn”. I speculate in the book. I wonder if the wearer died before the baby was born. Perhaps she believed that green was unlucky? Many questions remain unanswered about one garment. Sometimes what we don’t know is more fascinating than what we know. I suddenly realized that libraries weren’t necessary anymore. I could write something in the book, even if it wasn’t 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). Mariano Fortuny’s Delphos gowns are as fluid as water and have been stored in his Venice showroom a century ago. They are now housed inside a mahogany drawer and are coiled into fat rolls to keep their pleats from falling out. As she audits the textile store’s objects, the scent of naphthalene (for mosquitoes) hangs heavy as she moves through top hats. They were kept in bags with skulls and crossbones to indicate that mercury was used in their creation and are still toxic.

Wilcox claims that curating wasn’t a desirable career choice when she was younger and she found it quite by accident. Her first job after graduating from Exeter’s English department was in a sex shop. She was packing gift sets of jubilee-knickers in the summer 1977. They were “sheer, crotchless, and trimmed with satin bows”. She enjoyed closing the boxes with elastic cord. It was hilarious to see how amused her friends were at this bizarre gig. They told her it was a fire hazard. After a few weeks, she was fired.

One day she found a folded wallet at a market stand. It was lined with yellow silk and had a gold thread “Sr William Portman Istanbul 1682” on it. She then took it to the V&A for an opinion afternoon. “They said it was amazing and I thought, these people are my people. They love objects and I love objects and I want them to work here.” Her wallet and a pair of her purple Biba boots are still at the V&A. Their former owner is also there. She says, “I started by volunteering.” She says, “Then I got three-month contracts, then a six month contract.” But after four years spent in the fashion gallery she decided to quit and enroll in Camberwell’s art school. She says, “I was at an intersection.” “I believe that one’s 20s is the most difficult time in one’s entire life. You don’t know your identity. You are in terrible relationships.”

The years passed. She was married and had three children, two daughters and one son. The youngest died at the age of four. She had kept in touch with V&A, and she applied for a job in the textile department. “I was in my 40s at the time. I believed I was unemployed and eccentric. The museum wanted new ideas and energy, and I was so excited during the interview that I stood up once. They asked me if I wanted to stage fashion shows in their museum. Three months later, I was putting on Fashion in Motion [a live catwalk show].” She laughs. “I came back as a homing bird,” she says. She loves the combination of privacy (spending time in the archives) and a more glamorous (staging exhibitions).

two man wearing yellow and grey suit jacket standing close together

Fashion is often dismissed as a trivial pursuit. They despise fashion’s shallowness, frivolity, vanity, and cost. Others take it seriously, far too seriously. They are unable to leave their house without the perfect coat or the latest bag. Wilcox is where? She says, “I have thought about it a lot.” “I don’t consider myself fashionable, but I find certain aspects of fashion, such as celebrity culture, its wastefulness and the unhappiness that it can cause, troubling. It is complex, and I think that it is more complicated than people realize. It is amazing to think of the variety of inquiries into it. From weekly magazines to Baudelaire’s 19th-century writings about it to John Flugel’s 1930s book, The Psychology of Clothes Fashion is part of clothes but it is not fashion. Frida Kahlo was interested in how clothing connects with identity. She controlled how the world saw Frida through her appearance. Blouses that looked like Oaxaca often came from New York. Wilcox believes there is more to it. “When I think about historical clothing, I also consider other narratives. What was the origin of the fabric? It has survived. “Where has the rest of it gone?”

The V&A has collaborated with many fashion houses over the past decade on their shows. I wonder if there is any conflict of interest. Wilcox insists that it does not. “We are very clear about how we interact with fashion houses. McQueen left us pretty much alone with McQueen. They were friendly and helpful. Because we are independent, we are respected. We cannot be bought. It is interesting. In the past, fashion houses weren’t very interested in history. They often have their own climate-controlled museums. They recognize the importance of their heritage.” She tells me that designers are just as welcome as donations from the general public. People often remember the fashion gallery. When they are ready to give up, they think about us, the national collection. The gallery displays began around 1750. The 16th century is only a small part of the story. These things are rare. We have only a few fragments of the 15th century.

What is her dream job as a curator What would her dream exhibition be about? She says, “That’s like giving me a plate full of sweets and telling me to choose one.” She thinks about it for a while. For a while, she has fantasized about staging an underwater show, but the practicalities are too extreme. “I was reading Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise,” she said. It’s a novel about a 19th century department store, modeled on Le Bon Marche (a Parisian store now owned and operated by LVMH]. It was set in a time when women were more free to shop and explore fashion beyond clothing. Imagine if you could recreate this store. Visitors could be greeted with a blast of perfume when they enter.”

This would be a wonderful idea. It is also resonant considering that the department store seems to be in its final days. We have a few moments where we can all think of other ideas. She would like staff to pretend that they are carrying their purchases behind them. The exhibition catalogue should look exactly like a store catalog. Together, we get quite excited. She presses her hands together and says “OK, great, let’s go!” Even though she is wearing a mask, I can see that her eyes are as wide open as her mouth.