For almost thirty years, I have stored in my small New York apartment clothes that belonged to my grandmother. An unlined shirt-jacket of raw silk, brilliant green, that she sewed in the 1960s or 1970s, and that still holds something of the way she held herself. Three of her coats: a two-colour bouclé with a delicate ivory silk lining; the others black and more practical. They fit, although she was smaller than I am, or they fit the need, and I wore them through many winters after her death. I have shirts that belonged to my fastidious friend Alexander – Egyptian cotton in unusual colours and patterns, separate collars and collar studs, French cuffs, tailored for his long arms and narrow torso, but suiting me perfectly. I wore these, too, for years after his death in 1995. I don’t have the leather jacket that Drew tried to give me the last time I saw him, in San Francisco in the early 1990s. Even holding my breath, I couldn’t do it up, so didn’t think I should accept the gift – clinging to an obstinate notion of use, even as I admired its complex zippers and leather lacing, loved that it was imbued with his swagger and sex. I still feel I let him down by failing to care for it – and for him – in this way.
We live in clothes, and the dead live on through theirs. That fact, and the feelings that accompany it – unassuaged grief, sharp pleasure, informed care – is the stuff of Claire Wilcox’s Patch Work: A Life amongst Clothes. A series of meditations on her work as curator of clothing and textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Patch Work is both a reverie and a valorisation of close observation, an eccentric personal catalogue and an oblique entry in the history of the V&A. ‘To provide a convincing display,’ she writes of a collective curatorial effort, ‘we group things that have never been grouped, create a unified ensemble from clothes that have had multiple owners.’ It’s a useful way of thinking about the form of her book. Each section contains short chapters, some no longer than a paragraph, through which Wilcox pulls an exemplar, or several. The headings, concrete or allusive, range from ‘Flannel’ and ‘Purple Velvet’ to ‘Lustre’, ‘Slippage’ and ‘Mist’. Each section is prefaced with an image, although not necessarily one that illustrates its contents: a photograph of a piece of 18th-century Italian bobbin lace for ‘Storeroom’; a colloquy of buttons for ‘Dusk’. Many chapters begin, dynamically, in medias res. (‘No, winter flowering jasmine, she said as I mistook the arcs of citrus yellow flowers that sat in a vase on her desk for forsythia.’)
These days, ‘everyone is interested in the romance of labour, the archive, the curation,’ Wilcox writes. She takes us to a mannequin storeroom so crammed the humans can’t get in. She explains the museum’s numbering system and the everyday need to ‘collate our records, update locations, refold and rehang and rearrange’. But this isn’t a straightforward narrative of professional development. She interleaves childhood memories with close scrutiny of a pair of early 19th-century breeches, with reflections on the qualities of fabric (‘so compliant’ yet so fragile), thoughts about water, a discursive essay on representations of Frida Kahlo. The book is an inventory of gestures and sensory detail. We watch as Wilcox and colleagues ‘spread out a lace veil, slowly disentangling its soft barbs, and cautiously unfurl a parasol, releasing a faint puff of perfume’. They ‘airlift a massive crinoline weak with age … settle its folds, form rolls of tissue to support its boned struts, and pass [their] hands over the creases like mediums intent on resurrecting the dead’. She tells us what they have learned ‘from the delicate kiss of fabric on skin’ and summons the exact texture of the air as they work on the biannual audit of the collection: ‘the smell of naphthalene’ and ‘the quiet of the textile store’; the feeling of electric absorption in work and of intimacy between co-workers; the intimacy with the building itself, ‘our heads … within touching distance of the girders, just as I imagined the heads of the museum’s builders with their cloth caps and handfuls of rivets would have been, as they bolted and hammered the metal struts together’.
In her twenties (she is now in her sixties), Wilcox volunteered in the textiles and fashion department, then worked there for several years as an assistant curator. She left the V&A for art school feeling that she’d ‘had enough’, that she had been ‘reduced … to silence’ by ‘the vast knowledge of the experts’. She earned a second degree, in ceramics and sculpture, raised children, worked freelance. Years later, she returned,
pulled back by a silver thread, by a sea-change at the museum, a lightening of the galleries, a cleaning of the cases, an efflorescence of excitement about the possibility of fashioning the gap between the sweat of the studio and the serenity of the storeroom. I imagined a blurring of the senses, artistry in movement, redefining what a museum could be, patching order to the chaos of making; for everything that had ever been carved, gilded, chipped, woven or embroidered had felt the sweat of the hand and the mess and noise of the workshop; the irrational investment of the artist and the expert.
In 1999, Wilcox conceived ‘Fashion in Motion’ to show the work of designers on living bodies (at first models walked through the galleries; now they strut on a catwalk and the events are livestreamed). She has curated several of the most striking and successful exhibitions in the museum’s history: Radical Fashion (2001); Versace at the V&A (2002); the Vivienne Westwood retrospective (2004); The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-57 (2007); the spectacular Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2015); and Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up (2018). She has worked on two major reorganisations of the V&A’s ‘permanent’ display. (In this world ‘permanent’, as Wilcox writes, ‘can mean anything from a decade to a lifetime, while temporary, in museum time, often goes on for years’.)
But Wilcox’s accomplishments aren’t her focus here. Nor, for the most part, are her own clothes, though she describes deliciously the way a thrifted 1930s wedding dress, cut on the bias, ‘clung to my body like water’; pays tribute to a silk kimono that she wore ‘to shreds’ (the unstated opposite of the kind of garment that ends up in a museum) and remembers feeling ‘in a state of perfection’ wearing a tunic made by her mother. Rather, Patch Work is about the way memory and clothes compose each other, and the way death and curation haunt one another. Grief, over the relatively recent deaths of her parents and the long-ago stillbirth of her son, is a keynote. She refers to the ‘ghost bodies’ of those who wore the clothes now held by the museum and recalls that she used to wear ‘vintage nightdresses as shirts and petticoats as skirts’. ‘It didn’t occur to me that I had been laundering the clothes of the dead.’ Moving ‘dismembered’ mannequins on gurneys through the museum, she thinks about the ill and dying paraded through hospital corridors. The vocabulary of her profession, she writes,
is frequently of devastation and disintegration. We talk of shattered silks – when the brittle fabric splits, often down an old crease; fugitive dyes that have faded through time, leaving behind a curiously unbalanced palette where blues become green and reds become brown. We … isolate perished objects that reek of chemical degradation (we have a collection of mackintoshes with rigor mortis). We remove tired pieces from display, speaking of their need to rest.
Wilcox’s attention to the relations between words and clothes also plays out in a fascination with museum labels. ‘To name things’ is her job; misnaming an exhibition means that ‘people won’t come’. Yet, broadly speaking, she eschews names here. The V&A is mostly ‘the museum’; the Clothworkers’ Centre for Textiles and Fashion Study (the archive of her department) and Blythe House (its home, though the building is due to be vacated) are described but not named. Only those in the know will understand whom she’s referencing when she writes, in separate chapters, about Westwood, McQueen and (I think) the house of Versace. I read that refusal as a salvo against the name as fetish and commodity, a refutation of the celebrity namedropping common to the fashion world and a way of asking us to look more closely at particular creations and her experiences of them. But the effect is also of another sort of insiderness, and I wonder about its use for less well-known figures, such as ‘the Keeper’, who is a role model. There is an abstracted – perhaps romantic – quality amid the precision; I sometimes wanted to know where I was, and when, even as I appreciated that patchwork is about adjacency, association and the retrieval of fragments that might otherwise be unvalued or lost. The few moments when Wilcox’s own name appears are witty and telling. At a childhood eye exam she falters, and her mother reassures her: ‘Just say what you can see, Claire.’
‘The history of fashion often lies in the detail,’ Wilcox writes in the V&A Gallery of Fashion (2013), her catalogue of the permanent display. One of her first works was Modern Fashion in Detail (1991), co-authored with Valerie Mendes, for which she wrote concise, meticulous and imaginative commentaries on more than eighty garments to accompany gorgeous and instructive close-ups. As a curator, Wilcox has said that she allows herself to be educated and influenced by the designers whose work she presents, including its most radical practitioners. As a writer, she has an absorptive attention to detail, and she’s as good at catching the affective texture of a designer’s work as she is the tactile. McQueen’s art ‘seems unexpurgated, emotionally’; one of his dresses, the hem of which is dipped in latex, has ‘an unpleasantly fleshy feel’. Fortuny’s dresses, a ‘tonic to the senses’, are ‘pleated into rills like the delicate underside of a field mushroom’. The point is that the materials and the institution in which she has steeped herself compose her subjectivity. Fabric’s flexibility and vulnerability reflect her own. She describes teenage feelings of ‘ineptitude’; later she wondered how colleagues came to know all that they knew. Looking through family photographs after her parents’ deaths, she sees herself as an ebullient and a worried child, ‘as if the pattern of my life – ricocheting between certainty and doubt – was set so early that I know no other way’.
The V&A is one of the few museums with the funds, space and commitment to maintain a permanent display of fashion and mount regular exhibitions (or has been; the full effect of the planned post-pandemic cuts remains unclear). Yet its history of treating clothes, particularly contemporary garments, as important cultural objects, worthy of acquisition and display, dates only from the second half of the 20th century. Wilcox’s department didn’t include the word ‘dress’ in its name until the late 1970s. Until the appointment of professional women curators in the mid-20th century, as the historian Lou Taylor has observed, ‘fashionable dress still only evoked notions of vulgar commerciality and valueless, ephemeral, feminine style’ to ‘male museum staff’. Wilcox belongs to the third generation of women whose work has shaped the modern field of clothes curation and exhibition in the UK. Her predecessors include Madeleine Ginsburg (who died last summer), appointed the first dedicated curator of dress at the V&A in 1957, and Mendes, who was hired in 1973. They fought for the museum to value clothes as it did the other arts and industries. According to Wilcox, writing in the journal Fashion Theory, Mendes struggled against this prejudice ‘even within her own department’. She brought
a new curatorial model that had not been shaped by the traditions of the V&A but by the egalitarian values of the regional museum and polytechnic. Stylish, rebellious, and modern, she became a fierce advocate for a profession she had not intended to pursue, for her original appointment was as Assistant Keeper of Textiles, and she was only deployed to relieve pressure on the department as 20th-century fashion began to be a phenomenon that was not going to go away … [She] inspired a new generation of fashion curators, broadened departmental acquisition policies, championed increased access to the collections, and nurtured a proactive working relationship with the creative industries.
In this tribute to Mendes (which takes as its case study her department’s initially ambivalent approach to acquiring pieces by the designer Jean Muir), Wilcox is writing about the V&A’s ‘complex landscape of politics, protocol and power’. In Patch Work, the museum – as employer and physical place – may be a place of paradoxes, but it isn’t a site of contestation. Imprisoned women, she notes near the end of the book, made some of the building’s mosaic floor tiles, adding in parentheses: ‘The museum loves that story.’ Coming ‘from trade’ (her parents had a shop that ‘sold knitting patterns and wool and baby clothes and separates’), she is attuned to the way commerce and artistry intertwine – and have done since long before the founding of the V&A. ‘Everything that has ever had value has been transacted, and in its heyday lace was an economic miracle, weight for weight, thread for thread; more valuable than gold.’ The invisibility and devaluing of work interests her, at least in some contexts. She describes the stress as a young mother of wanting to give the impression of not having to work at it, and her own mother’s profound exhaustion from nonstop work.
Wilcox is also interested in tracing long histories (such as that of a teacup that she acquires) and in the question of what a museum can be. ‘It was only a museum because we said it was,’ she writes of a collection of family ephemera. So it’s surprising that a book about clothing and curation, attentive to ‘the sweat of the hand’ and published at a moment when the stories museums tell about themselves are again being challenged, does not even gesture toward the connections between conscripted or enslaved labour and textile production. (Last year, the V&A appointed its first curator for African and African diaspora fashion and has announced the show Africa Fashion, its first on the subject, for summer 2022.) Similarly, I didn’t expect her vivid description of laundry and the waste associated with it – ‘gallons of grey water … carrying microscopic particles of textile and chemicals and plastic and hair and skin’ – to end almost lightheartedly with ‘a little dash of ourselves to add to the confluence before it’s returned, refreshed and sparkling, to our taps and sinks and kettles’, rather than with a consideration of the toxic consequences the effluvia of our clothes have for the oceans. (In 2018, the V&A mounted Fashioned from Nature to address the environmental damage done by the industry.)
‘Clothes are shorthand for being human; they are an intimate, skin-close craft form,’ Wilcox wrote in Radical Fashion. ‘[They] have the intensity of the personal, and the power and impact of the general.’ Speaking of her Kahlo exhibition, she referred to the potential for clothing to ‘be both a carapace and an expression of the joy of living.’ In Patch Work, clothes are both the material of a life and a site for the kind of transformative attention Wilcox lavishes on the archive of one luxury brand, when, despite her alienation from its signature style (and ‘the glossy kind of grooming that goes with it’), she becomes ‘absorbed in the fabrics and the stitching and embroidery, respectful of the drama of the gowns, the mastery of soft leather, the button-holing and the beading’. The book pays tribute to the power of holding and being held by clothes, to sensing them scrupulously, to saying what you can see, and feel.