Review, highlights and essential information for the enjoyable reading of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s senior fashion curator’s memoir “Patch Work - A Life Amongst Clothes”.
Claire Wilcox is the Victoria and Albert Museum’s senior curator of fashion since 2004 and professor in fashion curation at the London College of Fashion. She organised some of the incredible exhibitions at the V&A Museum including Radical Fashion (2001), Vivienne Westwood (2004), The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957 (2007), From Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s (2013), Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2015) and Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up (2018). She initiated the well-known series Fashion in Motion consisting of live catwalk events at the V&A in 1999.
Claire Wilcox: Formation Years
The memoir shows parts of Claire’s journey from the first wallet she brought in for an assessment to the V&A, to her role as senior curator.
“I knew how far I had to go,” she writes of those early years, “and how hard I had to work to become an expert. But I was out of my depth, and my French—the language of textile history—shaky.”
While away from the museum, she enrolled at the Camberwell Art School as she felt she needed to progress in her training for her career path. Her further education has allowed her to look at the collections “with the eye of a nearly-artist.”
Claire Wilcox: Family
A feature of her memoir is not naming the people her stories are about. And to better understand the stories, which do not follow chronologically, the reader must know she had two daughters, one which was frightening ill and a son who died very young. The collection of stories is about the author experiences and leaves the reader to pick up on the clues to identify who she is referring to.
Patch Work: Sewing Thoughts and Memories
Patchwork is the craft of sewing together small pieces of cloth, in different designs, colours, or textures. In the book context, memories are sewn together as various fabrics and objects trigger them.
The memoir’s title follows Claire Wilcox’s rule of naming an exhibition: it “needs to sum up an exhibition in no more than three words, plus perhaps a subtitle”. The title “Patch Work” matches the collection of thoughts within the chapters, beautiful on their own but short, like a piece of a puzzle that the reader will never complete.
In the memoir, the author stitches her life events to clothing pieces, in a seemingly aleatoric way to create a patchwork of memories and experiences. She shares stories about articles of clothing made by her talented mother, such as her first bikini and her wedding dress. Claire shares her thoughts about her silk kimono and favourite t-shirt to sleep when alone.
The Museum and Fashion
I was expecting more about the author’s incredible exhibitions at the V&A and more about the big brands – but the book is something completely different. Brands, such as Vivienne Westwood or Alexander McQueen, are not always named, but the stories have enough clues for a fashion zealous to enjoy following the references.
It collects various stories about the pieces she references, exploring the items’ past and her past. The author allows herself to imagine the life of the items that arrive at the museum in contrast with her job that requires specificity and clarity.
Contrary to what the reader might think, the curators feel the items’ history through stitch and thread and are trusting their thousands of sensors in their fingertips to explore and authenticate them. Through touch, the curators can feel even the tiny ridge where a dressmaker’s pin was. The author delights in the delicate kiss of fabric to skin and accepts that DNA will be left behind during the process.
The ghost bodies, also known as the mannequins, are showing the particularities of the original wearer of the garments that arrive at the V&A. The reader learns that the dresses are not altered and not fitted to the forms. The mannequins are specially created to fit the dresses. The curators discover the particularities of the former wearers through close examination of the items’ seams and friction patterns.
“…a pressing of flesh on fabric here, a seam taken out there, the rubbing and the pulling. It’s just wear and tear, the friction of age, but it leaves us with vital clues for our ghost bodies.”
Some clothing items had to be treated with extreme caution as top hats brought in were marked as poisonous due to the mercury used during their making which made them still toxic. The author recalls how “once, someone brought a box of medieval leather shoes and everyone was sent home while a specialist in protective clothing and mask was called in, in case they had come from a plague pit.”
As a reader, I have found myself lost between the fabrics, stories and memories of the author. The chapters are written around a word which marks the starting point of the thoughts and memories. Each paragraph shows how that particular element has been seen through the eyes of the author during the years. The book brings calmness to the reader as the chapters open the imagination.
Another easy-to-read book about fashion is “Clothes and Other Things That Matter” by Alexandra Schulman. If you prefer to dive into the world of design and the tranquillity of the English countryside, then take a visual trip through “Twenty First Century Cotswolds” by Pippa Paton. Use the #BookClub on social media to share how you are enjoying our Book Club recommendations!
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