THE CURATORS BEHIND MARY QUANT
Stephanie Wood and Jenny Lister are the creative brains behind the Mary Quant Exhibition currently showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum. We were lucky enough to see how it all comes together behind the scenes in the Clothworker’s Centre at Blythe House.
SHOP THEIR RIXO EDIT BELOW.
How did you become a curator for the V&A?
Jenny: After doing the 2-year MA in the History of Dress at the Courtauld Institute I worked at Liberty on Regent Street but then realised retail wasn’t for me – I missed the history. I volunteered at the V&A for a while and then worked as an Assistant Curator at the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace State Apartments (Historic Royal Palaces), where I worked on displays of Queen Victoria’s clothes and eighteenth-century court dress, amongst other things. After moving to the Museum of London for a couple of years I was really lucky to get a job as Curator in Textiles and Fashion at the V&A, in 2003, and I have been here ever since.
Steph: I’m a bit of an anomaly in that I studied Fine Art, not Fashion or Dress History which is the traditional route for a Fashion Curator. After graduating I realised I didn’t want to be an artist, but was keen to work closely with artists and designers in a gallery or museum. I started work at the V&A over 10 years ago (scarily!) as Office Manager and PA in the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department and fell in love with the fashion collection. I took on any opportunity I could within the museum – working on gallery redisplays, project managing Fashion in Motion, our live fashion shows; always learning from my incredible and generous colleagues, and worked my way up from there.
What was it that made you want to do an exhibition on Mary Quant?
Jenny: It was a long-standing ambition. I really remember the Daisy doll I got for Christmas aged 4 or 5 – her fabulous gingham outfit, tiny plastic platform mules and her glorious seventies sticker books. The first exhibition I worked on at the V&A was about 1960s fashion in London (2006) and I met Mary Quant then. Ever since, I’ve been motivated by a kind of sense of outrage that she hasn’t been the focus of a major exhibition since 1973. It’s been so good to be able to do the research and show how she made such an important contribution to British fashion.
What would your creative direction for the Met Gala be?
Jenny: Something really understated and simple, using a theme such as flowers, butterflies, dogs or horses?! I would want to calm it all down a bit!
Steph: I’m the opposite of Jenny on this, I always think the most successful Met Galas are the ones where people are super creative and take risks with the designs they wear – go BIG or go home! I’ve always been a huge fan of kitsch, so I’m eagerly anticipating this year’s Camp theme.
Where do you find inspiration for an exhibition?
Jenny: The collection at the V&A is such an amazing storehouse of extraordinary garments, textiles and accessories illustrating not only a great variety of styles and techniques from the past, but also different cultures as well as telling stories about real people. It’s the best resource for ideas. Often the best shows look back to the past while exploring an issue which has contemporary relevance and is connected to fashion today, so it’s good to keep up to date with what young people are interested in. I try out ideas on my two daughters – they don’t hold back from telling me what they think!
Parallels between Mary Quant and RIXO?
Steph: There is a shared fearless approach to style both in the bold, clashing patterns favoured by Mary Quant in the seventies and RIXO today but also in their vision of fashion as a tool to empower women, regardless of age or size; to express themselves freely through fashion, rather than feeling the need to conform.
Mary Quant was a pioneer who transformed fashion in what was then a male dominated environment and it’s really great to see young female designers continuing the trend and leading fashion today.
Jenny: Apart from the Mary Quant exhibition, which has been such a privilege and very much fun to do, it would have to be the exhibition I worked on at Kensington Palace, of dresses designed for Diana Princess of Wales by Catherine Walker. I was a great fan of the Princess as a child and through working on the exhibition I learned a lot about how she used fashion to communicate, collaborating with Catherine Walker who was a really interesting designer.
Steph: Balenciaga Shaping Fashion at the V&A was the first exhibition I had the pleasure of working on. He is one of the most important designers of the 20th century, so it was a real honour to research him in depth and study his garments. As part of the exhibition I did a project with X-ray artist Nick Veasey to reveal hidden elements of our star Balenciaga pieces. This involved being locked in his mobile X-ray unit (an articulated lorry) at the height of summer, filling couture gowns worn by the likes of Ava Gardner with party balloons for X-raying – so much fun!
Piece of advice for working in fashion or as a curator?
Steph: The key thing is finding an area of interest that you’re passionate about and trying to gain hands on experience in a relevant museum or gallery. For fashion there are lots of universities which offer dress history, history of art and fashion curation courses. Enthusiasm is so important too – the life of a curator really isn’t as glamorous as it seems and involves lots of admin, paperwork and spreadsheets, so being excited and open to a whole range of tasks is key.
Images taken at the Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study & Conservation of Textiles and Fashion.