Fashion Projects #3: Experiments in Fashion Curation—An Interview with Judith Clark

by Sarah Scaturro

Ruben Toledo Drawing for the Simonetta Exhibition at Palazzo Pitti.

I first encountered Judith Clark’s work through a 2004/5 exhibition at the ModeMuseum in Antwerp called “Malign Muses: When Fashion Turns Back” (later titled “Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back,” when it traveled to the Victoria &Albert Museum). The exhibition was essentially a series of probing conversations about the relationship of fashion with history that took place between Clark and fashion theorist Caroline Evans. Clark has been experimenting with curating and displaying costume since she opened the Judith Clark Costume Gallery in 1997. She is now a joint London College of Fashion/Victoria and Albert Research Fellow.

Fashion Projects : One particularly powerful vignette in the “Malign Muses” exhibition was titled “Locking In and Out,” which manifested in horizontally rotating cogs on which the dressed mannequins were secured. As the cogs literally locked in and out of each other echoing the cyclical nature of fashion, the garments were forced in and out of proximity with others – a fleeting closeness that automatically imposed new relationships between the clothing. Were you surprised at some of the relationships and insights that were realized through this seemingly randommechanism?

Judith Clark: There is of course always a difference between the design and the effect when it is built in the exhibition space. There are also, importantly, the references and associations that the visitor brings to any installation and as you suggest cogs have many powerful connotations. I felt that in a way the “Locking In and Out” section could lend itself to many interpretations– cogs in a fashion machine, or the powerful association between objects through simple proximity, the alienation when this is ‘unlocked’, the endlessness of the fashion cycle, and the odd number three. There could have been any number of cogs and indeed a fanciful first design draft had hundreds of cogs intersecting, which would have further illustrated that all dresses are in some way related to all other dresses, but happen to come into contact only if a trend manipulates the relationship.

Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back. Installation Shot, Victoria and Albert Museum.

FP: In an essay for the book MoMu Backstage, you write, “Historical reference in dress has never been about evolution, continuity. There are other ways of plotting this. In dress, surfaces float free of their histories.” This statement seems to dispute the chronological display methodology that is often apparent in museum exhibitions. Do you think the most effective interpretations of dress dispense with chronology and literalism? What should we be looking for when seeking patterns and relationships in fashion?

JC: I’m not sure that I would dispense with chronological display as it does represent one important story and it does represent evolution from a designer’s point of view. I think the problem with it is that it presents inspiration as linear. What interest me are the other patterns at play. This is why I was so fascinated by Caroline Evans’s book Fashion at the Edge. It was because she was describing inspiration and historical reference in different spatial terms: labyrinthine, as leaps into the past (“tigersprung”) etc. I thought these might be clues to curating a different kind of story. I now get my students to read a piece of theory in three-dimensions, which means reading fashion theory looking out for spatial metaphors, and sketch what shapes come into their heads— these are rarely straight lines.

FP: Exhibitions inherently rely on effective collaborations like the one between you and Caroline Evans. Is it the essentially collaborative nature of the exhibition process that draws you? Who would you most want to collaborate with, and why?

JC: I have had wonderful experiences collaborating on exhibitions and continue to repeat collaborations and conversations with the same people. Some of those conversations date back to the opening of the gallery ten years ago. Usually I am the one who “picks up the phone,” so to speak, and invites people to work on projects, once I have an idea of how the material might be themed, and what the scope is. I have been lucky that I have worked on projects with some research funding attached—so, for example, I could afford to invite the architect Yuri Avvakumov from Moscow to come to London and discuss “Malign Muses” with me. That is a rare luxury.

Anna Piaggi, "Fashion-ology" Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Installation Shot.

FP: Your 2006 exhibition on Anna Piaggi at the V&A titled “Fashion-ology” celebrated the process of fashion more so than the actual realization of clothing. On a parallel line, do you find the process of developing exhibitions or the final outcome to be more inspirational? When you conceptualize an exhibition, are you first intrigued by certain objects, or with a specific question and theme?

JC: I am definitely more interested in process, though I care about the final outcome a lot. It is the bit most people like reading about which is why I am keen to document process in the accompanying exhibition catalogues.

In terms of how I work, I think all of the things you mention appear more or less simultaneously: objects, theme and narrative questions. Then you start testing the different assumptions: questions such as, How many objects exist to illustrate a theme, or is it just the one piece you fell in love with? And then there is the important issue of the enfolding space. I have recently both curated and designed exhibitions so the installation evolves as the objects appear. I do a lot of sketching. I am more of an exhibition designer than a dress historian.

FP: I love your statement, “Anthropomorphic imagination makes clothes magical.” What is it about clothing that can make us instinctually feel an imagined closeness, or parallel existence, as if we somehow understand its previous life?

JC: We dream and imagine stories that are inhabited by clothed people. The stories are powerful because of their associations, not factual accuracy. I think one of the most compelling things for me about Anna Piaggi is her firm belief in this, a fact that has underwritten her collages. She is insistently not a historian, even though her familiarity with the history of dress is vast, but she knows clothes according to her dream-work, her tales. That is why she wears precious vintage dresses. She appropriates the spirit of their previous owners.

FP: It seems that many museums will not show, or even collect, garments that are stained, damaged or heavily distressed (at least not without much restoration). Do you think the effects of age can be a desirable or value-added quality within an exhibition setting? Have you ever experimented in ways to reveal a garment’s personal history?

JC: Not really, but I think it is a very interesting issue. Amy de la Haye is the person who, I think, speaks most interestingly about this subject. In curating the Street Style exhibition at the V&A, she brought these issues into the museum, as in what to do with biker boots? There are clearly many issues where curatorial interest and conservation integrity are and will be at odds.

FP: As the human form has changed over fashion history, it can be a challenge to find the right kind of mannequin (i.e. body type) in order to accurately display a garment. With this in mind, in past exhibitions you have developed specific mannequins in order to realize your vision. Have you ever been tempted to dispense with the human body entirely? Is it even possible to divorce clothing from the body?

JC: I love the fact that the garment is linked so inescapably to the body. I think when the mannequin is invisible, it is the most noteworthy thing about the exhibition—everyone is looking for the body. The clothes will always represent its essential scale and proportions, if they are wearable, which is what I work with mostly. I am also interested in working with conservation constraints and so I have been working with archive mannequins and superimposed ‘prosthetics’ onto these that in some way represent or extend the theme of whatever is being exhibited. I have commissioned the avant-garde jeweler Naomi Filmer to work on these.

A recent example was to punctuate the exhibition dedicated to the designer Simonetta with particular poses and gestures. It seemed essential to have her in the exhibition and she had a particular pose—raised chin, cigarette. It starts at the research phase—I am looking at all these photocopies of Simonetta, thinking, There is her pose again, and then think, How does this get to be in the exhibition?

Simonetta Exhibition at Palazzo Pitti.

FP: I work towards the ethical preservation of textiles and costume in an exhibition setting – a role that inherently leads to limitations and compromises on visual display methods. As a curator working within a museum setting, how do you circumvent such limitations? Do you think that preventive conservation requirements negatively affect the dynamic potential of displays? Did you concern yourself with conservation techniques when you had your gallery? Do you think that exhibition display could be an acceptable occurrence in the “life” of the garment? (Therefore, whatever happens is somehow excusable?)

JC: No, I don’t think anything is excusable for dynamic display. I think part of the interest in this subject for me are precisely the limitations as I said about the mannequins. The clothes are often valuable objects, and certainly fragile and I hope that I manage to work around the brief. The cogs in Malign Muses were set at a conservation-appropriate speed. The mannequin prosthetics didn’t touch the garments. I think people perhaps underestimate my concern about the objects.

FP: Focusing on experimental exhibition techniques, the Judith Clark Costume Gallery succeeded in pushing the field of fashion curation forward through, as you have said, “creating a new grammar, new patterns of time and reference.” Now that the gallery no longer exists, are there any other museums or galleries adopting experimental or innovative approaches to the exhibition of dress? Where do you see the field of fashion curation heading within the next 10 to 20 years?

JC: I’m not sure. I think that the conversations are much more fluid about this subject. We are debating it now. I am working freelance a lot and so importing my attitude to fashion curation to a number of places. I worked at Palazzo Pitti last year and this year I am doing a project for the Boijmans van Beuningen museum. My gallery has downsized to a workshop (to build miniature exhibitions) and hopefully a website for hypothetical exhibitions. I have two small children and so what I think I am doing tomorrow quickly becomes next month.

I think the ”where is it going” question is interesting in relation to what you asked earlier about conservation. These restrictions will not alter and I think it a case of carefully going back to basics and thinking: What can we do with a dress, a plinth, a mannequin and a spot light? Small changes are interesting in my opinion. I think there is also a “virtual” exhibition debate, which appears a lot in our students’work and a restlessness about exhibitions that don’t move. There isn’t enough drama it would seem. I think if it is virtual then it can be wholeheartedly so – i.e. the installation may as well be “hypothetically” on Mars.

FP: Drawing from your statement “Fashion and academia have been uneasy bedfellows,” do you think fashion exhibitions must be grounded in scholarly research in order to be effective? Is there any value in exhibitions that emphasize an entertainment factor?

JC: I think as long as curators don’t lose their nerve about their original idea for an exhibition it is usually OK. The problem is when the sponsor takes over the power. That is revolting. But to make an exhibition popular—why not? I think exhibitions that are based on scholarly research often are just more coherent – the curator has more material to fall back on.

Clark's Sketches and Notes for the Simonetta Exhibition

FP: You state in Backstage that you are interested in “the relationship between curating and digression, in the connections made by the visitors who stray.” Pursuing a similar question, curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton of the Costume Institute introduced their exhibition “blog.mode: addressing fashion” by writing that in “opening a dialogue with visitors to the exhibition and to the blog, the curators hope to expand their own views and further the practice of fashion interpretation and connoisseurship.” The main premise of their exhibition seeks to garner feedback from their public through the vehicle of blog commenting. Do you think this is an effective platform to study this idea of digression? Are there any other ways that you can think of?

JC: I think it is an interesting approach – I had an exhibition at the gallery called “Captions” where I exhibited one dress and nailed captions to the wall and printed a sheet where visitors could come and write their alternative captions. Some were great, some were really dreadful and pointless. My favorite was written by Caroline Evans’s daughter Caitlin. She wrote a story about the princess who wore the gown and I often think about it. I think the same has happened with the Met blog—it is very hit and miss. It is a fabulous project to do at the Met given their position, because they have a chance to have responses on such a huge scale. I think people are not very articulate about their experiences of exhibitions and so it is difficult to get the account that we might like back from the visitors.

I think it would be interesting to have an exhibition where the curator could totally digress—literally one story become another during the exhibition. But it would be considered so indulgent, I don’t have the courage to do it.

Judith Clark can be found at