To kick off 2014, we have a wonderful guest post from Professor Amy de la Haye, Rootstein Hopkins Chair of Dress History & Curatorship at London College of Fashion. De la Haye’s numerous curatorial projects include Coco Chanel: A New Portrait by Marion Pike, Paris 1967-1971 (Fashion Space Gallery, London College of Fashion, and Palazzo Morando, 2013-2014); The Land Girls: Cinderellas of the Soil (Brighton Museum, 2010); Fashion & Fancy Dress: The Messel Family Dress Collection 1865–2005 (Brighton Museum and Birmingham City Art Gallery, 2005-2006); Liberace’s Stage Costumes (Selfridge’s, Oxford Street, London, 2005); and Catherine Walker: 25 Years, British Couture (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2002). De la Haye has also published extensively on British and continental European fashion. Readers, please share your thoughts and questions below!

Psychobilly and New Age Traveller boots, V&A Streetstyle exhibition, 1994 (See Surfers, Soulies, Skinheads and Skaters by Amy de la Haye and Cathie Dingwall, V&A Publishing, London, 1995).

Perhaps more than any other media, worn clothing offers tangible evidence of lives lived, partly because its very materiality is altered by the wearer. A garment’s shaping can distort to echo body contours. It can become imbued with personal scent and bear signs of wear. What are the curatorial implications and possibilities of this?

A perished silk dress and cape by London couturier Peter Russell, 1933, worn by Anne Messel (see A Family of Fashion: The Messel Family, Six Generations of the Dress by Amy de la Haye, Lou Taylor and Eleanor Thompson, Philip Wilson, London, 2005).

Working as Curator of 20th Century Dress at the V&A (from 1991 to 1999) the objects in my care were predominantly items of elite fashion that were new (direct from the designers atelier) or lightly worn. When I curated the Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk exhibition we expanded the collection policy, that focused upon “design that leads,” to include sub-cultural clothes. These ensembles were acquired as head-to-toe outfits worn by an individual who expressed their allegiance to a particular sub-culture. Extensive wear and dirt were often integral to the authenticity and ‘meaning’ of items – which once they entered the domain of the museum – were regarded as objects. And, they were exhibited – and remain in storage – in this condition.

Shattered silk interior of Maud Messel’s (1875-1960) going-away dress, 1898, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.

Ten years later, working with the Messel Famly Dress Collection at Brighton Museum, Lou Taylor, Eleanor Thompson (then the Museum’s Fashion Curator) and I curated an exhibition of an extraordinary collection of fashionable and fancy dress worn by six generations of one family. Through the generations the women had preserved and often worn (long before “vintage” was fashionable) the clothes belonging to previous generations.

A lipstick trace on Anne Messel’s (1902-1992) wedding dress, made by her other Maud, 1925.

And, they safeguarded items that were damaged or perished as poignant holders of deeply personal family history. And, we interpreted them as such by retaining the marks and exhibiting garments that would customarily be considered un-exhibitable. Within the museum records we found a letter written by Anne, who was then Countess of Rosse, written to the Museum Director in 1981 voicing her concern about the care of her collection and stressing that she did not want any items to be conserved. She wrote, “All period dresses, if they have that meaning of being worn, if only once, become frail. Think what Mary Queen of Scots’ be-heading dress would be like – it would have meaning. …Their frailty is in itself their magic, don’t you think?”