In the rarefied world of museum curators, few are as well known or celebrated as Claire Wilcox. The senior curator of fashion at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum since 2004, she is the wizard behind the curtain of some of the most visited, acclaimed and emotionally moving fashion exhibitions of the past two decades, including Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2015) and Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up (2018).
Wilcox’s shows are concrete, organised, deeply researched things; full of facts, materials, dates. Her new memoir, Patch Work, is nothing like them. Effervescent, poetic, puzzle-like, it is not a tangible account of how the daughter of a junk-shop owner developed her career and curatorial style, but rather a gorgeously written, deeply nostalgic collection of essays on objects (“Hair”, “Kimono”, “Red Shoes”, “Counterpane”) and the histories and memories they contain.
Reading Wilcox’s memoir is a bit like an archaeological dig for fragments from which to piece together a history. There are entire chapters about designers who are never named. Only by stringing together clues — a quote, the mention of a wispy jungle-print dress or a “placing dried baby crocodile heads onto the shoulders of a jacket”— can we conclude that she is writing about Vivienne Westwood, Gianni Versace or Alexander McQueen (who, she writes in an allusion to his 2010 suicide, “invested a little more than most designers”). Major life events — her marriage, a miscarriage, the serious illness of a child — are alluded to rather than described.
If there is an overlap between curatorial and literary style, it’s in Wilcox’s ability to pick at the heartstrings. A room of Kahlo’s painful, spine-contorting corsets and braces at the V&A two years ago moved me to tears; so did a brief chapter on Wilcox’s ageing dog.
Bit by bit, we learn that she was born in a council flat in Pimlico, central London; that she studied English at the University of Exeter and worked for a brief time, in 1977 — year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the arrival of punk — at a sex shop selling panties that were “sheer and crotchless and trimmed with a satin bow” and “arousal cream [that] burnt like hell” before being sacked.
It emerges that she spent four years on short-term contracts with the V&A (where she was not deemed “keeper material”) before leaving to study art at Camberwell, eventually returning to the V&A in a full-time role. We watch as she becomes the interesting woman she yearns to be in her youth: “to have interesting things, to be well travelled, to live in a shadowy house full of books and papers and all sorts of old things”.
Patch Work can be at times frustratingly elusive. I wished for more about how Wilcox puts together her exhibitions, for longer glimpses of her vast reservoir of knowledge about history and clothes. She mentions her cotton house kimono, and how kimonos are “cut square, so that they lie flat . . . [and] can be folded up easily, unlike western clothes that are tailored to fit the body” and that “the sound of the fabric was important too . . . the rustles and whisperings of the layers were seductive to the senses”. We learn that if an exhibition is poorly titled, people won’t come. More of that would have been welcome, and relished.
For those who prefer their memoirs in the traditional style, this book might not make enjoyable reading. But with a little patience — to linger over arresting images, to be immersed in Wilcox’s memories — Patch Work makes the effort well worthwhile.
Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes, by Claire Wilcox, Bloomsbury, £16.99, 288 pages
Lauren Indvik is the FT’s fashion editor
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