The V&A’s fashion curator has written an acclaimed memoir about her life among the many dresses, hats, shoes and other items the museum houses
Claire Wilcox thinks she makes for a highly unlikely fashion curator. “It’s a bit embarrassing, really,” she says. “I’m always complaining to friends that I haven’t got a thing to wear.” Ask what piece of clothing she most aches to own – you can have anything, I say, irrespective of cost or rarity – and she will talk not of Balenciaga or Schiaparelli, but of “Dorelia John-style peasant blouses.” (Dorelia McNeill, a painter and artist’s model, lived with Augustus John and his wife, Ida, in a menage a trois that sometimes took up residence in a Gypsy caravan). For the record, today she looks a touch Cossack in black lace-up boots whose provenance she cannot quite recall, matching trousers from Cos and – oh dear – a hand-printed shirt that she bought from the shop in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which also happens to be the institution where she has worked for the last 20 years.
Nevertheless, it seems to have been written in the stars that she would one day end up here in London’s South Kensington, thinking about buttons and ballgowns; about how, as she puts it, fashion exists “in the folds of time”, its roots always in the past, but also in the present, too, since human beings will never not need clothes. It all goes back to her childhood. First, there was the haberdashery her parents ran not so very far away in West Kensington: as a girl, she would often accompany her mother to work, spending her days among the paper patterns and the knitting wool, the rolls of rickrack and bias binding. Then there was the junk shop in Pimlico her father opened after she graduated from university. “He let me do his windows for him,” she says. “And I had grandiose ideas. I used to create these extraordinary stage sets with my brother, with columns and swags and mirrors. When people came in, you could tell they were thinking, ‘Oh, but the inside looks nothing like the window’ and I would get furious if he sold anything from the window because it would ruin my display.” Ever since, she has been the kind of person who gets “star-struck by objects rather than people”. Should she follow someone on the street, as she has occasionally been known to do, it will be their clothes she’s interested in, not their face.