It’s only a few days since life went “back to normal” after the COVID-19 lockdown measures and I am about to go on a Skype call with exhibition maker Judith Clark, in search of hope and inspiration. The Italian-raised Australian is also Professor of Fashion and Museology at London College of Fashion, where she runs the MA Fashion Curation course.
In 2014, she co-founded the Centre for Fashion Curation, for which she regularly collaborates with creative and academic specialists. Over the years, she has explored the idea of clothing as a simultaneous mechanism of identity, concealment and revelation through an illustrational rendering that is both observant and, at times, clinical—an approach that encourages dialogue to emerge between the object and the viewer.
Since establishing the Judith Clark Costume Gallery in 1997, she has curated more than 50 fashion exhibitions at major museums while she continues to inspire generations of students and future curators. Judith will be opening her own gallery again in the autumn to concentrate on more experimental projects.
FILEP MOTWARY: What makes a particular period or type of fashion intriguing for you as a curator?
JUDITH CLARK: I think recently a lot of projects have come, from my point of view, through chance because they’ve come as external commissions that I’ve not necessarily anticipated. So I’ve been aware of an archive, but I haven’t known it intimately. For example, recently I was working on a project
with Lanvin. Obviously, I was aware of Lanvin’s history and archive, but the commission nevertheless came as a surprise, and often there’s a lot of secrecy around the first section or research section of a project before
a museum or venue decides to go live with it. So there’s a period of intrigue and I love the surprise of that—that it’s not that I’ve said I really want to study the 1920s but that
I go into an archive with an open mind and then let myself fall in love with one or other detail that then starts to generate ideas that become a guiding lens, if you like, through which to look at the rest of the archive.
FM:What role do you feel clothes serve today and how have we come to the point where we exhibit what we wear? What caused this urge to learn from us, about us?
JC:!I think first it was collecting social histories, so it was museums collecting so-called typical dress that could record a moment in time and it felt that sufficient people wore one style or another to kind of signify or symbolise a time, a people, a tradition, etc.!And then I think the decorative arts museums started to collect fashion where it was the design that was leading, so it wasn’t necessarily typical, but it was symptomatic of a
change or a moment in time. And I think that the exciting thing about working in this field now is how fast that is changing, the actual brief is changing, where things are contextualised with more care.
We’re not saying this is what people wore; we’re saying this is what x percentage of the population who could afford it wore, having exploited x other members of the population in order to wear this.
There’s more of the picture being told.!And so I think teaching this subject is now not teaching necessarily that sleeves were broad and then narrow but more a kind of why.
FM: What kind of questions do you ask yourself before you start working on an exhibition?
JC: I think you have to become an editor and quite a ferocious editor, that you have to be able to not include beautiful objects. Sometimes that’s difficult, as the more time you spend in an archive the more you fall in love
with every object because it starts to make sense in a story differently. But I rarely work chronologically because I feel that that affords me a different freedom, that you start to take themes and kind of splice themes together.
I always have to trust that exhibition making is another language: it’s like writing another script or another kind of theatrical performance or display.
And so sometimes I feel I’m leaving out an object that I’ve fallen in love with because it was not in dialogue with other aspects of the exhibition but always with the confidence that exhibitions are temporary—that it will be shown or it will be referred to at a different time.
FM:And nobody knows what the initial selection was…
JC: No, exactly!
FM: …which is always a good thing.
JC: It’s a good thing but I always make explicit the fact that this is just one account. And I love the unbuilt, I love the hypothetical, I love the partial, the fragment—I love all of those categories that really underline the fact that this is not the whole story, that I’m not doing the catalogue raisonné of Lanvin, but I’m doing something that was very much in dialogue with their new designer and so it’s like a kind of chat with the archive.
FM: One of my favourite projects of yours was The Vulgar exhibition, which was a debate on the relevancy of taste in fashion. Three years later, what would you say is vulgar in the current fashion scene?
JC: I think I always want to speak very much to the discipline of exhibition making, in a way, rather than fashion. But I think what was important about that show was to not always scapegoat fashion [but] to find the good in those ideas and the commonality in those ideas and words. Everybody assumed that the word was pejorative and then you walk in and you see these extraordinary objects— I think people were like, hang on a minute, what is excess? What is sharing? What is too much? Why is somebody privileged to draw a line and why is it not on the side of pleasure?
Which obviously was very much Adam [Phillips]’ words within mine—the dialogue with Adam Phillips was very important.!It set up a slightly different conversation around not jumping to conclusions around those words but to open them up and to look at their etymology in the bigger sense, in the fashion sense. I’m not sure how it stands in relation to fashion now but certainly I think some of the language in the exhibition could embrace a lot of styles that people might struggle to describe and where taste may just not be the point.
FM: How is fashion connected to desire and the body?
JC:! I think there’s no distancing it from the body. So there’s a kind of immediate identification with this surrogate body that is the mannequin, which I’ve thought a lot about. And my solution in the past couple of years
has been making a statement through the mannequins I use. I use a retail mannequin, which is the Bonaveri, but I have them cover it with conservation calico. So my statement is about something that is desirable in
one realm but it has been covered for another realm. It’s a statement that I’ve used recently, that might evolve because I do style them, I do create gestures, I do commission wigs and things like that that do some of the transforming.
If they’re covered in calico, they don’t have [a] race, for example. They have a standard body, which even though that’s greatly criticised—you know, showing a thin body—it is nevertheless the size of many of the dresses that are on display. So unless I’m doing an exhibition about that, I take it as a kind of standard: it’s like a fact, it’s like a coat hanger. But I feel that when I want to talk about race, I will talk about race.!I’ve also been quite a purist in terms of what I’m saying and where I’m saying something and where, for the moment, I’m not saying something, it doesn’t mean I don’t believe things.
FM: It sounds logical because if you consider factors that lie outside the concept, you’re actually changing the focus of a subject.
JC: Even the gestures I don’t put unless I mean it. I’m very clear about where certain interventions are. So when I was designing a museum of handbags, the arms were cast into very specific gestures that dated the
bags—the forearms were the most important elements of the mannequin. So, I’m very specific about how I’m using my tools hopefully in a way that will go on evolving. These are the tools that an exhibition maker within this subject might use and I think it’s quite good sometimes to have some standard elements because then you understand the other elements as “other”. Otherwise, if you have the whole mannequin cast then you don’t notice that it’s the forearm that we’re meant to be looking at. If you put a cast forearm on a bust, you know it’s about the handbag. It’s a way of also guiding the visitor’s gaze to the thing.
FM:Contemporary fashion is often a way of harnessing interest in historic dress. Why do we look backwards in order to move forward?
JC: I think there’s nowhere else to look is the first answer, as in we inherit a language. I think what’s wonderful about it is that often the genius in the design is in the manipulation of the reference and so we only recognise
something as different or futuristic because of its distance from its original form. So often it’s about choosing something that is actually rather recognisable in order for the distortion to work. It’s like getting the joke.
When something is manipulated—or even put in quotation marks if you’re Virgil Abloh, or whatever it is that you’re doing to it—the gesture is the conceptual element of it. And I think that those are games that I’ve always found interesting. My children tease me, but the word reference is my favourite word. When I recognise that [reference] there’s an excitement. It’s like getting the point, it’s this distant from its original.!And I always loved Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Piaggi’s language, that something was à la something else.
FM: How did you start?
JC: I studied architecture and some of the hypothetical projects, architectural projects that were the subject of my thesis are still as urgent to me as they were before. It’s like going back to the beginning, it’s like going back to why you wanted to do this. And I think this period is a very good time to wonder about that. And I think doing lots of projects, it just means starting again with a little bit more confidence or a little bit more—not even confidence, that’s the wrong word—kind of stubbornness. But stubbornness in terms of what it is within this I want to do and the kind of exhibitions that I want to build. But I think, like with everybody, we’re incorporating our past within it so strangely. There’s something about putting anachronistic things together and building temporary structures and hypothetical structures that I studied later that still I’m kind of working on.
FM:!But it’s also visible in your work: you can see this relation to architecture and these dialogues between objects. Things are more precise in the space.
JC: I was brought up in Rome, in a world of fragments of historic tales of gods and men. And I think putting together stories where architecture has a very, very strong presence is
very much from that past, where architecture was really a key language and that actually I continued studying—I’ve never studied anything else and so I think that’s an important kind of informing language.!And I think I’m slightly returning to the principles of that, of building models of spaces again and, in a way, going slowly about how conceptual the space can be.
Australian-born and raised in Rome, Judith Clark is a curator and exhibition-maker based in London. She moved to the city to study Architecture at the Bartlett, and later, the Architectural Association. She is currently Professor of Fashion and Museology at the London College of Fashion, where she teaches on the Fashion Curation masters programme. Since setting up her gallery in 1997, Clark has curated over 40 exhibitions, including projects with Artangel, Selfridges, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Council and Louis Vuitton.