Alumni in Profile: Sonnet Stanfill, Senior Fashion Curator
Nicole La Bouff (MA 2001), Assistant Curator of Textiles at Minneapolis Institute of Art, in conversation with Sonnet Stanfill (MA 1998), 20th Century and Contemporary Fashion Curator, V&A, to find out how much this field has changed in 2 decades and what the future of fashion in museums holds.
What were your studies at The Courtauld like and what special topic(s) did you research?
My MA in the History of Dress at The Courtauld was under Aileen Ribeiro. Our special subject that year was dress in England and France in the 18th century, an area of deep expertise of Dr Ribeiro’s. For my own research I wanted to focus on a 20th century subject, so I chose to write my dissertation on the influence of the environmental movement on fashion. This was 20 years ago, and it turned out to be a timely subject! It was also helpful to me in my current role.
What lessons did you learn there that continue to influence your work as a curator?
I absorbed my first lesson before I even arrived in London. Upon our acceptance to The Courtauld we were sent a summer reading list, to complete before we began the course. I was travelling in Pakistan and China that summer, but managed to secure most of the books on the list before I began my travels. The range of texts demonstrated the importance of examining a variety of sources— portraiture, effigies, illuminated manuscripts and even fiction—in order to gain a fuller understanding of what was worn in the past.
How did you break into a coveted curatorial position at the V&A so soon after completing your studies?
I didn’t secure a paid museum job until almost 2 years after I completed my MA. At the time, this felt like an eternity. The summer after my MA, I volunteered part time at the Costume Institute at the Met and part time at the Museum of the City of New York. Upon my return to London I volunteered at Kensington Palace and at Gunnersbury Park Museum. These museums were all so different from each other, in terms of size, curatorial responsibilities and atmosphere. So my volunteering helped me to understand the kind of institution I wanted to work for. I got my foot in the door of the V&A thanks to The Courtauld network. A Courtauld alumna heard I was looking for a job and called to alert me to a summer contact. I started at the V&A in May of 1999 on a temporary contract as an Assistant Curator. A combination of good luck and timing, along with supportive colleagues, helped me secure a permanent role soon after.
Where do you get your inspiration for exhibition ideas?
Exhibition planning at a large institution is a complex formula. A curator has to be fortunate that his or her exhibition ideas are in synch with the Museum’s aims and with what else is going to be on offer within the institution and outside it. I’ve had exhibition proposals rejected, and while disappointing, this can also be a really useful learning experience. You learn how to pitch and defend ideas, and how to identify the kinds of projects your institution will want to support. For the V&A, this tends to be projects based on our own permanent collection, but which haven’t yet been investigated. Hopefully, the ideas originate from your own expertise and minor obsessions. I have been fortunate to have some of my own minor obsessions supported by the V&A.
How has the history of dress changed over the course of your educational and professional career – particularly as it relates to museum studies? What do you see in the future?
The field has changed dramatically in the past 2 decades, but museum work has too. When I started, dress history was a little bit sleepy and somewhat esoteric. The recent museum emphasis on blockbuster fashion exhibitions; the plethora of subjects which are now the focus of rigorous research; the blurring of boundaries between contemporary fashion and fine art; and the seemingly insatiable public appetite for fashion in general has transformed my own work life into a fast-paced, dynamic, even manic affair. It’s rewarding for me as a graduate of The Courtauld to the strong influence that institution has had and continues to have, on the field. Courtauld graduates in fashion history are everywhere, and doing great work.
What do you like most about the work you do? And if you could change one thing, what would it be?
The thing I like most about my work is pursuing original research. Whether it is investigating an object in the V&A’s permanent collections; examining a little-studied archive or interviewing a designer about their career, these opportunities for research and learning and for building a clearer picture of some aspect of the history of dress is the best thing about my work. The thing that I would change would be to reduce the number of emails I receive.
What advice would you give to those considering a career in clothing and textile studies?
I would suggest that you first chose where you want to study with care. Your institution, professors and classmates should be an asset to you long after you graduate, along with what you’ve learned. The Courtald has certainly done that for me. Then I’d suggest that you remain open minded about where you want to work and be willing to relocate. Because jobs are so difficult to secure, being flexible is important. Another bit of advice is to publish as early as possible, even while you’re a student. Securing publishing experience early on, even if it’s only something small like book or exhibition review, helps you in so many ways. It builds your network; it gives you confidence as a writer and also provides experience with working with good editors. Also, as you become more established in your career, it can be difficult to find pockets of time to write and research. So start early!
And finally, what do you think the future of fashion in museums is?
The field of fashion curation is changing rapidly. An increasing reliance on film, photography, dramatic sets and a certain ‘wow’ factor are now expected of fashion exhibitions, in order to maximise attendance and cover the high costs involved in mounting these kinds of projects. It is an exciting time to be working in the field, with so much rapid change and the constant development of new approaches to storytelling: employing new techniques for mounting garments on mannequins in realistic, dynamic ways; harnessing innovative digital technologies to animate static objects that are meant to be seen in motion; and taking forward the trend for sophisticated, immersive environments. The challenge is to not lose sight of scholarship in the quest for spectacle.
You can join Sonnet for a tour of The Clothworkers Centre on 9 November. Click here to find out more details about the event.