Spotlight careers: Assistant Curator at the V&A

Susanna Cordner is surrounded by all the clothing trends that have defined an era everyday, she admires and researches exquisite pieces and is tasked with searching for acquisitions to perfect the collection, the only catch-these items will never be worn again.

As Assistant Curator of Textiles and fashion at the V&A museum, Susanna is part of a close-knit team that manages a collection of over one hundred thousand items. The diversity of the collection is matched by the varying projects she has worked; from 80s club fashion, to underwear and the acclaimed exhibition Wedding Dresses 1775–2014. She began working in museums after completing a Master’s degree in art history and museum curating, which she angled to fashion during which she worked in vintage retail, she describes “it’s quite rare to move from the commercial to academic, to cross over from selling to displaying in this way”. Yet one can certainly the gleam the advantages of such a move as Susanna’s next project is an exhibition on 19th century underwear for 2016.

With a catalogue of this size one must ask, what pieces make the grade? She explains “you need to look at the item and ask what gap it fills in the collection or the narrative” and this is not about the celebrity factor; there is a strict acquisitions policy, and the museum seeks pieces for their design merit. “It is about the longevity of the piece and what they’ll say about it in a hundred years time. Once an item enters the collection it will never leave’.

I ask if there were one piece she would select to encapsulate current design trends “having just said we aren’t drawn to fame, I think the recent celebrity collaborations show how social media has changed fashion promotion and how this change can be celebrity lead”. For me, the natural temptation would be to slip a favourite piece of the hanger, she describes her favourite piece “there was this one red wedding dress, you can see it on the website, I fell in love; it was worn by Monica Morris in 1932. It is by an unknown designer and has a bright blue belt and veil; it is the expression of a certain woman’s character at a certain time.” What one gleams from Susanna is how fashion can act as a dynamic force in history as well as a barometer of change. ‘One can follow the history of fashion through the waist, can look at any stand out silhouette and the most recognisable change is the waist; change is from the undefined, to the dropped to the pinched.”

‘Fashion history is right for engaging with the public; everyone already has a relationship with clothing to build on’ though the department does not rest on its laurels. What is striking is the variety of activities preformed by the museum and I was surprised to learn of their work in public access includes an opinion service on antiques, like the roadshow, but where the value lies in aesthetic quality and historical significance. Susanna speaks passionately about working with young designers who have exhibit and display their clothes on a runway as part of the Fashion in Motion event, which is a free to attend and aims to expose people to fashion who would not normally be given such an opportunity.

Image: (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London