Creative Process Journal: Weekly Reflection

This past week, I've been documenting some of my reading on curatorial process, teasing out the fragments of how curators come up with exhibition ideas. It might not seem like creative work, but it is part of my practice-led research project called Memories of a Dress. Using the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection, I am exploring the idea that a garment has a object biography and a memory of its former owner.  

Practice-led research focuses on the "the nature of practice and leads to new knowledge that has operational significance for that practice." From what I can tell, there seems to be a gap in knowledge about the process of how fashion curation takes place. The articles in scholarly journals only offer hints at how curators come up with their ideas and unless I've missed something altogether, this process seems to be largely private. In undertaking this work here, I am making my process transparent  and thereby adding to the advancement of knowledge about curatorial practice. 

If I could, I would mount Memories of a Dress in a space that is raw, with exposed brick and pipes.  This wounded setting would be fitting to convey the idea of decay and that a garment has an end-life, just as its owner does/did. Unfortunately, the School of Fashion does not have a dedicated exhibition gallery and so the end result will be largely conceptual, with the possibility of selected pieces and images being presented offsite. 

In handling the rare and fragile historic pieces within the collection, I am haunted by the traces of the owners - the faint sweat stains under the arms, the worn patches at the elbows, the shreds of weighted silk that have literally turned to dust. There is such poignancy in these pieces. They are still beautiful, but not to a pristine, museum-like standard. 

As I deal with past and present donors as part of my job as Collection Coordinator, I am also sensitive to the emotional nature of such transactions. There is great delicacy required when a donor offers pieces from his or her wardrobe. Giving up a garment that holds memories of a special time, event, or person requires a willingness to let go of that tangible connection. And because of that, the act of accepting or rejecting that item for a collection requires great tact and diplomacy. 

My own experiences with death, tragedy and grief gives me a heightened sensitivity to the symbolic nature of the embodiment of memory in clothing. In the back of my closet, I keep my father's Fedora, four of my mother's dresses, my brother Peter's tie. I have nothing from my husband's father, my sister-in-law Carrie, or my dear friends Brian, Joe, or Diana, but I wish I did. Although I have transcended my grief, I cannot part with these objects and I am only too keenly aware of the delicate dance I play with potential donors. I am acutely sensitive, with a radar to grief, since I have taken that journey far too many times relative to my age. 

Dealing with donor requests taxes curators who are already stretched by tight budgets. I happened to across a written reference to the emotional nature of this work in an article by N.J. Stevenson called "The Fashion Retrospective" from Fashion Theory. In analyzing curator Amy de la Haye's work she wrote:

Reflecting a moment in time has become one of the central precepts of de la Haye's work. She found that interviews with members of the public offering donations to the museum could mean dealing with profound emotion and grief that was precipitated by the associations that garments had for them (230). 

In sharing the nature of my curatorial obsessions, this project makes me feel vulnerable and exposed. And yet, I know that in mining the nature of my obsession and documenting my process for this practice-led research, the end result will be richer and deeper.

For Further Reading on the nature of Practice-led vs. Practice-based Research: 

Stevenson, N.J., "The Fashion Retrospective". Fashion Theory 12.2 (2008) 219-236. 
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