Bomber jackets and stories behind objects: an interview with curator Beatrice Behlen

Beatrice Behlen is Senior Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts at the Museum of London. She completed the MA History of Dress at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1991.

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The installation of “Made in London: Jewellery Now,” 2013.

Beatrice working on the Galleries of Modern London, 2010.

Beatrice working on the Galleries of Modern London, 2010.

When did you know you wanted to do something with fashion?

From when I was little, I was always interested in clothes. I can still remember the things I wore when I was three years old. At first, I wanted to become a fashion journalist because the idea of it sounded very glamorous; I thought I would fly everywhere and see fashion shows. At the time, you couldn’t study fashion journalism in Germany, so I was very lucky to get into a school for fashion design in Bremen without really having a portfolio.

Did the school make you want to become a fashion designer?

Not really, I wasn’t very good as a fashion designer and it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. It was a very proper fashion design course and we learned how to make drawings and patterns. At one point, I remember we went to see the fashion shows in Paris. This was of course great, but I hated it at the same time. I immediately felt that this was not my world and that it was not where I wanted to be either. Everything in fashion happens too quickly, I couldn’t deal with it. What I really enjoyed most about the course were the classes on fashion history.

Can you tell me about your fashion designs? What were they like?

I found the body something difficult to deal with because it is round and everyone is different. I think I should probably have done graphic design because it is more orderly and all about straight lines. I like order. For my last collection, I designed a group of really big top hats inspired by the Arnolfini Portrait and the drawings for Alice in Wonderland. This collection was about the meaning and significance of hats and it was a mix between the real and surreal.

Who was your favorite designer?

I always really liked Jean Paul Gaultier.

After studying fashion design you moved to London to study the History of Dress at the Courtauld. What was it like back then?

I had to go to the Courtauld for an interview first. It was not easy and very expensive to go all the way to London for just one day. Luckily, I had the entire afternoon free and spent ages just walking around at the V&A. After I was accepted, I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that there were only seven of us on the course because in Germany there had always been so many of us. The first year of the course was a whole run through of fashion history starting from the Romans and Greeks to now. I found that first year very tough because I hadn’t done an academic course before. I can still remember the first presentation I had to give… I couldn’t even finish it. The second year, my special subject was the history of dress for the period 1600-1640, mainly for England, France and Holland.

What did you write your dissertation on?

I wrote about several fashion magazines dating from the period around 1800. I was working on it at the British Library all the time, even on Saturdays…

Did you know right after graduation that you wanted to become a fashion curator?

No, I thought I wanted to be an academic. I am not sure why that was exactly. I didn’t think being a curator was something for me because curators were usually a particular kind of woman that was nothing like me. This perception changed when I met Valerie Mendes at the V&A; she was a curator and someone I could really relate to. I did a three-month internship at the V&A. That was such a lucky experience!

Before coming to the Museum of London in 2007, you worked as a curatorial assistant at the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace. You also taught fashion and design students at several art colleges and you worked at the contemporary art gallery ‘Annely Juda Fine Art’. What did you take away with you from these various experiences?

At Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace I catalogued their collection and learnt how much work it is to care for clothes in a museum. This also gave me the insight that I don’t mind dealing with all of that. By teaching, I realised how much I could learn myself just from talking to people and through discussion. I liked the idea that I could make a difference by talking to the students about their work. At the contemporary art gallery, on the other hand, I got to know how the commercial world works: you have to do what the client wants. I am quite shy but at these big art fairs I had to learn how to approach people. Unfortunately, I never enjoyed selling that much. I just didn’t get a kick out of it.

Today, you are Senior Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts at the Museum of London. What makes this place so special for you?

I have been at the Museum of London since late 2007, which is the longest I have ever been anywhere. It was fun working at Kensington Palace but the subject matter was just quite narrow as we kept talking about the Royal family and the court. I was really pleased when a job came up here because the Museum of London also has ‘everyday dress’ in its collection.

What would be your ultimate next exhibition project?

Oh dear, that’s a difficult one. I am almost moving a little bit away from purely dress exhibitions. For a long time, I wanted to do something about ‘Love’. I would like to work around this theme because we have a lot of objects in the collection that connect to ‘Love’ in one way or another, and not just clothes. Besides that, I think that an exhibition on ‘things you wear at night’ would be great fun.

What have been your main research interests over the years?

I am interested in subcultures and youth cultures. I am most interested in the interwar period. I love the personal stories behind objects and I find myself wondering more and more how I can bring these out in a museum environment. You could easily write about them, or show them in a film, but in an exhibition this is really hard. That’s something I still need to crack.

What is your fashion obsession at the moment?

I am obsessed with bomber jackets!