Hannah Jackson completed both her BA and MA at The Courtauld Institute, and is now Assistant Curator at the Bowes Museum in Durham. Here she discusses how 19th century dress construction lead to a photography-focused MA dissertation and the joys of the recent Bowes Museum exhibition “Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal”.
Yves Saint Laurent ‘Mondrian Dress’, at the Bowes Museum 2016
Having completed your BA at the Courtauld in the History of Art, what led you to decide to pursue your MA in the History of Dress at the Courtauld as well?
I came to The Courtauld to study a BA straight after completing an art foundation at Falmouth University. During my foundation course I specialised in the construction of 19th century dress, taking my inspiration from textile collections in local museums across Cornwall. So during my BA I was always trying to squeeze in dress history into my various course options. In my third year I researched the depiction of drapery in 18thcentury French painting. Following this I knew I wanted to focus purely on dress history and the MA felt like a natural progression.
Reflecting on your experience during the MA, how did your research interests evolve throughout the year, and if so, how did these interests coalesce into your dissertation?
Having spent the previous three years as an art historian I found it difficult initially to break away from that method of analysis. I was very image focused so most of my research leaned towards photography, looking at the works of Cecil Beaton and Eugene Atget. This informed my dissertation topic on Madame Yevonde’s Goddess Series. I examined several photographs from the Goddess series in detail, demonstrating the ways in which Yevonde seized the opportunities offered by neo-classical dress and the new technique of colour photography to explore deeper themes of female identity and representation.
What role did the Courtauld MA in the History of Dress play in defining your professional trajectory?
My love of imagery combined with the stories behind objects in museums has always been a big part of my enjoyment in the subject. During the MA course Dr Rebecca Arnold organised some incredible trips to national and international museums including the American Folk Art Museum in New York and Museum of London and V&A. These trips ‘behind-the-scenes’ were so interesting and I knew this was a world I wanted to be part of.
Can you describe what your average day as an Assistant Curator at The Bowes Museum entails?
It’s a combination of things… at the moment we are de-installing our permanent display of fashion and textiles to make room for our next exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain which opens in June. I also handle any enquires or offers of donation to our department. If new donations are accepted then I ensure they are catalogued and stored. The curators also work closely with the textile conservation team on exhibitions and loans. Earlier this year our team catalogued a very large collection of privately owned quilts, which will soon be divided between family members, with some pieces being sold. Last year I spent quite a bit of time on events relating to temporary exhibitions including a dance/costume performance with Fertile Ground, a Newcastle based dance company and a film symposium with Durham University which coincided with our Summer 2015 exhibition Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal.
How did The Bowes Museum’s “Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal” exhibition come about?
A few years ago we loaned a Canaletto painting to the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris. When the Canaletto was being installed, my colleague met a freelance curator working on the show and mentioned how similar The Bowes’ history was with the Jacquemart-André. My colleague mentioned the fashion and textile department here and how it has grown and developed, with past exhibitions such as Stephen Jones and Vivienne Westwood. The freelancer said that she had close affiliations with the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent and that she could put us in touch with them. My collegue Joanna Hashagen, Curator of Fashion and Textiles, established the working relationship with the Fondation from that moment. The Bowes Museum’s co-founder was a fashionable Parisian woman, and the building itself is in the style of a French château, so our French roots were integral to our partnership with the YSL Fondation.
Were there any particular theoretical and aesthetic approaches that informed your work on the exhibition?
The show itself was co-curated by Joanna Hashagen (Curator of Fashion & Textiles at The Bowes) and Sandrine Tinturier (Responsable de la Conservation Textile et Arts Graphiques at the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent) so this question is probably better aimed at them. They really wanted to celebrate Yves Saint Laurent’s love of women, art and fashion, as a designer notable for equality in fashion. The exhibition was split into five themes: Haute Couture, Masculin/Féminin, Transparence, Art and Spectaculaire. The pieces were carefully curated, making links to our own permanent display of fashion and textiles, which highlighted Yves Saint Laurent’s distinct relationship with history and art.
Did you learn anything particularly fascinating about Yves Saint Laurent or his maison while researching and preparing the exhibition?
The most fascinating thing I found out about Yves Saint Laurent was how truly dedicated he was to his subject. This may seem obvious but he started at such a young age. As a teenager he designed collections for a series of hand-made paper dolls by cutting out silhouettes from his mother’s favourite magazines such as Vogue, calling it ‘Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent Haute Couture Place Vendôme’. The paper-dolls were all named and he created model programmes for each collection and put on fashion shows for his siblings and mother.
What was your favorite piece from exhibition?
The toiles were my favourite pieces in the show. I really like seeing the making process and the ‘before-hand’ pieces, they were essentially 3D sketches. The selection of toiles were displayed in a completely white space, so they really had their own voice in the exhibition. Even the toiles were effortless couture, every inch of the stitching and design was immaculate.
Are there any exciting curatorial or research projects you are working on at the moment?
Last April I was one of five to win the Art Fund’s New Collecting Award which encourages curators to pursue new avenues for collecting in their museums. We won a total of £60,000 to collect French haute couture. I aim to acquire key pieces of French fashion which reflect the Museum’s founder Joséphine Bowes. Joséphine was a shopaholic, purchasing garments from The House of Worth during the 1860s. The John and Joséphine Bowes Archive in our library holds a number of bills which relate to the establishment of the museum but also all of Joséphine’s shopping receipts which reveal a lot about the type of fabric she was buying, how much and from which establishments. Joséphine was extremely fashionable but unfortunately none of her wardrobe survives today, so I want to collect pieces which reflect her identity and shopping habits, using the extensive archive of bills as evidence. I have a year left on my contract at The Bowes Museum so I am also focusing my time on selecting garments for the gallery redisplay, planned for 2018.
Yves Saint Laurent toiles, Bowes Museum 2016