The Art of Curating a Collection

An essay on the synonymity of art and fashion by Fionnula Judge

About five years ago, I inherited a beautiful Tissot watch. Belonging to my great- grandmother, it is intricate in a way you don’t often see in modern time-pieces, with a thin leather strap and a minuscule mother of pearl face. This was how my collection began. After polishing cutlery and sustaining soup burns for the guts of one summer, I had saved enough to purchase my first ‘real’ handbag. A classic affair, it has yet to date, although the leather is beginning to soften. My collection grew. One of my latest additions is slightly more identifiable piece. My dad’s old denim jacket, complete with corduroy collar, found in the far reaches of a garage on moving day, not only keeps the rain off my back but also gives an individual twist to an otherwise dull outfit. 

Since the age of about seventeen, I have been curating my collection. Modest in size, more modest in value, I can say, relatively proudly, that my wardrobe is an embodiment of my sense of self. Clothes have always held my interest, having refused to be dressed by my mother since the age of two, my love for them has grown.

The verb ‘to curate’ is often first associated with an art collection. It is in its essence, it is simpler, as in the Oxford Dictionary, ‘to select, organize, and look after the items in (a collection or exhibition)’. Like an art collection, your wardrobe, can be a lifelong work, with pieces in all styles, often linked by a common theme. The largest privately owned art collection in Ireland lives primarily in the Merrion Hotel and ranges from Sean Scully to William Scott, to paintings of the late Lady Laverly. All the pieces are linked by their Irish origin, much like how Michelle Obama or Alexa Chung are seen wearing designers ranging from J Crew to Thakoon and Erdem to Topshop, all the while show casing her signature off beat style.

Of course, the differences between clothing and art are obvious; the disposable nature of a high street shirt doesn’t compare to an oil painting. It fades over time, but can, on the other hand, be said to represent history. Karl Lagerfeld described fashion as an ‘ongoing dialogue’. The two also differ in the extremely personal nature of clothes, and their usage. Fashion has a practical purpose, and so a collection may be worn down, become shabby.

Perhaps this is part of a collection’s charm, the pull of vintage clothing. To know your shift dress was a sign of changing times in the 60s, or that your grandmother loved that shirt as much as you do, is all part of the enjoyment of curation. In order not to have her life’s work broken apart in a similar manner, Daphne Guinness bought her late friend Isabella Blow’s entire collection. Her legendary wardrobe went on show in Somerset House in November 2013. "The decision to put Isabella's wardrobe on display was a natural progression; it felt like what she would have wanted," Guinness explained to Vogue. "I bought the collection because I couldn't bear for it to be dispersed; it was her life's work - her legacy.

The V&A Museum of London have an ongoing fashion gallery, as does the Metropolitan in New York. In January of this year, ‘the Personal Collection of Elsa Shiaperelli’ went on auction in Paris. The fashion designer’s pieces, worn by her in 1930s Paris, include a deep indigo jacket emblazoned with the moon and the sun from the collection astrologie, a floor length fur lined coat, and a neat waistcoat patterned with bucking horses. The collection starts at €10,000 and embodies the personality of the once enemy to Coco Chanel. What better way of celebrating that legacy than allowing the world to view it?" Iris Apfel has recently parted with a number of pieces from her eclectic collection of costume jewellery, and you can even pick up some of Joan Collins’ blazers on eBay for a mere $500. These are women who have spent their lives colourfully, and their personality shines through in the fashion haul they have amassed.

In recent times, this idea of curating a collection has only become more entrenched in our culture, through sites such as Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram. Online, we can create our dream collection, edit and curate to our hearts content before we buy. Fast fashion, and disposable trends are dirty words, not only in this economy, but in the fashion industry. from this rises the old justification of the ‘investment’ piece; an addition to your collection that will enhance and enrich your wardrobe. The same justifications rush through your mind when buying a new Topshop skirt It goes with everything, you can wear it so many ways, it is just so you. Are these really just ways of assuring yourself that this is important, that you are a curator, not merely a consumer? A quote from Coco Chanel recently helped justify my newest Zara addition: “Those who create are rare, those who cannot are numerous. Therefore, the latter are stronger.” Is there a way to see that strength in our consuming? The ability to design a dress should not overshadow our ability to dress as the people we really feel we are.