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Sonnet Stanfill: Curator At The V&A


Sonnet Stanfill, 43, is curator of the Ballgowns exhibition at the V&A museum. She lives in East Sheen, London, with her husband Jeff, who runs his own finance business, and their children Eitan, 11, and Madeleine, 10

As soon as I wake up at 7am, I make a cafetiere of strong black coffee. If I’m helping to install an exhibition I wear my ‘action clothes’ that I don’t mind getting messy, otherwise I favour casual textiles with a twist, such as Dries Van Noten. I’m a great admirer of designers – I named my daughter after the French couturier Madeleine Vionnet – and feel that as curators we should disappear into the background to let them shine. I’m planning to wear an understated black dress to the Ballgowns exhibition opening night. Breakfast is yoghurt and toast before my hour-long journey to the V&A in South Kensington.

For the Ballgowns exhibition, my co-curator Oriole Cullen and I chose 30 dresses from the Fifties to the Nineties and 30 from the last few seasons’ collections, so there’s a high proportion of dresses on loan from contemporary designers such as Giles Deacon and Sarah Burton for McQueen. We tried to choose pieces that haven’t been seen before, are visually stunning and that have an interesting story, such as the Catherine Walker ‘Elvis Dress’ worn by Princess Diana. The designer was a favourite of Diana’s and helped to create her signature style after her divorce from Prince Charles.

We select the mannequins individually for each dress, working with our textile conservators to mount the dress in a way that emphasises its special characteristics and ensures historical accuracy. After working as a buyer in New York I moved to London to do a master’s in fashion history at The Courthauld Institute Of Art so I’m always interested in the little details. For example, we borrowed a dress from Joan Collins designed by Elizabeth Emanuel – we have a photograph of her wearing it but she’s sitting down, so we couldn’t tell whether the skirt was bell-shaped or slimmer. We looked at her other designs and, as the dress was from the Eighties, went for a full silhouette.

I’d love to add a Hermès Kelly bag to the collection but the prices at auction are a bit scary

One of my favourite dresses is a stunning yellow silk gown digitally printed with a rich purple and blue floral pattern by Erdem. If it disappears from the collection, they should check my wardrobe…

The V&A is close to Hyde Park, so a couple of days a week I run a four-mile loop around the park at lunchtime. I’ve started bringing my lunch to work so I’ll have a homemade salad with chicken, beetroot and greens. In addition to working on exhibitions, I also look after the 20th-century and contemporary fashion collections, which means making sure that those periods are well represented. We have to choose carefully because we have very little storage space – I say no to 90% of donations, usually because the items aren’t in good condition or they’re duplicates. I’d love to add a Hermès Kelly bag to the collection but because they’re so coveted, we’ve never been offered one and the prices at auction are a bit scary.

Members of the public use us as a resource for fashion history so I respond to email queries from people wanting help with dating a photograph from the clothes or advice about their own collections.

In the lead up to an exhibition, I do special talks and tours behind the scenes for sponsors and VIP members of the V&A a couple of nights a week, finishing at 8.30pm. Otherwise when I finish work at 6pm I take our Welsh springer spaniel for a walk and spend time with my family. I cook pasta, soups or salads for dinner then work on the book I’m writing, From Club To Catwalk, which looks at fashion in Eighties London. It will be published in February 2013 to coincide with a V&A exhibition of the same title. To relax, I love watching Mad Men – the costumes are amazing – before going to bed by 11pm.

Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 is at the V&A from 19 May– 6 January 2013; vam.ac.uk



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