Curator of the Month: Elly Summers, Fashion Museum, Bath

Curator of the new Lace in Fashion exhibition picks her highlights from Bath Fashion Museum's extensive lace archives and encourages young curators to stick at it.

Name and job title:

Elly Summers. I work as part of the curatorial team at the Fashion Museum in Bath, which is run by Bath & North East Somerset Council, and am currently exhibition curator for our current exhibition, Lace in Fashion.

What inspired you to become a curator?

It’s something I’ve always wanted to be. I’ve had an interest in historical dress for as long as I can remember. It really took off when, aged seven, I was given a Victorian doll and an enormous old trunk full of clothes, which had belonged to a wealthy relation, all dating to the last quarter of the 19th century. I can remember being obsessed with Victoriana and taking any opportunity to collect and display my prized garments for unsuspecting playmates.

What was your first job in the museum world – and how did you get to where you are now?

I started my museum career at the Roman Baths in Bath as a Visitor Services Assistant – the perfect first job for an Ancient History graduate. But textiles, art and dress history were always my passion and I also studied Costume Design at the Welsh College of Music and Drama. With an MA in Museum Studies from Leicester, I worked at Chepstow Museum cataloguing their 19th century dress collection, before finding myself at the Fashion Museum. That was over 12 years ago, but I can’t imagine a better place to be.

What has been the highlight of your career – and the biggest challenge?

I think Lace in Fashion, our new exhibition for 2017, is both the biggest challenge and the highlight of my career so far. The exhibition represents the culmination of a two-year project to catalogue the Fashion Museum’s extensive archives of lace. We discovered some amazing treasures, including an 1805 European bobbin lace dress, which may have belonged to Queen Charlotte, and a Dresden-work cap-back with Queen Ann’s coat of arms. The exhibition itself has allowed me both to develop my skills as a curator and to exhibit some exquisite lace garments that we hardly knew we had. As a first time exhibition curator, it’s also been a huge learning curve but massively enjoyable too.

If you had one piece of advice for aspiring curators, what would it be?

Stick at it – it’s tough starting a career as a curator, but the rewards are enormous – we love what we do and it's definitely worth all the hard work!

What’s special about working at your museum?

Two things: the collection and the people. The Fashion Museum has a Designated Collection – a system that awards special status to collections of national and international importance. As one of the world’s top 10 museums of fashionable and historical dress, it really is an incredible collection to work with. It wouldn’t be the same, however, without a fantastic team of people behind it. The curatorial team at the Fashion Museum is tiny, but they are all such talented and passionate people that a little goes a very long way.

What are your favourite objects in the exhibition and why?

My favourite objects from Lace in Fashion have to be three very different dresses by three 20th century couturiers. The first is a 1950s dress by Balenciaga worn by actress Martita Hunt. I love this piece because it evokes the effect of lace in a very clever way. The dress is actually made using the technique of applique – applying fabric motifs to the main fabric of the dress – but it creates the effect of an Irish lace called Carrickmacross.

The second is a 1930s dress by Molyneux which was worn by the Duchess of Northumberland – Mistress of the Robes to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. I love its vivid green colour and elegant lines, and it is embellished all over with tiny glass bugle beads.

Finally, a dress of cream lace over gold jersey by Balmain. It was worn to The Queen’s Coronation in 1953 by Lady Ward. The lace is wonderfully striking over the gold jersey, to which there is a fantastic story attached. The jersey was actually a length left over from a dress that Balmain designed for Shirley Bassey and is made from 9 carot gold.

Away from work, how do you spend your free time?

I have two young children, both boys, which is rather like having puppies, and so I spend most of my time running after them. However, when I have any time to myself I do love to read and I also like to knit – most members of my family had a woolly hat for Christmas this year.

What is the best exhibition that you have been to recently?

I recently saw Love Thy Denim at the Discovery Centre in Winchester, and did indeed love all the denim! There were some fantastic pieces, from 19th century workwear to modern day couture. In fact we did loan a fantastic man’s ensemble by Jean Paul Gautier to the show, but I think the standout piece in the exhibition for me was a pair of cut-off Levi shorts from the 1890s. Who knew?

Elly Summers is exhibition curator at Fashion Museum in Bath. Her exhibition Lace in Fashion is open from 4 February 2017 to 1 January 2018. Free entry with National Art Pass.

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