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Interview with Sonnet Stanfill, V&A Senior Fashion Curator

llustration: Anna Seibæk Torp-Pedersen

Sonnet, Senior Curator responsible for twentieth-century and contemporary fashion at the V&A, met us with a welcoming smile in the John Madejski Garden, just before the public opening of the Exhibition Road Quarter at the V&A. An enterprising and positive-thinking alumna (MA 1998) who is soon to become the new Chair of the Courtauld Association, Sonnet is full of good advice, and is hoping to further support the Courtauld’s increasingly diverse graduates in building their careers.

After completing your MA in the History of Dress at the Courtauld, how did you approach starting a career in the arts? 

Before starting the Courtauld, I had a different career, working as a buyer for a fashion retail company in the US. The Courtauld MA helped me to change direction and pursue a career in the cultural sector. In the months after graduating, I thought I was opened to various options. After volunteering in the fashion department of an auction house, I realised that I really wanted to work in museums. I then spent nine months volunteering at Kensington Palace and at Gunnersbury Park Museum simultaneously. These institutions were distinctly different from each other and I learned a lot from both of them. In May 1999, I was alerted by a Courtauld alumna about an opening for an Assistant Curator in the Textiles and Fashion Department of the V&A, a role I successfully secured. Whilst my MA option focussed on eighteenth-century dress in France and England, as an Assistant Curator working with a collection that spanned centuries and continents, I developed a broad knowledge of fashion. It was a varied role and has proven to be a useful training.

What would be your top three tips for networking in the art world?

Join as many organisations as possible, attend conferences and try to speak there as well, or volunteer to help the organisers. This is a good way to get yourself known. Offer to write book or exhibition reviews for academic journals; this is a good way to get published early in your career and to meet people working in the field. Networking is like planting a garden: once the seeds are planted, you need to keep going back to water and take care of them. Professional connections and relationships, like gardens, take time to flourish.

The recent fashion exhibitions at the V&A have displayed x-ray images of several items from your collections. How do you see the role of technologies and sciences today in helping museums to research and curate their collections?

The role of Conservation Science has increased across the V&A’s collections. The Conservation team at the V&A carries out essential work with the collection I oversee, which can include everything from testing the fibre content of fabric, assessing whether washing it will damage the colours, and environmental monitoring. In addition, my fellow curators and I rely more than ever on new technologies to help us tell stories within exhibitions. For the current exhibition Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion (on until 18 February, 2018), we partnered with the x-ray artist Nick Veasey, who converted a truck into a mobile x-ray facility and used it to take a series of images of objects in the collection. The results are beautiful and tell a story about dress which is not visible to the naked eye. Not all visitors read the labels, so we wanted to find other ways to communicate the complexity of the dresses. I believe we use technologies that help explain the exhibits. Visitors are now used to receiving information through imagery; new technologies can offer novel ways to entice them, to capture and retain their attention. The world of haute couture is not easily understood, but films and x-rays can give access to it.

In a previous interview for the Courtauld News, you mentioned how much you enjoy 'pursuing original research'. How do you relate your work with the academic world and educational institutions?

In 2014, I was working on an exhibition project about the history of Italian fashion. I was on research leave for two years and spent a lot of time working in public and private archives in Italy to compose the show and work on the catalogue. I was not the first person to use these archives, but the subject I was exploring, the birth of Italy in the post-war period as an internationally recognised fashion-producing nation, is underexplored. My role as a curator is to use this type of archival research to tell stories that are widely accessible to a broad audience. For this project, I was working in collaboration with the V&A’s Research Department, the first of its kind in the world. The Research Department offers fantastic opportunities to connect with scholars and researchers across Europe and beyond, and has been growing over the years. The results of research projects undertaken at the V&A are usually incorporated into publications, exhibitions and our website.

You will soon take over from Stuart Lochhead as the new Chair of the Courtauld Association. How will this role affect your relationship to the Courtauld and what is your vision for its future?

I benefitted significantly from the Courtauld, from my MA course, from the people I met there, and from its reputation. I am keen to give back. I have been a member of the Courtauld Association Committee for several years and I am honoured to be appointed Chair. Stuart has done a stellar job creating the Courtauld Association and bringing attention and money to the organisation. I want to take up the role because I feel strongly about continuing the work that Stuart and the Committee began in facilitating the careers of Courtauld graduates. I am keen to support the career aspirations of Courtauld graduates, particularly women and students from diverse backgrounds.

Most of our readers are current students at the Courtauld or recent graduates. What would be your message to them?

I know how hard it is to get started on a career path after finishing a degree. After my MA, I volunteered for 9 months. I would say that if you cannot get your ideal job right after graduation, do something else to pay your rent but continue doing relevant work like pursuing your research, writing book or exhibition reviews, or starting a blog on the side. And of course, network as much as you can. Then, at some point you may find that your research or writing will soon be enough to pay your rent or will lead you to paid work. Be strategic about how you break into the field and where you want to arrive. When you do, it is the best feeling in the world.

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