Susanna Cordner is our archivist at London College of Fashion. She also works at Victoria & Albert Museum and assists curation of exhibitions including Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself – education and work.
I studied at the University of Sussex, and went straight from completing my BA in English Literature and History of Art to doing an MA there in Art History and Museum Curating. In every paper I wrote, the running theme was dress history – whether I was analysing a Biba exhibition or considering the use of Celia Birtwell’s prints in David Hockney’s paintings, so I think the direction I would go on to take was quite clear.
Alongside my studies, I also sold vintage clothing online and at fairs and worked in a small boutique. I met Claire Wilcox, who has been a great support, while I was writing my MA dissertation, ‘Defining a Discipline: Creating and Curating Fashion History at the V&A’, and went on to be her intern. From that role, I moved through several positions at the museum, working with their Textiles and Fashion collection and on exhibitions including ‘Wedding Dresses 1775-2014’ and ‘Undressed: a brief history of underwear’.
What does your role as LCF archivist entail?
I think the luxury of my job is getting to learn about things and then tell other people about them. I think of archives and collections as communication tools. Another benefit of my role is that it is really varied. So, as well as managing the collections and overseeing study appointments, I get to do research, teach and contribute to exhibitions. I am also in the process of planning some new public programmes inspired by the archives.
The focus of my role is caring for the objects in our collections, and making sure that they, and the archives, are as engaging and accessible as possible.
What are the challenges? And what are the highlights?
The challenges are: space and time! The archives are a growing and thriving resource, but I run them on my own, and I also work at LCF part-time, so that makes time rather tight! Still, we definitely make the most of what we have.
I am finding getting to know the collection, and all its hidden treasures, really exciting, and am looking forward to utilising some of what we have and making sure that what we do really reflects and connects with LCF’s outputs and activities.
You also work at V&A. What do you do there?
I’m currently splitting my week between LCF and the V&A, where I previously worked. At the V&A, my roles have mainly worked with the Textiles and Fashion collection, in particular in a curatorial capacity on their fashion exhibitions. Most recently, I worked on ‘Undressed: a brief history of underwear’ and, alongside my new role at LCF, I am continuing to support that exhibition and helping to prepare it for its upcoming international tour.
How can the archives help LCF students?
Whatever subject you study or discipline you hope to go into, the thing that each one has in common is the central thread of a fashion product (whether you want to go on to design it, study it or sell it). The archives are a treasure trove of these products – these objects – in all their forms, whether it’s a trade journal, a sample book or a beaded Dior gown. As a result, you can use the archive for your research – to perhaps supplement or illustrate something you’ve read about by coming and looking ‘at the real thing’. This means that you can delve deeper than just looking at an image in an article or online, and perhaps find something new that interests you. With that in mind, as well as using it to illustrate your studies you can also use the archives and their objects to inspire you.
What is your favourite object from the archive?
I have a lot of favourites here already, from high fashion to the handmade. One set of objects that I think is really underestimated is our back catalogue of issues of the Drapers’ Record, which form part of the EMap archive. Running from the late 19th century to today, they can be a great resource for tracing trends and examining the web of technologies and trade that lies behind the face of the fashion industry.
I also really love a 1930s brogue we have in the Cordwainer College archive, the sole of which is elaborately decorated with pinpoints and paint to create a picture of a village scene. There’s something really evocative and inspiring about putting that level of work into a rarely seen, and normally underestimated, part of a design.
How can people get involved?
The archive is open by appointment only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. If you would like to make an appointment, please email: email@example.com
As well as the appointments service, as of January 2017 we will be launching three new series of events. One will be a monthly object reading group, at which we will look at the different stories objects can tell, and the second will be monthly ‘Silent Sessions’, which will essentially be life drawing sessions using objects. In addition to this, we will also be running a series of ‘In Conversations’. For each of these conversations, the interview subject – whether they’re a designer or an editor-in-chief – will bring in an item from their own wardrobe or from their work, and we will use that as the launch pad for the conversation to show you just how much clothing can say.
If you’d like to hear more about these events, we will be releasing further information on the archive’s page in advance. You can also stay up to date by joining the archive’s mailing list by emailing us at the above address.
Tell us an interesting fact about the archive?
I think that one of the most interesting things about the fashion archive here is how it has developed. While most museum or brand archives aim to create a cohesive narrative about one subject, here at LCF the collections are a culmination of LCF’s interests and activities. This means that they’re really idiosyncratic. So when you pay us a visit, you’re just as likely to see Saville Row tailoring as you are a shoe made for a sheep.