The V&A have defended their decision to turn down the offer of Margaret Thatcher’s wardrobe on the basis that it only collects items of ‘outstanding aesthetic or technical quality’ rather than those with ‘intrinsic social historical value’. Yet in the same statement, they also suggest that the museum is responsible for ‘chronicling fashionable dress’.
I’m not entirely sure how the V&A believes it can fillet out the ‘social historical value’ from their aim of ‘chronicling fashionable dress’. I’m also not sure I believe them. Thatcher is a divisive figure, and many people – some of them, presumably curators at the V&A, dislike her intensely. I do not know whether Martin Roth, the German director of the museum – takes particular umbrage with Thatcher. He has previously discussed the need to ‘reduce the barriers’ at museums – and the merits of free entry – while Thatcher was once described by the Museums Association as ‘no friend of museums’ because of her suggestion that they should charge entry. Regardless of the political views held by those high up in the world of curation, there is no denying that Thatcher was an important cultural figure, who was interested in fashion and the messages her clothes sent out. She was also the first female prime minister – and as of yet – our only female prime minister. I would have thought that alone merited some interest in her wardrobe – perhaps not now, but certainly for future generations.
The V&A’s costume collection is the most comprehensive in Britain – with over 14,000 outfits – dating from 1600 to the present. It is a wonderful resource and an exceptional catalogue of social history. Past exhibitions have focussed on subjects as diverse as the golden age of couture to Kylie Minogue’s outfits. Last year, the V&A showcased Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s, which looked at the experimental haute couture worn to nightclubs during this period. All interesting enough – but why should it just be the underground fashion scene in the 1980s that warrants attention? To my mind – and I’d have thought to future minds too – it’s of just as much interest what Thatcher – who many of these bright young things were reacting to – was wearing. It can’t be a coincidence that the gender-fluid, new-romantic fashions of the 1980s became popular just at the point when a woman stepped into Number 10, and began to champion power dressing as a way of gaining authority in a traditionally male environment.
A shrewd collector would have accepted the Thatcher bequest, even if their intent was to squirrel it away for a while, and let political tensions simmer down. Some of the outfits were made by historically interesting designers – including Aquascutum, Asprey and Launer (who also makes the Queen’s handbags) – or were worn at important historical occasions. Is the V&A really suggesting that of the 300 items on offer, not one had the requisite ‘aesthetic or technical quality’ demanded by the curators?
Vivienne Westwood is well-represented in the V&A collection, and her designs have featured in a number of exhibitions. She is – one might say – a darling of the V&A. She also hated Thatcher – and famously impersonated her on the cover of Tatler in April 1989, wearing a suit Thatcher had ordered from Aquascutum but supposedly never picked up. Westwood thought Thatcher’s fashion choices were interesting enough to parody. Wouldn’t it be great to see a show comparing the fashion choices of these two figures, both of them daughters of greengrocers? Establishment vs Anti-Establishment fashion? The two faces of feminist fashion? Anyway, forget it, that ship has sailed – the Thatcher wardrobe will soon be broken up at auction at Christie’s, and spread around the world. And just like that, a piece of social history disappears from public view.