The news that the V&A had rejected an offer of Margaret Thatcher’s wardrobe was met with dismay yesterday. ‘Shame the V&A has turned down Thatcher’s personal collection. I for one would have loved to see it!’ said the business secretary, Sajid Javid, on Twitter. Conor Burns MP suggested that the collection’s breakup would be a ‘tragedy’. Even Vivienne Westwood, hardly a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, said on Radio 2 that while she was no ‘fan’ of Thatcher, the Iron Lady was ‘certainly in her lifetime the best-dressed woman. She had terrific taste.’ She also admitted that ‘it would be lovely if the V&A showed her clothes.’
As I wrote yesterday, Margaret Thatcher and Vivienne Westwood were not all that different – both greengrocers’ daughters, both interested in fashion, both important female figures during the 1980s – despite seeing the world very differently. Westwood even impersonated Thatcher on the cover of Tatler in 1989 – and the resemblance is quite striking. But while Westwood’s designs are well-represented by the V&A, it seemed odd that all of Thatcher’s clothes were being turned away, given their historical value.
So I’m glad to hear the V&A are now reconsidering this decision. A V&A spokesman said:
‘We were asked a question yesterday about an informal discussion that happened several years ago and responded accordingly. No formal offer of this collection has yet been made to, or considered by, the museum, and so it has never been discussed at a senior level or with trustees.
‘The V&A is a constantly evolving institution, and if we were approached today it is perfectly possible that discussions might develop in a different direction, and we welcome public interest and debate in how we collect and how we research and display our collections to the widest audience.’
Thatcher’s political views may not be for everyone – Vivienne Westwood among them – but future generations may be interested in her. I have a hunch that as the first (and as of yet, only) female prime minister, they may well be keen to see – and perhaps study – what she wore, in the same way that we are interested in what Elizabeth I, Emmeline Pankhurst and Jane Austen wore. If the V&A have changed their position because of public pressure, there is no shame in that. In fact, it suggests a pretty sensible attitude towards collecting. A public museum should help inform, educate and inspire the public. It should also occasionally listen to the public – which in this instance, it appears to have done.