As a Visitor Services Officer at the Royal Pavilion and Museums I hadn’t expected to be given the opportunity to work on such an exciting and significant fashion project. But with the Workforce Development Programme I was given such a chance.
Workforce Development offers staff the opportunity to develop and learn new skills in other departments of the Pavilion and Museum and for this one I was recruited to assist Martin Pel, the fashion curator, on the Stephen Jones Hats installation.
My role was to help with the installation of the hats in the week prior to opening. It turns out that this was a very busy but exciting week! There were many aspects of the exhibition to pull together in that week, such as the stands for display, Dior outfits still to arrive, hats to be wired for display mounts, mannequins to be altered and installed, hats to be collected and the small task of putting over 160 hats into an historic building, all within a few days. Just moving the hats around the building and between the Pavilion and Museum was a big task, with there being so many and requiring such careful handling.
I should point out at this stage that it soon became apparent the fashion world and historic buildings occupy a completely different universe. The Pavilion requires a huge amount of planning when any kind of activity takes place there to ensure the objects and environment are preserved and not damaged, which takes time and manpower. The fashion world however thrives on a quick turnaround and fast pace. Martin and Jody (Creative Programming Curator) managed it brilliantly to ensure the installation happened carefully and on time. This contrast made for some nail biting moments, but I thoroughly enjoyed the buzz!
Prior to the exhibition I helped Martin display the hats for the photographer, where I was able to watch the skilled process of altering lighting and angles to get the best pictures. It was a fast process and we had to handle the hats with great care. I then moved on to helping Martin configure the display for the Entrance Hall, positioning hats for the greatest impact as people walk into the Pavilion. It was fantastic to have input and that Martin valued my opinions.
At the start of the final week there was a lot of delivering and fetching of hats from the conservation studio where they were tweaked and mounted. Many of the hats have been loaned to the Pavilion by their owners so the hats needed to be made display-ready. It was fascinating to see a conservation studio where the work is painstaking and meticulous.
I was tasked with cutting the protective layers for the stands where they sit on the furniture and then sewing the cloths for the kitchen display. Some finishing touches of steaming and cleaning of display materials before finally installing the hat stands and hats.
Stephen Jones was very much involved in the finishing touches to the hats to ensure they looked exactly as he envisaged. It is a requirement of the building that anyone going behind the ropes is escorted, so I escorted him around the building, watching as he added hats to the display and while the press took photographs, filmed and interviewed him. His pleasure at having his work installed at the Pavilion was great to see. I even had my photo taken by the press showing me working with the hats, though sadly I didn’t make it into the final edit!
My last task was to be there for the opening evening where guests of Stephen Jones and Harvey Nichols, the sponsors, were invited to view the hats. It was an incredibly exciting and successful evening, with many high profile fashion journalists taking in the installation. I was in the music room to talk to guests about the beautiful display of Stephen’s hats worn with Dior outfits. The visitors were extremely positive and loved both the installation and the setting, so it was great to talk to them about how George IV would have loved it too. The exhibition was going down really well and there was a real buzz about the whole evening. On a personal level, I was incredibly excited to meet Giles Deacon, whose outfits are part of the display. Meeting both Giles and Stephen Jones in one week was something of a high for me!
I was very fortunate to be involved in such a busy week and experience some of the hugely varied aspects of a high profile fashion installation at the Pavilion. I’ve witnessed at close quarters what it’s like to curate and install an exhibition, how they managed so many other parties involved in it and constant problem solving. It’s an experience I would very much like to repeat given the opportunity!
Sue Winkett, Visitor Services Officer