Profile: Amy de la Haye

Fashioning social history from clothing
John Holt
Amy de la Haye is professor of dress history and curatorship at London College of Fashion. Previously the curator of 20th-century dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, she has curated Hardy Amies: A Dagenham Designer, which runs at Valence House Museum, Dagenham until 25 February 2017.

The Queen’s dressmaker, the late Hardy Amies, grew up in Dagenham. Who’d have thought it?

We tend to think of couturiers in gilded salons, and even though Amies was an unbearable snob, his upbringing was normal.

A lot of the fashion world’s ancillary trades were based in London’s East End so it’s nice that we can show the Queen’s fuchsia silver jubilee dress in Valence House. It will give the local people some sort of ownership of Amies. On one preparatory visit, however, I noticed a stylishly dressed builder on a nearby building site. Later, he opened his van doors to reveal the most amazing vintage Amies suits that he had bought on eBay. An extraordinary coincidence.

At what point did your interest in fashion translate into a career?

At university, I remember being in a seminar group where everyone had to choose historical subjects to study, but because I was shy I didn’t speak up and ended up with the working conditions of tailors. I was devastated at first, but reading about the subject in the library took me on a wonderful social history journey.

Why have museums suddenly started to take fashion seriously?

Clothing is one of the most intimate objects because it tells incredible stories that might be aesthetic, but are also intensely human. At the V&A, we were always being given clothes by people whose loved ones had died. Clothing leaves a physical imprint in the way it smells of someone or stretches to body shapes, and you can liken how it deteriorates over time to human vulnerability.

I’m always in charity shops sorting out things for teaching purposes. When I teach I encourage students to tell me 10 facts about an old costume and 10 speculations. You can’t do that with images.

How did you come up with Clara Button, the character in your illustrated story books for children?

When my son was five, he came home from school with teeth that had fallen out and started negotiating with me about much money he should receive. I thought: “God, there’s no magic left in childhood.” That started me thinking and I began to fashion the adventures that a young girl might have if she became lost in the V&A. My son later reported that the tooth fairy must have visited as he had found a sequin that had fallen off her cardigan.

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