In 2015 the New Collecting Award was launched, a project organised by the Art Fund which aims to encourage early career curators to acquire objects to develop their museum’s collection and continue their professional development. In April 2015 I was awarded a New Collecting Award grant of £60,000 to collect a capsule wardrobe of French haute couture in homage to The Bowes Museum’s co-founder Joséphine Bowes.

Portrait of Josephine Bowes, 1850

Portrait of Josephine Bowes, 1850

We know Joséphine was a collector, a patron of the arts, a society hostess, an actress, a painter and a devotee to fashion. Joséphine was among the many fashionable women who bought her clothes from Maison Worth on rue de la Paix Paris, aligning herself with figures such as Empress Eugénie. On 19 March 1869 Joséphine celebrated her fête-day by buying 7 dresses from Worth. Two of the most expensive are described as: ‘Dress, gauze, embroidered white satin £43: dress, pink taffeta £43’. The bill amounted to £234 (£10,000-12,000 today). Some of her clothing bills overlap with catering bills, which reference the Salons the couple held in their homes in Paris. She may well have been buying fashionable these garments to impress her guests and peers.

Josépine Bowes, Worth bill, 1869

Joséphine Bowes, Worth bill, 1869

So far the project has enabled me to travel to Paris and London for research and to meet with my mentor for the project, Judith Clark, London College of Fashion. Having a mentor behind the award offers me a sounding board for activity I have planned and research I hope to develop. Judith has also introduced me to her colleagues Professor Amy de la Haye and Dr Jeff Horsley. Dialogue between these academics in the field has helped with my research methods, collecting strategies and future plans for the pieces I aim to buy. Judith’s expertise and contacts have been invaluable so far and have offered me insight into new areas of research. The award has supported me in resurrecting my French speaking and writing skills, which has been useful for contacting archivists and collectors in Paris.

I have visited archives in Paris, including the Palais Galliera and Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent. I have also attended auctions in Paris and was close to purchasing two items at a London auction in early October, but I have not yet found pieces that truly reflect Joséphine’s identity. Having a lot of money to spend is exciting yet daunting, so I am absorbing everything currently on the market as best I can and making careful considerations before I delve into the first purchase. I am mindful in considering conservation and mounting, as the pieces will hopefully be displayed at the Museum in 2017, within a small exhibition exploring the life and work of Joséphine Bowes.

Palais Galliera stores, Paris

Palais Galliera stores, Paris

Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent archives, Paris

Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent archives, Paris

The next stage of the project involves a week long training course at the V&A entitled Curating Fashion and Dress. This course will extend my network and help me understand more about the V&A’s approach and ethos of collecting and presenting dress. It will offer me a chance to discuss the project with external colleagues, share ideas and ask for advice.

In 2017, I will have acquired a capsule collection of French haute couture which will bolster the unique identity of The Bowes Museum’s fashion collection. Moving forward and beyond the project, our department aims to focus its collecting in a more French direction, in order to reflect the core history of the Museum and its co-founder Joséphine Bowes.

Hannah Jackson is Assistant Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the Bowes Museum.

Read more about previous New Collecting Awards Winners

Read more about Hannah’s work here
How to apply for a New Collecting Award