Dedicated follower of fashion

Fashion doesn't just filter down from haute couture, it bubbles up from new-age travellers, grunge and the like, says Amy de la Haye, curator of 20th-century dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Hester Lacey visits the archives

Amy de la Haye, curator of 20th century dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum, is beautifully dressed in understated, swirly, dark blue trousers and a soft, dark sweater. But her shoes are flat-heeled and formidably sturdy. Her job doesn't consist of simply swanning around, arranging a drape here and a fold there; there's effort involved, lugging things around, pushing and pulling racks of clothes, clambering around organising the garments in the storage areas behind the scenes in the cavernous entrails of the museum.

"There's lots of hard physical work," she says, bouncing up the stairs onto a metal grid catwalk where parts of the collection not on show are housed in white-painted metal vaults. "Metal is inert, so it's ideal for clothes storage," she explains. "Most things come in clean; if there's any risk that they are dirty, damaged, or infested with moths, they are frozen and go off to the conservation department. A hippy afghan coat came in and it really stank; that certainly had to be frozen. Each garment is carefully numbered, and the number is noted in an ancient, heavy-bound book with marbled paper - but we're quite modern, so it also gets onto the computer."

Amy de la Haye studied design history in Brighton and took her MA at the Royal College of Art. She taught dress and design history at Brighton University, worked in Hove Museum, and worked as a freelance writer and researcher before she picked up her current job six years ago from an advert in a newspaper ("I didn't know if I'd even get an interview!").

She opens one of the vaults to display part of the museum's collection of hats; one is a hedgehog-like hunk of PVC spikes, another is made of gloves, another is a whisper of gold straw. "I'm very fond of this one," she says, pointing out a piece of fish- decorated headgear donated by the surrealist artist Eileen Agar. She is adamant, however, that her own personal taste does not intrude on her choices - or at least, not too much. "I feel I'm a temporary caretaker, for a collection that has evolved over a period of years - though a curator does put their own stamp on what is chosen. It's vital that you have an open mind and are receptive, but you wouldn't be human if your own taste didn't shape things a little. I feel very strongly that British fashion should be well-represented, so the collection has been boosted in that area."

She is also keen to focus not only on top designers but on their sources of inspiration; as in the Streetwise exhibition held two years ago at the V&A, which included biker, surfer, hippy and crusty looks. "My remit is fashion from 1900 to next season. As well as haute couture and designer labels, it's the subculture, too. It's a very radical departure that we are the only museum with a significant collection of subculture clothes - it acknowledges that fashion doesn't just filter down, it bubbles up, from new-age travellers, grunge and the like."

Devising and curating exhibitions is an important part of her job and de la Haye's current project is the Cutting Edge exhibition - the first major exhibition to celebrate British fashion. The exhibition, which runs for one more week, spans the past 50 years, and the clothes are grouped according to four themes: Romantic, Tailoring, Bohemian and Country. "Rather than arranging the clothes chronologically, I was identifying areas of British expertise," she explains. "Tradition and modernity sit very well together, because even when British designers are being radical, they do it not by rejecting fashion but by subverting it. Look at the Vivienne Westwood next to the traditional hunting, shooting and fishing clothes - how comfortably it sits."

The timelessness of fashion is a theme that runs through the exhibition. Tweeds by Hardy Amies sit happily next to tweeds by Bella Freud. She has also made a point of including "designers eclipsed by the passage of time" - and enthusiastically observes that John Cavanagh, popular in the Fifties, "could be re-labelled Prada 95".

Even in the midst of setting up and organising major exhibitions, the donations keep coming in - some from members of the public, some from the designers themselves. Most designers are more than happy to hand over immaculate outfits for free, and it's rare that she has to bid for an item at auction. But depending on the generosity of others means you have to take what you are given. "We have a preponderance of women's clothes and special-occasion clothes, because women tend to hang onto ballgowns or wedding dresses, but don't keep their casual daywear."

So, she is currently very excited about a gift from Calvin Klein, which is just that. "We are becoming increasingly selective and unashamedly elitist when it comes to designer clothing. When people offer us things, we ask them to bring them in or send a snap, so we can see if it's in good condition, and doesn't duplicate anything we already have. But exceptionally, for this gift, I went to New York and worked with the team there, choosing the clothes."

The rack of Calvin Klein clothes is immaculate, and certainly won't be heading for the museum freezer for the flea-ridden. It includes a particularly beautiful golden, suede jacket. Isn't she tempted to slip it on, or even "borrow" it for a few days? "Never! It's a rule: once garments come into the collection they are never worn again. Wearing garments damages them irretrievably, you see," she says sternly.

The Cutting Edge, Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, runs until 27 July, 1997. Admission to the museum includes entry to the exhibition. For more information, call 0171 938 8500.

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