Meet the curator behind the major ongoing Dior Retrospective in London - Elle India

Meet the curator behind the major ongoing Dior Retrospective in London

Oriole Cullen on work and her personal style

BY ELLE team | April 15th, 2019

As an academic working for a world-renowned historic institution, it’s no surprise that Oriole Cullen’s office is packed floor to ceiling with books. “They’re an addiction,” says the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum’s curator of fashion and textiles. There are volumes on the history of dress and biographies of British designers and their muses, many authored by Cullen herself. It’s here, in this cosy space jutting off the museum’s cavernous Furniture, Fashion and Textiles department, that she spends most of her time. “It’s practically the size of a postage stamp,” she says of the room, which feels part library, part extraordinary auction house, and has a quiet, academic atmosphere. She also spent a considerable amount of time at Dior Heritage, the luxury house’s archive space in Paris, ahead of the V&A’s current major retrospective curated by Cullen, Christian Dior: Designer Of Dreams, which runs till July 14, 2019.

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Lace and silk taffeta dress, tulle dress (worn underneath), leather boots; all Dior

It’s a monumental moment in her career; her largest show to date. Yet as she shuffles papers on her desk, finessing the final pages of the show catalogue, you wouldn’t guess it. She wears the responsibility lightly, cracking jokes as she shows me around. Effortlessly put together in a black suit by Osman (“He’s a friend; I wear his clothes a lot”), with white Adidas by Pharrell trainers and a woolen Hermès scarf, clues to Cullen’s latest epic fashion adventure are everywhere. Pinned to a notice board are early drafts of the exhibition’s poster art, fabric swatches, vintage renderings of Dior’s Bar suit and the business card of the house’s Parisian archivist, who has been on speed dial throughout the forensic show prep. When realized, the exhibition will see 5OO pieces brought together in one space, including 23O dressed mannequins and a replica of the townhouse facade of Dior’s 3O Avenue Montaigne atelier. “Everything on show is handmade,” she says of the clothes and sets.

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HATS OFF: The sketchbooks of renowned illustrator Francis Marshall on Cullen’s desk

The way Cullen works is similarly analogue. On her desk stands a neat line of black Moleskine notebooks and a pot of sharpened pencils. Pens are contraband in an office where precious objects from the annals of fashion history pass across the desk daily. Today, that’s a stack of mid-century sketchbooks by British illustrator Francis Marshall (the subject of Cullen’s most recent book, Francis Marshall: Drawing Fashion; V&A Publishing). In a pre-digital age, Marshall produced beautiful drawings of couture collections. He was there when Christian Dior first debuted his New Look in February 1947, and when he made his London debut at The Savoy hotel five years later. Marshall’s work will go on display with some of the looks he recorded. “It’s all haute couture,” she says of the looks going on display. “You get to really see the incredible work—the hours someone spent taking a piece of fabric, folding it and adding beads you won’t even see and a crystal on top. It’s staggering.

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Cotton and toile shirt, Dior

Cullen, born in Dublin, joined the V&A in 2OO6, after studying the history of dress at The Courtauld Institute Of Art, London, and working at the Museum Of London as curator of dress and decorative arts. Much has changed for the 42-year-old since then. “When I first arrived, it was all very behind the scenes,” she says. “Some people would spend 3O years studying just one very specific area of interest. The job—and the institution—is so much more public and open these days.” The increasingly front-of-house nature of the job means Cullen needs to be ready for anything sartorially. But rather than constantly invest in new looks, she deep dives into her own archive of Margiela and Jil Sander. “I’m almost always in a dress. They’re so easy; if you suddenly have an important meeting, you can just chuck on heels.” She stashes a black pair of Saint Laurent stilettos in her desk drawer, along with an array of neutral lipsticks by NARS, Chanel and Charlotte Tilbury. Her other self-imposed style challenge is to travel bag-free on the commute from Islington in north London, where she lives with her sculptor husband Edward Barton. “I have a rule against large bags,” she says. “At the moment I’m down to just pockets. It’s very freeing.”

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PAST AND PRESENT: Books from Cullen’s extensive research library are a constant inspiration.

Hers is a demanding but rewarding job that doesn’t let up once a show opens. There’s a huge demand for private tours, courses and lectures. “You have to pace yourself,” says Cullen, who finds herself fueling up on tea and Pret A Manger’s chocolate-covered almonds, and occasionally heading to the V&A’s Daylit Gallery for some quiet time. Not that there’s much need to escape: “Every time you step out of your office for meetings, there’s an incredible piece of art or design—digital work or a Constable canvas. It’s constantly stimulating, even if you’re tired at the end of the day. You never get that boxed-in feeling here.”

A self-confessed night owl, it’s not unusual for Cullen to be at her desk until late in the evening. Even bedtime reading (currently Cecil Beaton’s Persona Grata) informs her day job. It’s only in Devon, where she heads with her husband between projects, that she takes her mind elsewhere. “We go on a little boat, feed the chickens or pick sloe berries,” she says. Though it’s not long before she’s lured back to London. It’s the objects, in the end, that enthral her. “It’s a labor of love in a way,” she says of her role. “You’re never going to make your fortune in a museum, but it’s such a huge privilege to see things up close and observe the stories they tell.”

Christian Dior: Designer Of Dreams is on view till July 14, 2019; Vam.ac.uk

Photographs: Dougal Mac Arthur. Hair and make-up: Poppy France using Kjaer Weis, Vapour and Maria Nila Hair. Assisted by: Koye Odejinmi (Photography)