Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Loud but Never Square: 200 Years of Australian Fashion

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.” - Henry David Thoreau, Walden

This exhibition highlights distinguishing features of Australian fashion through the work of more than ninety designers and makers. From the early dressmakers of colonial Sydney and mid-century salons of Melbourne's Collins Street to the inner-city studios of contemporary designers, this exhibition considers what and who has defined Australian dress.

I love the way it is curated, with each room concentrating on a different aspect or era of fashion - the lighting, setting and sound in each section has been carefully selected to highlight and support the appreciation of the progress or otherwise of design. Fashion is art: Sometimes it's brilliant; sometimes it's beautiful; sometimes it's banal; sometimes it's just pants.

We begin with colonial fashion, of which very few examples remain, as the early settlers were a little too preoccupied with establishing cities, industries and infrastructure to worry about preserving dresses. Fashion throughout the Western world at this time was inspired by developments in Paris and London, with fabric often imported from China and India. Being geographically close to these centres, Australia became part of this international fabric trade.

Empire-line and gold thread
When the gold-rush struck in the mid-nineteenth century people from around the world flocked to Melbourne, which became one of the richest cities in the world. In both Sydney and Melbourne dress was used to symbolise wealth, power and status.

The next section was set out like a department store, which feature changed the nature of urban shopping in Australia between 1850 and 1880. large emporiums of imposing grandeur with arcade windows, stylish interiors, tempting displays and a prodigious array of merchandise were flourishing in all the state capitals.

I heard some women saying how much they admired the tiny waists of these outfits and expressed a longing that they could wear such garments now. Clearly they didn't read (or care about) the accompanying panels that explained the supporting foundations that made the outward show possible. Women squeezed themselves into contraptions of steel and whale bone, crushing their bones, bruising their rib-cages and loosing their breath and consciousness to conform to the contemporary stereotypical image of feminine beauty.

Department stores created an environment where fashionable middle-class ladies could shop at their leisure. They were offered well-appointed mirrored areas, comfortable seating, fresh flowers, rest rooms and sections dedicated to different garments and apparel, such as fine gowns, underwear or millinery.


In the eighteenth-century the tailoring and dressmaking trades were traditionally divided between the sexes. Tailoring, historically practiced by men is the careful art of measurements, pattern cutting and shaping, while dressmaking is based on draping fabric round a form and was traditionally practiced by women. This division of labour was adopted all over the world and gave women in particular the ability to develop independent fashion businesses and trades.

In the nineteenth-century these conventions began to erode and tailors began to make men's as well as women's equestrian wear. While dressmaking and tailoring were sometimes an individual pursuit, early department stores, drapers and retailers often had their own in-house workshops in order to cater to clients' individual orders and tastes. This section was laid out like a workshop with dressmakers' dummies, bolts of cloth and tailoring equipment strategically scattered throughout.

Afternoon dress (c. 1878) by Miss Margaret Scott
Miss Margaret Scott was considered one of Brisbane's leading dressmakers. She was known for her French taste and her gowns used fine imported fabrics, such as China silks as well as detailed finishes. She also labelled her garments following the precedent set by Parisian couturier Charles Frederick Worth. Miss Scott employed a small team of dressmakers and apprentices at her workshop and showroom - they made hand-finished gowns but they also used sewing machines, which had been introduced to Australia in the late 1950s.

These gowns are displayed with gilt mirrors and glass; satin drapes and plushly upholstered furniture; chandeliers and revolving stages, to mimic the prestigious department stores with their magnificent window displays and in-house parades. Many of these garments were one-off made-to-measure gowns based on French designs, involving ruching, beading and embroidery, and juxtaposing cling and drape.

An alternative silhouette to the romantic full-skirted gowns of the early 1950s, this embellished sheath projects Hollywood glamour. Creating a long slender line, fitted styles such as this caused hips to become a focal point. Emphatic details such as ruffles, darts or pleats often figured at the top of skirts to draw attention to womanly curves.

The ascendancy of youth culture and the look associated with it were pivotal to the radical social changes that took place in the 1960s. As areas of art, design and pop culture merged, fashion came to be seen and experienced in totally different ways. From the world of intimate exclusive salons to new swinging urban boutiques, fashion in Australia underwent a tremendous cultural transformation at this time. As ready-to-wear replaced custom-made, a new generation of talented young designers emerged to produce garments for their modern lifestyles.

From mini to maxi, baby-doll to unisex, fashion shifted from middle-age to teenage as the formal categories of day and evening-wear were exchanged for casual dress and the top-down dictates of couture were swapped for the trickle-up effect of the street.

In 1965 English model Jean Shrimpton caused a great stir when she appeared at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne in a white shift mini-dress that sparked controversy by being daringly short - the hem was four inches above the knee. She was paid a $2,000 fee (astronomical at the time) to be the judge of Fashion in the Field but conservative Melbourne was shocked and felt she had snubbed them by wearing no stockings, hat, or gloves, and they openly scorned and jeered her. Later she said, "I feel Melbourne isn't ready for me yet. It seems years behind London."

Naturally she was defended by the British press who wrote, "surrounded by sober draped silks and floral nylons, ghastly tulle hats and fur stoles, she was like a petunia in an onion patch." Every young girl wanted to be free, cool and elegant, like 'The Shrimp'. It was considered a pivotal moment in Australian women's fashion, and the typed words from various papers were projected on the walls above the fashion displays.

Corduroy was newly adopted as a fashion fabric in the 1960s, being well suited to the execution of a sharp, tailored line. The belted waist of this outfit reflects the early 1970s trend towards unisex attire, which saw traditionally ascribed masculine and feminine codes of dress become more androgynous. 

In 1973 Jenny Klee opened her Flamingo Park 'frock salon' in Sydney's Strand Arcade. She and her friend and fellow designer, Linda Jackson, produced clothing that was grounded in an affection for Australian iconography: kitsch and craft inspired by the landscape, Indigenous culture, and local flora and fauna.

Jenny Klee and Linda Jackson
Flamingo Park fashions

By the late 1970s, an alternative inner-urban fashion scene was evident in Australian cities. Australian fashion designers and makers were experimenting with unconventional materials and methods, and re-configuring traditional craft practices, blurring the lines between fashion and art.

To show off the force of established design in Australia, The Powerhouse Museum staged an exhibition, Australian Fashion: The Contemporary Art in 1989, of more than fifty designers, milliners, jewellers, shoemakers and textile artists. The exhibition later travelled to the Victoria and Albert Museum. This section, set up like a model catwalk with flashing lights and pulsing music (by The Cure and New Order among others) was a highlight.

Patchwork of Society by Alasdair MacKinnon - a collaborative work inspired by woollen 'waggas' - blankets made with tailors' swatches in Australia during the 1920s Depression 

Contemporary Australian designers respond to the country's landscape and reflect on the creative possibilities of cloth. They have responded to these conditions with innovation, ingenuity, humour and irony. While these designers have absorbed artistic, architectural, local and international influences, increasingly they are referencing Australian fashion history and the work of local designers of the past.

In the twenty-first century Australian fashion is a reaction to and revision of the existing fashion system.Today, as in its past, Australian fashion offers a rich landscape of possibility that each designer engages with in their own unique way.