I wear clothes every day, but I wouldn’t say I know much about fashion. I’m particularly unsure when it comes to saying what makes Australian fashion Australian. The National Gallery of Victoria is currently showing what 200 years of Australian fashion looks like. My mum and I visited to check it out.
Far but near
The exhibition mostly runs in chronological order. It seems dressmakers were present from early on in the colonies. Imported fabric from China and India was fashionable in the UK at the time. The exhibition notes reminded me that Australia is relatively close to these countries. We were half a world away from the centres of fashion, but we had easy access to the materials due to trade routes.
Towards the end of the 19th Century, department stores opened with huge dressmaking ateliers. Materials and designs were imported, but adjusted to local taste. Tantalisingly, the exhibition notes didn’t give more detail on this. How did local taste differ from Europe? Was it merely that we wanted lighter fabric in this warmer climate? Or was it more what kind of colours and embellishments appealed to us?
Side note: this section also contained a cabinet of garments made from Australian materials. This fan is inherently unique because it uses black cockatoo tail feathers. The shoes are contemporary and tickle my Melbourne sensibilities. They’re decorated by a tattoo artist.
Adult expertise, teenage style
A large space rather like a ballroom presented the garments for the 1930-50s. These pieces were so well cut. It was the heyday of the department dressmaking studios and ‘Paris end’ Collins street salons. Mum loved a bias-cut 1930s evening dress, a Hall Ludlow evening ensemble in linen transfixed me.
Mum told me she had a black velvet l’officiel designer dress from Georges (off the rack). It was her ‘appeals dress’. She wore it for work when she attended the tribunal and needed to look (and feel) professional.
The room for the 1960-70s garments was a smaller space which ramped up their impact. Prue Acton, Melbourne’s answer to Mary Quant made an appearance here. Mum remembers girls wearing her clothes, but couldn’t afford them herself.
I learnt about Norma Tullo, who was committed to local design and manufacturing. Competitions like the Australian Wool Fashion Awards helped promote producers and designers alike. I was surprised to learn that Carla Zampatti opened her first boutique in the 70s. Has she really designed for that long?!
Who are we? Look at us!
By the time Australia rolled around to the 1980s, designers were pushing possibilities. The first room of this section was full of Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson Australiana kitsch. There were several Jenny Bannister dresses, slashed and recompiled in all their punk glory. I was less aware of the work of Sara Thorn. Her printed, layered work was chaotic and intriguing to me.
Everything in this room was pulled apart and exaggerated. Designers reflected on where we’ve come from and what we could be. The Fashion Design Council in Melbourne promoted and lobbied for small-scale independent design.
A decade later and the pendulum began swinging back again. We got the first hints of modern day commercialism and globalisation. The Australian Fashion Week and Melbourne Fashion Week festivals both started in 1996.
local ideas, world stage
The work of designers like Collette Dinnigan and Tony Maticevski is recognised internationally. Their Australian citizenship seems incidental. I wonder how much of their design is influenced by this country. Does their global success lift them free from local considerations and our particular preference for commercialisation over art? These aren’t clothes I presume to afford, but I do love looking at this and this.
A few rooms earlier, mum had been introducing me to designers she remembered. She told me stories of what their work was like at the time it was first shown. Now, it was my turn to introduce mum to Australia’s contemporary designers. I don’t know their work myself, but I know their names from the conversations of my peers. My generation is now well-off enough to be able to afford the work of Alpha 60, MaterialByProduct and PAM.
If you can, I’d recommend you check out this exhibition if only so I can find out your thoughts on the collection! It was imaginatively put together and I think the curators did a great job. I freely admit I’ve concentrated on the Melbourne-based designs in this post. There’s much more to this exhibition than I’ve shown you…