the secrets and surprises hidden in two centuries of australian fashion

Romance Was Born's Anna Plunkett speaks to the curator of the upcoming 200 Years of Australian Fashion exhibition at the National Gallery.

by Anna Plunkett
15 February 2016, 11:25pm

Linda Jackson and Jenny Kee wearing Linda Jackson’s Tutti Frutti dress in 1975. Photography Ann Noon.

With the 20th Anniversary of Melbourne's Fashion Festival taking place next month, the NGV has played their hand by digging deep into the archives to build an unprecedented retrospective exhibition focussing on the last 200 years of Australian fashion. With more than 120 works from over 90 designers, this spotlight on local industry—as well as its past, present and major influencers—comes at a time of transition and re-thinking. At the moment local designers are asking themselves how to best approach fashion—a practice blending the creative, commercial and practical—in a way that makes sense in a modern context.

To learn more about the show, get an understanding of what defines Australian fashion, and uncover some of the surprises in store, Romance Was Born's Anna Plunkett spoke to the exhibition's curator Paola Di Trocchio about how you go about telling such a huge story over a handful of rooms in a gallery. 

i-D: I'm really excited about this exhibition, will it include a lot of pieces that no one has ever seen before?
Paola: We decided we wanted to do something really big and this idea became a great way to showcase a lot of our collection. Saying that, we're also drawing on loans from other institutions and private collections to get greater scope. A lot of the really early works are in collections in NSW and we've borrowed from places like the National Trust of NSW and Sydney's Living Museum.

STEWART & CO., Melbourne, 1879-96 Alice Hall and Herbert Tidswell, cabinet print 1881-89, albumen silver photograph, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, 1978 

Were there stories, themes or discoveries that revealed themselves as you've pieced the exhibition together? 
We've definitely discovered things along the way. The initial idea was that this was a history of Australian fashion and the challenge was how we'd shape it within the dedicated floor plan - which stories we'd pull out and how we'd progress tell them. We wanted to represent as many designers as possible and finding a way to do that through the 200 years was something we had to work out. We ended up thinking about Australian fashion through key moments, like identifying Australia's longest surviving dress, our earliest labelled garment (which is from a department store called Bright and Hitchcocks in Geelong) or the earliest designer label. Then we thought about the context in which fashion is displayed and sold, so we have a section focussing on the 19th century department store - the French style salons, which were very intimate.

I wanted to ask you about that. The garments from Le Louvre are so special, from another world.
A Le Louvre coat from the 1930s kicks off that section and then it's about representing all the makers from that time and area - other Collins St dress makers like La Petite and Lucy Secor. The good thing about the exhibition is that it will draw attention to those who are less known too. As we move into the 50s and 60s we're representing designer Hall Ludlow, Beril Jents and a dress from Georges. 

ROMANCE WAS BORN, Sydney (fashion house) est. 2005, Anna PLUNKETT and Luke SALES (designer), Rainbow tartan feather suit, 2015 spring, Coo-ee couture collection, silk, plastic (sequins), ostrich feathers.

Amazing, what Hall Ludlow pieces do you have?
We've got two pieces: one's an elegant gold lame halter neck dress and another one that's white linen with sculptural flowers around the neckline. We're going to create the romance of the salon within the exhibition with mirrors and lighting. Photography will also be included.

What would you say it is that makes Australian fashion unique?
It's been interesting trying to work out what that is. Margaret Maynard, who's a QLD academic, has explained Australian fashion as being out of line with Eurocentric trends. So, while it's always responding to, and aware of European fashion there's always something a little but different: like a boldness in terms of colour or innovation in the use of textiles, especially as a solution to limited resources. 

It's true in regards to our use of wools and cottons because when Europe was booming in terms of their couture, rather than copying them we used our own materials and did it our own way.
There's a 19th century section called Natural Wonder specifically focussing on Australian local materials - there's a cape made from platypus fur, we've got a fan made out of cockatoo feathers, shoes made out of barramundi, a bag of lizard skin, shoes made of kangaroo and a cabbage tree hat. That use of materials was happening right from the beginning. We also have a Marino woollen wedding dress.

Australia Fan c. 1880, ivory, cockatoo feathers, silk, metal, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Gift of Mr James Reid, 1964

Is there much men's clothing represented? 
There aren't too many surviving examples of men's fashion in the country. Men more traditionally wore their clothes which doesn't lend itself to collecting.

I heard from Linda Jackson that there's a section on Flamingo Park.
It's true, there is a dedicated section on Flamingo Park, another really important moment in Australian fashion. That signalled a shift when Linda and Jenny started looking at the motifs and things that were uniquely Australian. We have a lot of Flamingo Park knits and the outfits Linda and Jenny wore from 1975.It will all be displayed in a great space full of colour. 

Is there any video work?
Yes, we've interviewed Dianne Masters, who was a model of the era, and we'll be putting her reflections into the space. She did a lot of modelling for Hall Ludlow and the other designers then. We have footage from parades in the 80s, interviews with members of the Fashion Design Council and there's a Fashion week section with highlights from the Melbourne Fashion Festival and Australian Fashion Week. There's also footage of singer Annette Kluger wearing one of the features of the show, an incredible blue ostrich feathered dress.

No title (Fashion illustration. Model Ann Chapman) c. 1961, gelatin silver photograph. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of The Ian Potter Foundation, Governor, 1989.

There's such a great story behind how you acquired that dress. 
We had a photo of a model called Anne Chapman wearing this gorgeous feathered dress. It's from 1961 so it's black and white. In 2012, a member of the public called up and said they had the dress and asked if it would be of interest. From her description, it sounded like the dress but we can't be sure until we've seen it. When the dress was brought in, it was revealed that it was a really bright, vivid blue. The owner had given it to her cousin so it was just lucky that it ended up in the collection. We've restored it and it's definitely a highlight of the show. 

200 Years of Fashion runs from 5th March - 31st July.

Also as part of the Melbourne Fashion Festival is The Discovery Runway and Party Presented by i-D.
Thursday 10th March 8PM. 
The runway will also feature labels: ASSKBanoffee X Pageant, PAI, Caves Collect, Sister, Article by Courtney Holm, AMXANDER and Lois Hazel
Tickets available here

australian fashion
Romance Was Born