200 Years of Australian Fashion: An exhibition missing a few icons

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When you think of Australian fashion you no doubt think of some of the biggest names that has shaped the industry in the last 10 years – ones that international shoppers and fans could name off the top of their head – like Zimmermann and Sass & Bide. But surprisingly both were missing from a recently opened exhibition at NGV Federation Square celebrating 200 years of Australian Fashion.

‘Australian fashion design has been informed by its geography, resources, migration and its response to international trends,’ said Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV in a release. ‘The NGV is proud to showcase the ways in which designers have responded to these conditions with ingenuity, humour and irony in dialogue with the wider world.’

We attended the media preview last Friday, with the exhibition now open to the public until July 31, 2016, we were given a guided tour around what is touted as the first and largest survey of Australian fashion. Presenting more than 120 works from over 90 designers, I was intrigued and popped down to Melbourne to see what was going to be unveiled.

200 years is a long time span to be covering any topic, much less one in which many designers and trends can come and go in a matter of months. The exhibition was split into ten categories: Colonial, The Department Store, Dressmakers and Tailors, The Salon, Minis and Maxis (the 1960s & 70s), Art Clothes, Flamingo Park, Fashion Design Council (80s & 90s), Fashion Weeks (90s to 00s) and Contemporary Fashion (00s to now), and was a great, albeit seemingly brief, overview.

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Pieces like Australia’s earliest known surviving dress from 1805, early accessory designs and a glamorous 1950s blue feathered ball gown by Collins Street salon La Petite were fascinating. The world of dressmakers and tailors from the early Australian era has not been an area we were familiar with. It was a fascinating flashback to a time when women had moved from wearing hoop dresses and into slightly less rigid designs and where you can see the need for clothing that suited the harsh Australian climate influence fashions of the 1850s-1900.

Like our international counterparts, in the 1900s we saw the growth of department stores in Australia with custom made and imported gowns being displayed in grand emporiums, as well as private dressmakers and tailors coming to the forefront to meet clients needs. The focus of the exhibition gets a distinctly Melbourne feel when we moved into The Salon, showcasing the grandeur of the Paris-style salon, inspired by the movement of calling the north end of Collins Street in Melbourne the ‘Paris end’. It was there where many talented Australian couturiers plied their trade in the mid 20th century. We would have loved to see how the rag trade grew in Sydney in the same time period but another time perhaps.

Moving on to the 60s and 70s with the introduction of the era that brought sky high (for those times) and floor length hemlines with art playing a huge role in fashion design inspiration. Of course featured was the mini dress that Jean Shrimpton wore to the Melbourne Cup in 1965. Internationally these were the times of the swinging 60s and Studio 64 in New York where Andy Warhol was a major influence in colour and modern design. The display included designs by Prue Acton, who was the first female Australian designer to show in New York.

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A small room named Flamingo Park after their store in the 1980s showcased some of colourful and Australiana designs by Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, with Kee being in attendance to talk about how she had just arrived back in Australia from London and needed to launch something for winter – what better than chunk hand knits with beautiful and distinctly Australian things on them. It was the beginning of a bright future for Kee’s colourful and much loved designs.

We were then introduced to a room named the Fashion Design Council, showcasing designs from Australian designers in the 80s and early 90s who were part of this new group that was established in 1983 to nurture independent Australian design and many of its early members are still fashion names today, Martin Grant, Jenny Bannister, Sara Thorn and Kara Baker to name a few.

Then 20 years ago in 1996, a man named Simon Lock launched the first Australian Fashion Week to showcase Australian fashion designers to a worldwide audience of buyers and media. The same year Melbourne Fashion Festival also launched, both are the longest running industry and consumer fashion weeks in Australia. AFW has seen many Australian designers come and go and we were sad to see many big Australian names in the late 90s failed to get an outfit in the collection, we all remember the dearly departed brands in Lisa Ho, Wayne Cooper and Morrisey Edmiston, and who could forget the year Ksubi sent rats down the runway? One of the notable names missing from the exhibition has to be Zimmermann and the way it has grown into such an amazing international business with flagship stores around the world, growing from strength to strength in business and design.

The exhibition tailed off with a room full of works by contemporary designers such as Ellery, Toni Maticevski and Dion Lee, before leading us into a dimly lit room where a 4 metre Swarovski crystal dress, commissioned by Lee was erected. Resembling a Christmas tree, it has us in awe simply thanks to the enormity of the structure and according to the NGV, serves as a signpost the future of Australian fashion.

“Within the commissioned piece I wanted to explore the idea of creating a design that extended beyond clothing,” Lee said in a release. “The work has been engineered to act as a projector with mechanics and internal lighting, and is an extension of the suspended Swarovski Crystal concepts that were explored on the Fall 16 runway presented at New York Fashion Week.”

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It was an interesting retrospective exhibition, though we feel focused a lot more on Melbourne designers than Australia as whole, but the city has produced some innovative and distinctive design talent over the years. It was great to see designs from the likes of Richard Nylon (we have loved his millinery creations since we first saw them backstage at a Melbourne Spring Fashion Week in our dresser days) though missed the work of his long time friend and collaborator Gwendolyn. It was great to see the odd runway pieces we remember seeing walk down the runway the first time around (the first Australian Fashion week we attention was back in 2006, though struggled in those early years to be recognised as a website/blog to get accreditation). We would have loved to see Romance Was Born’s Iced Vovo dress on display, along with a greater feature on the Prue Acton and Collette Dinnigan as the two were the first to show in New York and on-schedule at Paris Fashion Week respectively.

The exhibition has something for every Australian fashion fan, though many may leave wondering who some of the obscure designers were and wishing some of their favourite designers were feature beyond one bland design.

200 Years of Australian Fashion will be on display from 5 March – 31 July at NGV Australia at Federation Square, corner Russell and Flinders Streets. Entry fee is $15 for adults.