Australian history is frequently told through politics, native and colonial growth. However there is a much more subtle historical tale to be told in this country. Found sewn beneath the layers of clothing that has been worn throughout the years, we can see at a very human level, all the stages of our progression as a nation. This year, the National Gallery of Victoria has snip, zipped and sewn together an exhibition celebrating 200 years of Australian fashion. It seems fitting to introduce our 20th Melbourne Fashion Festival with this historical showcase of Australian fashion.
As guests of Emporium Melbourne at the opening event last night. The exhibition begins by introducing you to the demure detailing of the 1800s with the exquisite display of caged silhouettes and bustles. The scene is set with eloquent wallpaper and eye catching black and white film installations as we gasp at how tiny their frames were in the 1800s.
From here, we glide into the next room to receive a nostalgic introduction to the 1900s. The elegant and elaborate gowns and wedding dresses from this era, give us a beautiful snapshot of life in the 1900s. Many of the gowns hail from the renowned ‘Paris End’ of Collins St in Melbourne, which only enhances our Melbournian sense of pride. One such Collins St boutique from this century was Salon La Petite. Included in this collection was an extravagant 1950s blue ostrich feather ball gown. This stunning specimen was originally owned by successful singer and television presenter of her time, Annette Klooger. It was also photographed on model, Ann Chapman by Melbourne photographer, Athol Shmith. This black and white framed print towers over the room, sitting next to its real life counterpart.
Next stop, we welcome the mods as the mini skirt overthrows Melbourne’s respectable society. Model Jean Shrimpton’s escapade at Derby Day is cleverly told through a virtual typewriting projection as we discover the revelation of the mini dress in the 1960s. No stockings, hat or gloves with a dress five inches above the knee was considered to be mockery of the racing royalty societies. However, looking back, we can now see that Shrimpton played a big role in setting the tone for what Australian fashion is today.
Don’t be blinded by the spinning disco ball, you have just hit the era of big hair and flares, the 1970s! Sheer flower designs, flowing silhouettes and sharp monochromatic stripes feel oddly familiar with what we’ve seen in contemporary fashion. A quick dash passed the 70s “flower children” and we walk straight into the loud, multi-coloured, retro 80s. Puff sleeves, bright colour blocking and courageous garment construction are all screaming for our attention. The coloured disco floor panels and staged theatrics all add to the excitement and rebelliousness of this era.
From here, the exhibition takes a sudden change of tone. We are soothed with white light and minimal aesthetics, as we move into the 1990s. The crisp white walls and angular black scaffolding create a contemporary backdrop, allowing the historical pieces speak for themselves. The garments in this room boast astounding head to toe lace designs and draped gowns. They each appear to have a modern familiarity, as well as a strikingly obvious influence from past eras.
The minimal displays soon take us through the millennial era with some recognisable Australian designers. Household names such as Toni Maticevski, Ellery, Dion Lee and Alpha 60 have each contributed historical worthy designs to the National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition.
There must always be a show stopper at the finish line, which is exactly what Dion Lee has created. A four metre tall gown holds hundreds of Swarovski crystals suspended within perforated holes down the length of the dress. The crystals actualise an enormous kaleidoscopic light effect in the room as the gown rotates, projecting light patterns onto the curved wall behind.
This stunning exhibition has brought history to our doorsteps in a relatable, human way. Through a blend of vintage and virtual installations, we were taken on a journey through 200 years of Australian fashion and feel just a little bit more in tune with the heritage of our nation’s style and where it all started.