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1 May 20

200 Years of Australian Fashion


Rather than trying to capture 200 years of Australian fashion in one fell swoop, we asked a curator, a journalist, an historian, a novelist and a contemporary designer to share their perspectives.

Exhibition curator Paola Di Trocchio starts the journey

This is the first exhibition to celebrate more than 200 years 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 Australian designers, 200 Years of Australian Fashion considers what and who has defined Australian dress and the signatures of its designers. Australia’s fashion industry has been informed by its geography, resources, migration and a response to international trends. Our designers have responded to these conditions with innovation and ingenuity, humour and irony in dialogue with the wider world. The definition of an Australian designer used is broad: Australian designers can live, travel or come of age here. To be an Australian designer is to identify as Australian and enjoy a relationship and history with this country and its culture. Embedded in so many of the designers’ stories is a rise to excellence from unexpected beginnings as a refugee or migrant, or from a rural upbringing. As fashion writer Marion Hume once said,

‘At the heart of the fashion fairytale is the belief that its lead characters can come from anywhere’.

200 Years of Australian Fashion brings together around 125 outfits drawn from the National Gallery of Victoria, as well as key institutional and private loans, in a disrupted chronology which highlights key moments in and platforms for the dissemination of fashion. This broad sweep examines what Australian fashion has been and can be.

From Dior to Dinnigan
Janice Breen Burns, journalist

In 1946, barely a year after the Second World War ended, a Lancastrian modified bomber flew sixty juddering hours from Paris to Sydney with six fashion models on board and a cargo of tissue-packed crates of frocks from some of France’s leading ateliers.

When they disembarked, the young women were feted like goddesses. The press waxed lyrical about their beauty and, especially, their extraordinarily tiny waists. The Parisians had arrived; they were the height of fashion and a lesson for us all!

Backstage at a glamorous gala hosted by David Jones’s Sydney flagship store, the models were coiffed and dressed in couture by Patou, Lanvin, Balmain and Dior. The first of many French Fashion Parades and shows like it – this one bankrolled by the Australian Women’s Weekly – was underway.

This was a seminal moment in Australian fashion history, when fashion was very much an ‘incoming’ concept in this country: it would be twenty-five years before the seeds of a recognisably Australian aesthetic were sown and a joyous revolution in fashion begin. We learnt, we copied, we adapted with little Aussie quirks and touches, but essentially we were in thrall of the rest of the world in matters of fashion at that time.

Australian women with the means to follow fashion looked to European trends (via letters and newspapers and journeys ‘back home’). They patronised the French-styled salons in department stores such as Mark Foys, Georges, Myer and David Jones, and boutiques such as Germaine Rocher, Madame Pellier, La Petite and Le Louvre. They were eager customers for licenced replicas and modified copies of Parisian originals. Most tellingly, the success of Australian couturiers, designers and manufacturers in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s was measured by their fit with international fashion.


In 1946 it made perfect sense for France’s Ministry of Reconstruction to target Australian women when cranking up their efforts to restore Paris’s credentials as a world fashion leader after years of drab, rationed wartime clothing. In 1948, Christian Dior flew his entire New Look collection here. Its sculpted busts, deeply kinked waistlines and fat-blossomed skirts had altered the course of world fashion only a year before, and now the garments were here, on their first trip outside Paris. ‘Australians have a cleaner, brighter outlook’, Dior reasoned at the time, ‘(They) are more receptive to new ideas than the tired people of European countries’.

Today Paola Di Trocchio, curator of the National Gallery of Victoria’s 200 Years of Australian Fashion exhibition, agrees:

‘Australians have always been incredibly receptive to new ideas’, she says, ‘I think it’s because of a thirst and hunger to be involved and connected to the rest of the world’.

It was this spongelike quality that shaped Australian fashion until the early 1970s. Then, it faltered, switched focus. The 1970s were a rare decade, ripe for a fashion revolution. Gough Whitlam’s Labor government had broken Australia’s culture of conservatism; new voices (women, gays, ethnic minorities) were raucously demanding change; an excess of government funds were sloshing around the arts and creative industries; and a heady whiff of new possibilities was in the air.

‘There was such a joy around creativity’, says Di Trocchio. ‘Fashion was mixing with art, art was mixing with fashion, there were collaborations, multiple voices … a new generation of makers and designers were empowered.’

Among the freshest designers were Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, partners in Sydney boutique Flamingo Park since 1973. Their designs featuring gumleaf and opal motifs and colours inspired by outback sand and sunlight were exuberant, artful and instantly recognisable as Australian.

‘It was definitely an Australian aesthetic’, recalls June McCallum, editor of Vogue Australia at the time. McCallum had returned from London in 1976 and immediately steered the magazine – the ‘fashion bible’ – into the thick of the dynamic new culture personified by Flamingo Park and Bush Couture. ‘Jenny and Linda were designing covetable, fresh pieces, well produced and flamboyant, but there were many others too, very good Australian makers like Simona, and Trent Nathan.’

McCallum wanted to ‘knock Italian and French Vogues off women’s coffee tables’ once and for all with a uniquely Australian magazine, and to do that she needed uniquely Australian fashion. Clothes by Trent Nathan, Carla Zampatti, Adele Weiss, Country Road, Stuart Membery, Robert Burton, Rae Ganim and Jane Lamerton were shot under Aussie skies, at Aussie beaches, on Aussie streets, and presented as easy, elegant alternatives to European and US ready-to-wear.

If these designers were the new ‘milk’ of Australia’s fashion scene, the expanding vanguard of experimental avant-gardists, led by Kee and Jackson in Sydney and Jenny Bannister in Melbourne, were the ‘cream’. These were the iconoclasts clouding Australians’ obsession with Europe and the United States and proposing a different future for local fashion.

In 1982 radio DJ Julie Purvis and rock journalist Jillian Burt mustered a wild bunch of the most talented fashion enfants terrible for a series of nightclub extravaganzas they called Party Architecture. These events were not only a roaring success, but also crystallised the need for a more permanent unifying force in Australian fashion. As a result, the Fashion Design Council (FDC) was established in 1983 by a trinity of passionate Melburnians: jewellery artist Kate Durham, artist Robert Pearce and Arts/Law graduate Robert Buckingham. For a decade the FDC played fiery pimp and platform for some of Australia’s most precocious and original fashion talent. Its alumni, even now, is prestigious, including top Parisian designer Martin Grant, artist Gavin Brown, milliner Richard Nylon, veteran designer Fiona Scanlan, Christopher Graf, Peter Morrissey, Leona Edmiston, Kara Baker, Bannister and dozens of others.

By the late 1980s the commotion made by Australian fashion was loud enough to pique international curiosity. Trade missions were launched and, in London, an historic exhibition of Australian designers, organised by Australian Vogue was mounted at the Victoria and Albert Museum. McCallum recalls, ‘British Vogue was FURIOUS!’

For a moment, a future of international recognition and trade seemed possible, before the world slipped into recession and fashion itself slumped into a layered, monotone Japanese aesthetic that did not bode especially well for Australia’s joyful colourists and experimenters. In fact, the 1990s and 2000s resolved into Australian fashion’s ‘coming of age’ period. Australian Fashion Week established an international stage and place for serious business in 1996, and swim and streetwear brands cleverly cashed in on international clichéd perceptions about our lifestyle and culture. Today designers such as Collette Dinnigan (renowned as the first Australian invited to show in Paris), Martin Grant, Akira Isogawa, Kym Ellery, Toni Maticevski, Heidi Middleton and Sarah-Jane Clarke of Sass & Bide, Kit Willow Podgornik, Dion Lee and many others are respected players in world fashion.

It has taken seventy-odd years, but Australian fashion now has solidified its place in the world scene. While we may be still in thrall to Paris, still taking notes from international brands, it is not because that is all the fashion we have.

Miss Scott’s world of colonial elegance
Margaret Maynard, historian and academic

The well-off in colonial Australia were extremely stylish. Their clothes were finely made and they abided by rules of etiquette that would astonish us today. Yet it is surprising how few garments survive. Outfits worn by women (not men’s dress, of course) for events like weddings, theatres and balls were described in almost excruciating detail – colours, trims, fabrics – in contemporary newspapers. Enormous effort and skill was spent on devising elegant clothing. But where are the garments now? Even those that survive are often something of a mystery, and frequently we do not know who wore them.

Who, for instance, owned this gorgeous, princess-line gown of eau de Nil and gold– coloured shot silk of the late 1870s? A lady for certain, but was the gown for a special occasion? We’ll probably never know, yet this superb garment tells us a good deal about the social and commercial life of the time. Sadly, few contemporary garments for men survive against which to compare the gown.

All the colonies had a smart Government House set who defended their status from the upstart classes. ‘Keeping up’ meant managing intricate social rituals, including associating with the ‘right’ company and attending to detailed advice spelt out in etiquette books regarding different clothing for different occasions. The advice for aspirational women was to dress inconspicuously in public, avoiding ‘decided’ colours (although not all did so). If a ‘common’ person noticed the outfit, something was wrong.

We know Brisbane society dressmaker and milliner Miss Margaret Scott made this elegant and discrete gown from its waistband label. She or one of her staff part hand-sewed and part machined the gown, which was not uncommon. It is one of the first Australian garments known to bear a maker’s name, although a charming figured cream silk gown of 1877 labelled ‘Doak and Beattie’, two dressmakers who traded from Wynyard Square, Sydney, worn by Agnes Stokes for her wedding is probably earlier. The Scott gown has a coy, masculinised double-breasted front panel in mock naval style, trimmed with buttons down to the hem. Ruched skirt panels sweep to the back. The stiffened skirt has internal ties shaping the exterior look of the bustle. Its tiny pocket probably held an ornamental watch.

Scott ran a high-class business in Brisbane for approximately twenty years. She occupied fashionable Queen Street, and other addresses, and became the town’s premier stylist, making trousseaux and other event gowns. We know little of her clients, but a stylish gown such as this dispels the cliché that Brisbane was a fashion backwater. While fashionable women did turn for advice to Europe, Miss Scott, although stimulated by overseas fashion magazines, was admired for her own qualities, namely the finish to her dresses with their French taste. It was Scott and other costumiers working for Finney Isles and Co. store, as well as Reid and Brooks, who made almost all the elaborate gowns for a local Government House ball in 1880. Not one was imported.

Correct dress management meant deportment mattered, so the stiff baleen (whalebone) in the Scott bodice was important. The gown is tastefully subdued as etiquette required, yet it almost glistens as alternating coloured warps and weft threads pick up the light differently. In October 1884 a columnist in The Queenslander praised a gold and bronze coloured garment by Scott with ‘kilted’ skirt, the pleats unfolding to show only gold when walking. The writer also noted Scott’s ‘cool dresses’ of Indian muslin, ottoman gossamer and zephyr lawns, exclaiming they were ideal for the warm climate. These fabrics demolish another cliché that colonials always dressed in climatically unsuitable clothes.

Miss Scott’s garment is known as an ‘Afternoon’ gown, which is stylistically credible. Afternoon events were on the social calendar and Australians had a real love affair with tea at the time. There were two kinds of occasion, the 5 o’clock Afternoon tea for the aspiring, and ‘At homes’ for the gentry. Etiquette required wearing special dress for both.

This gown fits entirely with other fine Australian garments worn by elite ladies, although its subtle colour indicates it was particularly suited to afternoon wear. It is clearly dependent on European influences but at the same time there is a strong possibility contemporaries saw qualities in it not necessarily foreign, but Australian.

Costume as language
Rosalie Ham, novelist

Oscar de la Renta said that fashion is about dressing according to trend, while style is about being yourself. Either way, adorning yourself is about defining identity, meeting an occasion, and mood. Dressing characters in a story is the same – if you dress them at all, you do so to convey an impression to the reader, to define the character in a scene (or occasion), and to influence the setting and story. In Paula Fox’s novel The Widow’s Children (1976), Clara sits on her bed in her underwear before dressing. ‘She was aware that as a rule she dressed defensively. But she had made a perverse choice this evening. Laura would know the dress was expensive.’ We readers understand that Clara’s silk dress is a statement aimed at another character, Laura. The expensive dress is a ploy to create dramatic tension and therefore it’s a writerly technique to enhance meaning. Fox then writes that Clara felt ‘irresolute’ only when the silk ‘settled against her skin’. In context the silk conjures a feeling for readers – cold, fragile, luxurious, ostentatious. This feeling of silk, and the word irresolute, is language that helps to convey Clara’s fragile resolve. The costume further suggests the relationship between Laura and Clara, and their psyches, and when Clara dons a ‘shabby and soiled’ raincoat to ‘repudiate’ the silk dress, the raincoat becomes a symbol of Clara’s submerged feelings about Laura, and herself.

Costume can denigrate and destroy, as in Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (2015), and in Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black (1993) necessity rules what the characters wear, rather than a sense of self. Uniforms reflect the setting and define a collection of characters. The black dresses in St John’s story unite the group, making them indistinct at the same time as emphasising their dramatic situation. Description in this story therefore needs to focus more on the characters’ private lives – what they read, say and do provides further insight. But St John defines one character, Lisa, who, ‘gazing her fill’ at a particular frock realises that it can ‘answer beyond these necessary attributes to one’s deepest notions of oneself’. The dramatisation of Lisa’s sense of vanity conveys the idea that costume can transform and elevate.

In my novel The Dressmaker (2000), costume is a primary language, a literary device and a vehicle to convey themes through Tilly Dunnage and her customers. Tilly’s sewing skills allow her to create couture that disguises the physical flaws of the characters. This in turn provokes their sense of vanity and is a catalyst for the dramatisation of their situation, thus propelling their devastating journey through the story. The sumptuous costumes and the desolate, dun-coloured setting are juxtaposed to provoke themes of envy, bigotry and hypocrisy, and in the end the women are ruined … but not until readers have enjoyed the vicarious and transformative pleasure of beautiful frocks. Descriptions of the lush and fantastical costumes engage readers by eliciting emotional responses.

On the dusty, low scrub plains of my childhood, necessity determined costume rather than a sense style for the self. But my childhood observations also told me there was a natural urge to be remarkable, to meet an occasion and a mood, and this was answered through fashion. Society thrives in small communities, people generate events, and in the same way fashions at a sports award night or red carpet occasion in a city can prompt alarm, costume can cause the odd wince at rural occasions. Similarly, there is always beauty, sophisticated style and fashionable creations, awe and envy, present in both settings. It’s a remarkable thing to look across a dusty racecourse and see amid the peak caps, mohawks, tattoos, sun frocks, shorts and singlets, fashionable men and women wearing bespoke ensembles, designer outfits or couture picked up at end-of-season sales. Wherever the setting, those who care to meet the occasion present in a way that compliments the scene. The tableau comes alive with dramatic tones, finessed cut and drape, and the flow of silk. The costumes work to make the characters are a little more poised, united in their enjoyment of each other, appearing fine and feeling splendid.

Meet the artist: Kym Ellery, fashion designer

Kym Ellery is one of a select few Australian designers, along with Collette Dinnigan, Martin Grant and Strateas Carlucci, ever to be invited to show in Paris on its official schedule. Paola Di Trocchio discovers what makes the Western Australian a standout designer, from her rich work history to the personal elements in her clothes.

Paola Di Trocchio: Can you tell us about the process of being invited to show in Paris?

Kym Ellery: I’ve been taking the collection to Paris for about three years now, and in that time have focused on growing the global business which gained attention from the powers that be. We were invited to show the collection on the official off-schedule for newcomers. We were then invited by the Chamber to be a part of the official calendar. It has definitely been a highlight, though it’s a little surreal at times – a huge honour.

PDT: Congratulations and well-deserved. You have mentioned the early influence of the Collette Dinnigan documentary The Lacemaker: An Australian in Paris (1997) . Who else has influenced you?

KE: That documentary was my first insight into what it meant to be a fashion designer. I knew that I liked making clothes, sewing and pattern-making, as well as painting and printmaking, and that film made me feel like I too could achieve something. Fashion wasn’t reserved for the rich or connected. I too could follow my dream and aspire to something greater. My family was also very supportive. My mother has been a great influence as someone who embodies the definition of a powerful, strong woman. She’s an incredible force, teacher, mentor and inspiration and a ‘Yes’ person. Without her I don’t think I ever would have felt like I could be who I wanted to be. I think I took it for granted a little that I had such a supportive family from the creative industry. I know it’s really hard for some other people to get that support, so I think I’ve been blessed in that regard.

PDT: Is there an early encounter with art that you would say shaped your engagement with creativity?

KE: It’s always been there. My mother was an artist and also did her Bachelor of Arts and Diploma of Education when I was eight or nine years old. Even before that she was pursuing art as a hobby and was part of an art society. I grew up in the country and every social engagement was in an art space. Either an exhibition opening or in the art studio with her artist friends, and for play dates my girlfriend and I would make art together. It was part of my every day existence from a young age. At some point my mum taught me how to sew and I started to get creative with what I was making on the sewing machine.

PDT: You then when to TAFE, to London College of Fashion over a summer, and you worked at RUSSH magazine – all quite different learning platforms. Can you describe what each offered you?

KE: When I graduated from high school I enrolled in architecture, but then chose to go to fashion college for a year in Perth instead. I took a gap year and travelled, and after that got a job at RUSSH while also working in Scanlan Theodore. That was also a really great place to learn about the commerce side of fashion and retail. Whilst at RUSSH my mother was living in the United Kingdom teaching and having a writer’s retreat. I went to do the summer school at Central Saint Martins in London. Mum and I talked about whether I should apply for the full course, but then I was offered a full-time job at RUSSH. As I was quite young I thought it might be good to take some time to get to know the industry. At RUSSH I started out answering the phone and doing subscriptions. Eventually I assisted the editor and after that worked in the fashion team with main-book fashion shoots, styling and with freelance clients. Over the four years I was at the magazine I started to develop a language and style of what my idea of fashion was. I saw a gap in the market where I could create clothing for women who were like me.

PDT: You have come to be known for your flared forms. How did you come to develop your signature silhouette?

KE: I put flared sleeves in my first collection then flared pants in my second collection. Thinking back, it was the idea of that girl who is from another time being brought into our time in a new clean, more modern and classic way.

PDT: How would you describe your creative process?

KE: I do a lot of research. I think about the woman and look for who she is and what she is wearing. I also look at artists or films and women from another time that I find particularly alluring or powerful, and I build mood boards which then flow into the fabric selection. I find it really enjoyable to see how it evolves. From the sketches we then start draping and toiling and working with a patternmaker to model it. The final stage is to work on the looks and imagery to communicate that woman and her energy. It’s always really important to me. I fall in love with the collection at that point.

PDT: So the imagery helps bring it all together?

KE: Yeah, definitely, it’s a really key point and your tool of communication. The garments pass through many hands. I think people have no idea how many hands actually touch each garment from the fibre through to the end stage. That final image of those garments have been made with lots of love and taken a lot of time to create.

PDT: How does it feel to be an Australian designer in a global context?

KE: I think people are intrigued by Australia. We have that allure of being a little bit different, a little bit mysterious. It also brings challenges because of the perception that because you live a long way away you might not be as reliable or prompt. But we’ve managed to overcome that and really just sing out about how Australia is a great country and that it’s not stereotyped.

PDT: As you know, we acquired five outfits from your recent collections for the NGV. Can you elaborate on the making of some of these?

KE: The Alabama vest sleeveless vest dress, 2015, pre-fall collection, has buttons made by my mother. She’ll be over the moon to know that the buttons she has made are in your collection. All the Alabamas are more artful pieces, as well as quite personal because I feel there’s a little part of my childhood and my soul in those pieces. They remind me of that journey I was talking about before of how I spent time growing up. The Protégé wide sleeve top , Vienna sleeveless shirt and Radical nude boot leg pant, both 2015, autumn-winter collection, which will be featured in the 200 Years of Australian Fashion exhibition are also favourites of mine. The fabric is matt cotton rib and has been bonded so it has a memory and a shape that holds the silhouette that we’re communicating. It’s a really exciting edit of pieces and representation of what we do.

This was originally commissioned for and published in the March–April issue of NGV Magazine (formerly Gallery magazine).

Authors: NGV Exhibition Curator Paola Di Trocchio, Journalist Janice Breen Burns, Historian and Academic Margaret Maynard, Novelist Rosalie Ham, Fashion Designer Kym Ellery

Supported by Principal Partner Macquarie Group.