Costume reflects the changes and concerns of any society in any one place at any one time, its economics most often determining the development of those societies in question.
A lovely dress purchased from the La Petite fashion house in Melbourne designed by Pat Rodgers c1958 is made of silk, cotton, tulle with glass beads and plastic sequins.
It is in the collection of The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) who have been collecting fashion and textiles for more than one hundred and twenty years.
Today they have an outstanding international collection of incredible breadth, quality and craftsmanship.
The dress was one of more than 120 works by some 90 designers represented in a truly fabulous historical costume show 200 Years of Australian Fashion at NGV Australia, Federation Square, Melbourne that ended on July 31, 2016.
Many were gathered from their international collection to display alongside wondrous gowns from private collections and other institutional loans, especially the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences in Sydney.
Curators, designers, practitioners and academics have created a well thought out program throughout the exhibition, one that will actively engage audiences with design talks, curator’s perspectives, designer-led workshops, a discussion series and intimate behind the scenes: Fashion Collection sessions.
In Australia the era colonialism to modernity reflects how style evolved from the First Fleet to Federation, through the roaring 20’s and 30’s and war depressed 40’s to the heyday of fashion houses developed during the fabulous 50’s when French couturier Christian Dior was in his Salon at Paris developing a new look for a new age.
His look was taken up ‘down under’ with alacrity.
The brilliance and beauty of the display aesthetically to the eye and above all, the diversity and dynamism of the garments showcased. It was part of the cultural program developed in line with the always-popular Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival, which celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2016.
One of the loveliest evening dresses made in 1950 was made of silk.
Manufactured and retailed by Georges of Collins Street, Melbourne, its most famous department store and a favourite with multitudes of Australian woman for a very long time, including me.
Founded in 1880, Georges was the penultimate place for a dash of retail therapy by the mid 60’s when I was in my early twenties and I have to admit making a beeline for it first every time I came to Melbourne until it closed in 1995.
The fabulous 50’s were a stand alone golden age of department store shopping and so replicating a 1950s-shopping emporium as a tribute to the ‘Paris end’ of Collins Street within the exhibition is a savvy thing to do.
A French style salon complete with a sumptuous display of floor-length gowns and ornate chandeliers certainly set the mood.
At Melbourne boutiques such as Le Louvre, La Petite, Hall Ludlow and Beril Jents were only some of those high-end stores in Melbourne specialising in creations for an Australian market. La Louvre is still in business today at South Yarra.
La Petite provided special frocks for many of Melbourne society’s most famous women, with Pat Rogers designing this evening dress of silk organza, silk taffeta, ostrich features, cotton, glass bugle beads and diamantes c1959. It’s truly a knockout, and speaks the nuanced language of fashion always of concern to a burgeoning and diverse society as Melbourne.
At the time two cities in the world were influencing the aesthetic and cultural concerns of Melbourne’s style; New York and Paris, representing elegance and romance.
Australia’s fashionable style is very hard to define, especially during the past 30 years with our rapid increase in multiculturalism.
It is like a chameleon, always changing colour as an eternal form of human expression.
The first garment encountered was from Australia’s Culture in the Colonies period.
The simple muslin gown reflected the piety of a well-placed woman in Regency society in England at the time, or those of some means during the post revolutionary society in France.
It featured the Empire line, a fashion that highlighted a woman’s décolletage while covering up the rest of her body, which died out suddenly with the death of Napoleon Bonaparte.
This was when Australians were busy establishing towns, cities, infrastructure and industry all a priority.
In their fashionable concerns the busy wives of local dignitaries, who made up the ruling elite, were inspired by developments internationally.
This was also a period when free settlers, including professional men and merchants and their wives, became recognised as being at the apex of society in the antipodes, where the English and European class system was well in play and rising above one’s station frowned upon in certain quarters.
Letters to and from relatives contained magazine images and newspaper reports of the fashions. Fabrics being imported into Australia from China and India were given to dressmakers to interpret their client’s needs.
Welsh merchant David Jones (1793-1873) met an Australia businessman Charles Appleton from Hobart in Tasmania in London where he told him about a new style of store he had established in Sydney in 1825, selling a variety of goods.
David Jones subsequently established a partnership with Appleton, moving to live in Australia in 1835 with their Sydney store known as Appleton and Jones.
Although their relationship broke down, David Jones as it became known, still claims to be the oldest department store in the world trading under its original name
The success and rise of Department stores was a lot to do with the expansion and success of the industrial age in England and the discovery of Gold in Australia, especially in Victoria.
A young Queen Victoria was on the throne by the 1830’s when fashions changed triumphantly. While the décolletage remained a highlight for evening dresses, not during the day, now a small waist was accentuated with voluminous skirts, like the one from Bright and Hitchcock’s of Geelong.
This was during the era when mansion after mansion was springing up in major regional towns of Victoria as the gold rush expanded and across the burgeoning suburbs of Melbourne.
A very well to do society was now established living in houses with classical details, confirming their long term vision.
By now Melbourne was one of the richest cities in the world and also one of its most fashionable. Skirts grew wider and added a bustle during the last 50 years of the nineteenth century.
Miss Scott a Dressmaker from Brisbane made a splendid Afternoon dress in 1878 proving, that since their independence as Queensland in 1859, they were well and truly keeping up with the Jones’s.
Melbourne’s links to France through the Baudin expedition, when it was first known as Terre Napoleon, means that for many who lived here, fashion from Paris became and remained the most appealing.
When the department store Myer was established in 1900 its executives sought to give a lasting impression of the pulse of modern life in all its nuanced richness to its customers.
Very quickly they became Australia’s largest retailer.
They were catering to stylish men and women who wanted to not only reflect the spirit of their age, but also its human element with fashion seen as a ‘by-product of our ‘independence and impertinence’.
In England Bainbridge’s of Newcastle upon Tyne became the first Department store established in 1849 and Le Bon Marché, one of the best known Department stores in France was founded at Paris in 1852, offering ready to wear fashion.
This assisted Paris to become, during the second half of the nineteenth century, regarded as the most romantic city in the world.
French Impressionist painters came along and captured the fleeting beauty of a summer’s day and commented on the passing whims of the latest trends, also ably assisting Paris in its fashionable endeavours.
Between the two world wars of the twentieth century Australia kept up with the rest of the world in flapper fashion and by the late 40’s and early 50’s like so many other cities, as it regained its mojo it also required a change in fashion for a new and more ‘modern’ age.
After all the years of sadness and neglect of their looks Christian Dior in his salon in Paris inspired a whole new ‘look’ for ladies. And what a look it was!
Glamour plus, jewel like colours contrasting with the earthy tones of the Australian bush, blues, reds, mustard yellow and green made from silks, satins and beautiful brocades.
Costume is and always has been a footnote to culture. Today it has become impossible for us to make a distinction between the fashionable styles that will last, the new trends that will grow and the passing fancies of a season.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016