Fashionable attire is a footnote to culture and a changing and eternal form of human expression. It dictates and reflects the changes and concerns of a society in any one place at any one time.
Since economics most often determine the development of the societies in question, major art and design institutions cannot neglect its study, as it is an integral aspect of the evolution of art, design and style.
Among a small selection of glorious haute couture costume on display at the National Gallery of Victoria recently for an important announcement, was a selection of very rare 1920’s-era gowns, gloriously draped Grecian-style sheaths by Parisian designer Madame Grès (1903-1993) who said “For a dress to survive from one era to the next, it must be marked with an extreme purity.”
Madame Grès renowned for having a Midas touch, turned ordinary textiles into glorious examples of Greek sculpture, her couture fashion house in Paris between the wars labelled ‘the most intellectual place in Europe to buy clothes’.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle understood the best and happiest life for any individual, was when the State revealed the value of new objects of desire and educated its citizens to appreciate them. It was all about giving each individual increased opportunity for self-development and a greater capacity for the enjoyment of life
Aristotle believed in a democracy good character was an indispensable condition and that the chief determinant of happiness in itself, should be a goal for all human doing.
He talked specifically about benefaction, when a good man does many things for the sake of his friends, his country and, the greater good.
A fine example of giving without expected reward, except perhaps for the broad smiles on other people’s faces, took place at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) on February 9, 2016 when Director Tony Ellwood announced the largest acquisition of French haute couture in the NGV’s history and one of the world’s most ‘sought after fashion collections’.
Melbourne-based philanthropist, lover of the arts and a champion of fashionable attire, Krystyna Campbell-Pretty donated $1.4 million dollars of funds to secure the collection in memory of her husband Harold Campbell-Pretty (1943-2014).
Krystyna Campbell-Pretty related how her husband Harold Campbell-Pretty had grown up with a love of clothes and couture, influenced by the many talented amateur seamstresses in his large extended household.
He not only loved beautiful clothes Krystyna told us, but also understood his wife’s view that ‘fashion is multi-dimensional’.
Krystana believes that fashion encompasses design, artistic and construction skills of the highest level, social history, society’s values and attitudes to the roles of both sexes’.
It is a fitting tribute, The Dominique Sirop Collection of Costume represents society’s fashionable concerns 1800 – 2003, the majority falling within the period 1890-1960.
It includes some eleven (11) gowns by the renowned Christian Dior, including one couture number from his first collection, twelve (12) works by Coco Chanel, eight (8) works by Jeanne Lanvin, eleven (11) works by Madeleine Vionnet, and above all, three (3) works by the man considered the ‘father of haute couture’ English born Paris based designer Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895) who dominated Parisian fashion during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
There are 130 superb items, plus an extensive range of rare and unique archival material integral to the purchase.
These are in the form of rare workbooks, design drawings, early magazines, including Gazette du Bon Ton (1912-1925), Harper’s Bazaar (1909-1966) L’Officiel to name a few, as well as photographs by designers Yves Saint Laurent and Madame Grés.
Mrs Krystyna Campbell-Pretty enjoyed a long career working alongside her husband.
They focused on providing opportunities in particular, for disadvantaged children, wanting to help them to reach their potential through the transformative power of the visual and performance arts.
Dominique Sirop commented ‘I never imagined when I did this research that I would meet a woman like Krystyna with the same sensibility and understanding of fashion, and for me this is a gift from god.’ said Dominique.
Flying to Paris to inspect the collection with Katie Somerville, NGV Senior Curator of Fashion and Textiles was also transformative for Krystyna Campbell-Pretty.
She soon realised that here was the opportunity she had been seeking to honour her husband by granting his long-standing wish to give a gift of something very special to the NGV before he died.
When viewing one of the Worth gowns on display at the NGV you could not fail to realise just how small nineteenth century society ladies were.
The span of the waistline could be easily encompassed with my two hands, which are not at all large by any standards.
Patronised by leading actresses and singers, such as Lillie Langtry, Nellie Melba, Sarah Bernhardt and Jenny Lind, Worth became enormously popular with wealthy American and European patrons.
He used lavish fabrics and glorious trimmings and his attention to detail became legendary.
The glorious attention to detail on all the costumes was a joy, one Parisian collector and couturier Dominique Sirop experienced at a young age.
His mother was a mannequin for the Paris couture house Paquin.
Aged seventeen he began an apprenticeship at Yves Saint Laurent before graduating to become an assistant designer at Givenchy, where clients included the great actress Audrey Hepburn.
When working as a designer for Hanae Mori he researched and wrote two books A Historical Overview of the House of Paquin (1989) and Jacqueline Delubac (1994) and museum curators began to seek him out.
Sirop opened his own couture house in 1996, and less than a year later he was admitted to the exclusive Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne.
Having found a new home for his fashion collection and archive, he is now focussing on philanthropic activities.
The collection marks the NGV’s first representation of highly desirable and influential French couture designers such as Schiaparelli, Doucet, Drecoll, Félix, Jacques Griffe, Jacques Heim, Maggy Rouff and Paul Poiret.
Eighty-two of the works are labelled couture garments. A further 38 are attributed to designers with significant supporting documentation.
Most of the works have been collected from auction houses and specialist dealers in the US, France and London between 1989 and 2014.
What a pleasure it was to be there for this splendid announcement, and to also view a fraction of the archive.
Melbourne people and the city’s visitors are in for a great treat when the collection finally goes on show at the NGV International early in 2018, in what must be my favourite trio of galleries in the building.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016