The Krystyna Campbell-Pretty Fashion Gift, now showing until July 14, 2019 at NGV International, Victoria, is cleverly displayed throughout the second-floor historical high ceiling ‘grand gallery’ sequence, and the adjacent contemporary galleries.
The fabulous costumes on display are all made of stunning textiles. They have been arranged stylishly among fine examples of art and design (paintings, furniture, ceramics, etc) from the age of modernism. Entry is FREE.
Tony Ellwood AM, Director, NGV said, “Krystyna Campbell-Pretty’s support of the Fashion and Textiles Collection is unprecedented” he said.
The majority have been produced by only a handful of designers, since the late nineteenth century in salons lining the boulevards of Paris, highly skilled workers constructed stunning haute couture garments for a single customer completely by hand.
A rare suite of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s iconic little black dresses on show are entirely my cup of tea and so representative of the women of Victoria.
They feature spectacularly among some 150+ garments on show, against a backdrop of global fine art, while representing many international fashion houses.
There was one black number on its own however, which I coveted the most, a day dress; beautiful yet entirely practical!
Garments from the fashion houses of Dior, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, Christian Lacroix, Alexander McQueen, Madame Grès and Charles Frederick Worth (1826-1895) the London born, Parisian based designer considered the ‘Father of Haute Couture’, are included.
Worth set a new standard of high excellence in clothing manufacture, during an age when mass machine production was fast becoming a reality via the Industrial Revolution.
He established in 1858, the first haute couture house in Paris for luxury fashion.
Worth wanting to be seen by his peers and society at large as an ‘artist’, not ‘merely’ a dressmaker; believing the distinction would bring only the creme de la creme of society to his door and aid his commercial success.
He was right and his timing perfect, because he was in the forefront of fashion in a new era of prosperity under the rule of the ‘Second Empire’ in France. He had also gained the patronage of the fashionable empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III of France, ensuring all the ladies who wanted to mix within the high eschelons of society, would follow his lead.
The first thing you notice among the examples of his work on display at the NGV is the size of the ladies who once inhabited his costumes. Petite plus. There is one work particularly, which welcomes you to the beginning of the display. The garment is so tiny in form, its owner must have been in herself a unique individual; her waist size would have only spanned a pair of man’s hands – true envy territory.
Setting the haute couture costume scene made for personal adornment, which makes up Mrs Campbell Pretty’s philanthropic fashion gift, in the context of the age of its evolution also benefits the onlooker.
Guys and girls this is a show you can see together, something for everyone. There is wonderful opportunity to learn about fine art, design and the decorative arts as you progress.
Fashion is a forever changing and eternal form of human expression and the threads of our society have a fascinating story to tell in the context of their own time. To my mind its Great Night in the Museum territory, you can almost hear the models talking to the subjects of the stunning array of European paintings.
Two dresses whose silhouette reminds us of the pannier style worn by French ladies at the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, are made of fine lace, which has been embellished with ribbon work flowers.
Produced by a boutique on the Rue de la Paix by sisters Sylvie Montegut and Baronne Jeanne d’Etreillis, the black lace dress in particular, is very fine and was attracting a great deal of attention on my second visit to examine its detail.
Mrs Campbell-Pretty’s generous gesture certainly helps document the great societal and political change, which really began to happen during the years following the French Revolution in France, in a very special way.
All those talented men and women working to produced clothes by hand sewing for aristocratic women and men during the late eighteenth century, were suddenly forced virtually overnight to embrace a new future and livelihood.
The societal and political change required affect the attitudes and philosophies, fashions and passions of the people at large, who were seeking freedoms based on the idea all men and women despite culture, creed or doctrine, are meant to be equal.
As the elaborate lace and embroidered embellished garments of the elite in society fell from favour, they were quickly replaced by garments, which appeared a great deal more austere both visually and in conception. They were nevertheless, still made of expensive textiles, and at that point, still made by hand.
Being able to stand up close and personal to the garments in order to study the weaving, the extent of their brilliant hand craftsmanship associated with the decoration, is a real privilege.
Traditions associated with weaving textiles had been firmly established in both east and west by the eleventh century, and for centuries after were a great symbol of status and influence.
Trade textiles blended traditional designs, skills, and the aesthetic tastes of all the cultures that produced them. This resulted in fabrics intrinsically beautiful and historically fascinating.
One of the first things you notice in the first room are those garments made with lace, which by the end of the nineteenth century and the wealth of the Industrial age, was well back in fashion.
Lace had again become a high art form in the provinces of France and Belgium, with Brussels Lace in particular, highly sought after. Add to its surface the art of embroidery, which features on some of the most fantastic frocks in this display, and you have a miraculous result.
Embroidery is defined as an art and consists of enriching a flat foundation by working into it with a needle, coloured silks, gold or silver thread and in one garment, another glorious extraneous material; Chenille.
Today, a legally protected fashion term, the fate of haute couture is in the hands of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, situated on the Faubourg St. Honoré. It has evolved from another institution Chambre syndicale de la haute couture Parisienne, created in 1868.
Its purpose initially was to ensure designers earned the right to call themselves a couture house. However, with major political issues back on the world stage by the turn of the twentieth century, it would not be until 1945 following two world wars, when the specifications for being able to be a haute couture house would finally be set down in writing. The rules included private clients attending a certain number of fittings, the atelier having at least 20 people on staff and, the designer being able to present their collection to an open press forum each season. Christian Dior (1905 -1957 helped the rise of haute couture in the twentieth century with his ‘New Look’, first shown in 1947.
Haute Couture designers today are not just confined to Parisian streets, but are also emerging in other countries around the world, as they seek to expand and re-assess the original boundaries set by the French, offering a new flexibility.
British designer, couturier and fashion visionary Alexander McQueen (1969-2010), designer to Royalty and Celebrities as well as women everywhere, helped change the game. He said ‘Give me time and I’ll give you a revolution.
The world of unique clothes known as haute couture however, for the majority remains a dream, a fantasy. This fact was highlighted by designer Karl Lagerfield (1933-2019), who in 2016, staged the fashion label Fendi’s autumn-winter couture showing at the Trevi Fountain in Rome.
Models showcasing Fendi’s collection, found they were able to providing an illusion of ‘walking on water’, reflecting perhaps haute couture fashion really does belong now in the world of Legends and Fairytales (title of the show).
Krystyna Campbell-Pretty said of her fabulous display, ‘I hope audiences enjoy this collection, which now belongs to all Victorians and to all Australians,’ she said.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2019