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The Australian Made: 100 Years of Fashion exhibition at the Ian Potter Centre, NGV is a tribute to Australia's fashion history, featuring pieces from NGV's fashion and textiles collection from the 1850s to 1950s. "The idea for the exhibition grew out of researching the earlier part of the Australian fashion collection, namely surveying the 19th century dresses in the collection," explains curator Laura Jocic.
Australia's fashion journey over the last century would have been vastly different if gold hadn't been discovered during the 1850s. The Australian Gold Rush prompted a population swell with an influx of migrants and their disposable income (once they struck gold). As a result, fashion flourished and there was an overwhelming demand for dressmakers and tailors to cater for this new fashionable society with cash to splash.
In a newly settled land comprising of people from different countries and unknown backgrounds, clothing was instrumental in communicating status, position and wealth during Australia's early days.
Dressmakers such as Mrs Eeles (Melbourne) and Miss Scott (Brisbane) played an important role in the development of Australian fashion during the 1800s. Sadly, says Jocic, "there are significant designers and dressmakers who we know were influential and ran their salons for many years, but not much is known about them." Although the story of these designers and dressmakers may have dimmed over decades, their skill and creativity will live on through their garments.
Despite the distance, Australian fashion was still influenced by European fashions throughout this period, "with a particular emphasis on Parisian fashions for women's wear," says Jocic. However, there is evidence that fashion was altered to overcome the harsh Australian climate and other differences from Europe. "It's a very subtle thing, but it does appear that from early on colonial settlers did adapt and tailor their clothes to local circumstances and requirements and I do think that the type of fabrics that were suitable for different climates were taken into account," says Jocic.
In addition to the Gold Rush, other events such as WWI and WWII as well as immigration helped to shape the course of Australian fashion. Jocic explains that "the local fashion industry over the years has been shaped by those who came to Australia with particular skills, such as tailoring and dressmaking and began businesses here." Part of this migrant influx was the result of WWII, which "brought skilled workers and designers. WWII restrictions on the importation of clothing are understood to have spurred on local design talent," says Jocic.
Key pieces in the collection include a dress from c. 1855 (the earliest in the collection) "which is totally hand stitched and is in amazingly good condition," says Jocic. This piece was worn by Anne Lavinia Grice in Melbourne during the 1850s. Miss Scott's Afternoon dress c. 1878 is also "a wonderfully constructed piece which, although very feminine with its flounces and bows, also plays with tailoring and military references in its double-breasted buttoning down the front and epaulette-like tabs at the back." The beauty of many garments in the exhibition lies in the skilful fabric manipulation with pleating, ruching and tucking to create different levels of drape and texture. In addition to the garments and accessories included in the exhibition, there are also paintings and photographs highlighting the way these pieces would have been worn.
Australian Made is a celebration of the talented founders of Australian fashion, giving "us an idea of how creative and innovative many of these designers and dressmakers were, with a real feel for current styles and an eye for cut, drape and finish," says Jocic.