We've all heard the saying "clothes maketh the man" and commentators on the topic tend to confirm what we've probably known for years - what we wear matters. In her best-selling book, "You Are What You Wear", Dr Jennifer Baumgartner says, "Your clothes reveal what is really going on internally. Your thoughts and feelings are laid bare in the closet – you just have to look for them." I shudder to think what my closet says about me.
Whether you're a serious follower of fashion or not, one can't deny that clothes have had a significant influence on our views of people and events. We don't have to think too hard to recall some of the more memorable "what she wore" moments that have made their way into our history books. Remember the dress Diana wore on the evening Charles admitted to committing adultery, aptly named the "revenge dress"? What about the safety pin dress Liz Hurley wore to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral, subsequently modelled by that amazing doyenne of contemporary fashion, Marge Simpson? Then there was Marilyn Monroe's billowing white pleated skirt over the subway grate, Madonna's cone bra, and the list goes on. Australian costume designer, Lizzy Gardiner, is best known for her American Express gold card dress which she wore to collect her Academy Award for her work on The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The story behind that dress is a classic. To some, they're only dresses. To others, they are defining moments.
And capturing some such defining moments in Australian fashion history is what you'll discover at the Clothes Encounters exhibition currently on at the Powerhouse Museum.
When Sonia met the President. When Jill met Diana. When Irene Met Elvis.
The exhibition features an amazing collection of clothes with fascinating stories about the designers and the people who wore them. It celebrates a diverse range of Australians, from different eras and walks of life, and highlights the significant political, creative and social encounters in their lives. Some readers may remember "that dress" Sonia McMahon wore in 1971 when she accompanied her husband, Prime Minister William McMahon to meet President Nixon at the White House. The dress, on display at the exhibition, received more public commentary than other important pressing political events occurring that day! "It certainly made an impact", Lady McMahon later remarked. "Suddenly the world knew where Australia was."
Jill Wran, wife of the NSW Premier Neville Wran, had the nerve-wracking task of deciding what to wear when she met Princess Diana and Prince Charles during their first visit to Sydney in 1983. The two outfits on display at the exhibition seem conservative compared to the more extravagant gowns we see on the red carpet for similar events today. Although it was expected she'd accompany the Premier to official events, she wasn't provided with a clothing allowance and recalls spending much of her own income on dressing for state functions, saying that those years cost her a fortune.
And what would you wear to meet Elvis? Sydney model Irene Austin was 17 when she and her husband, Australian disc jockey Ward 'Pally' Austin, met Elvis Presley in Los Angeles in 1968. When the meeting was being set up, she was wearing a kangaroo skin mini-skirt and had to do "little sideways bobs" so she didn't show her knickers when she sat down!
The exhibition includes some beautiful garments designed and crafted for the Sydney Mardi Gras by the much lauded and awarded Ron Muncaster. Capturing the eye is also a bright collection of dresses designed by the Australian label, Romance Was Born, the fabrics being inspired by the Marvel superheroes comic books together with stunning garments hand-crafted by Australian designer, Beril Jents, who also designed for visiting international celebrities such as Eartha Kit, Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh. These are just some of the beautiful items of clothing being exhibited.
Finally, not wanting to ignore Down Under, visitors should ensure they don't miss the fetching pair of patriotic undies featured in one of the exhibits. If you want to know who wore them and why, you'll have to go to the exhibition and find out for yourself.