Costume and dress have been collected by museums—from the most significant institutions with collections of royal garments, to small and specialised institutions with collections of lace or domestic dress—for centuries, but until the last quarter of the 20th century such objects were rarely displayed for the public to see. As items of ‘women’s work’, dress and textiles were generally not valued within the hierarchy of institutions as worthy of ‘serious’ attention. Due to the foundational research and hard work of dedicated historians and curators, as well as a shift in public tastes, this attitude has changed dramatically in recent decades. Full-scale museum exhibitions of fashion—its themes, designers, social impact and aesthetics—have been growing in popularity since their inception in the United Kingdom and United States in the 1970s. The fashion exhibition is now a record-breaking mainstay of art gallery and museum programming globally.
Iconic fashion world figures Cecil Beaton and Diana Vreeland are acknowledged as the instigators of the contemporary fashion exhibition. Beaton was the first, curating Fashion: An anthology by Cecil Beaton, for the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1971. Shortly thereafter in 1973, notorious fashion editor Diana Vreeland was appointed a ‘Special Consultant’ to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During her fifteen years in this role she curated around a dozen groundbreaking exhibitions that set the tone for what a fashion exhibition is, how it looks, and who and what is worthy of being granted museum space. The work of Beaton and Vreeland has ushered in a new era of fashion exhibitions that has impacted museums worldwide, even in Queensland.
In the late 19th century and in to the first half of the 20th century, the words ‘fashion exhibition’ had a different meaning; referring to the staged presentation of new fashion collections in centres like London and Paris. International Exhibitions and World’s Fairs also held ‘fashion exhibitions’, with clothing by leading designers, department stores, and boutiques shown on mannequins in exquisite groupings that recalled elaborate window displays so popular in this era. These displays act as direct precedents for the contemporary museum fashion exhibition. In Queensland, such displays could be found at Brisbane’s Royal Show, now known as the ‘Ekka.’ In the 1870s, the show began as the ‘National Agricultural and Industrial Association Intercolonial Exhibition’.
A surviving photograph of this exhibition from 1877 shows a hall full of large glass and timber display cases featuring a variety of decorative and practical objects. In the centre of the image is a cabinet with signage from Brisbane department store Finney Isles & Co., inside are arrangements of their finest gowns and millinery. Such early incidents reveal how the visual tactics of fashion displays have remained largely unchanged for well over a century. Department stores were leaders of such fashion display methods, and also frequently dabbled in art exhibitions, too. Finney’s of Brisbane had an art gallery in the mid-twentieth century, while Brisbane’s David Jones department store had its ‘Space on Five’; a space it sometimes used to hold art and fashion shows in the 1980s and 1990s1.
In Queensland the museological display of fashion did not occur until the 1980s, and despite a boom in fashion exhibitions since the late 2000s, the state does not have a major institution or collection dedicated to dress and fashion. The Queensland Museum holds a locally significant though not extensive collection, featuring the work of pioneering designers Janet Walker and Gwen Gillam. Smaller museums and galleries have also managed to build important collections, including Miegunyah House Museum (home to the Queensland Women’s Historical Association and an impressive array of garments dating from the 1700s); the Templin Museum (an historical village that features a sizeable clothing and textiles collection); and the Gold Coast and Hinterland Historical Society (housing items relating to the history of the Gold Coast, including a large number of Paula Stafford garments). These institutions have displayed their collections in small exhibitions for many years, and museums such as Miegunyah have increasingly paid attention to curating shows of their fashion collections, to public acclaim. Other public and private collections exist2; however, the lack of a centralised collection or dedicated exhibition space for fashion has meant that many of the exhibitions (though not all) held in Queensland have come from interstate and overseas institutions. The following loose chronology is a combination of both home-grown and imported Queensland fashion exhibitions.
In 1986 the first exhibition of fashion was held at the University of Queensland Art Museum. Dressed to Kill, 1935-1950: The Impact of WWII on Queensland Women’s Dress was the result of considerable work undertaken by leading dress historian Margaret Maynard, and her first honours student in the field of dress history, Sandi Clarke, who curated the exhibition. Dressed to Kill was ambitious, featuring over 80 locally sourced garments representing Queensland women’s wartime wardrobes. No photographs of this exhibition remain, but its small catalogue attests to its high quality, attention to detail, and its important contribution to the field of dress studies and curation.
Despite the success and groundwork laid by Dressed to Kill, it was over a decade before another museum fashion exhibition was held in Queensland. Again instigated by one of the state’s leading fashion historians—Bonnie English of Griffith University—Tokyo Vogue was held at the Brisbane City Gallery in 1999 (now the Museum of Brisbane). Japanese fashion was a major research area for English, and she curated subsequent exhibitions interstate on the topic, as well as publishing widely in this area. Tokyo Vogue saw the first international fashion designers’ works featured in a Queensland art gallery setting, and compared Japanese heavyweights such as Yamamoto, Miyake, and Kawakubo with Australians such as Easton Pearson and Linda Jackson.
Four years later, in 2003, the QUT Art Museum hosted Architects of Glamour + Masters of Style: Excerpts from a Century of Fashion Photography curated by Robyn Daw. The exhibition showcased leading fashion photographers, including Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, and Edward Steichen, alongside a handful of garments by Balenciaga, Dessès, Dior, and Courrèges. At the same time, Brisbane hosted its first international fashion conference, organised by Margaret Maynard, called Making an Appearance, with a suite of associated events. These included a design project called eCHO, which partnered QUT fashion design students and leading Australian fashion designers with a collection of deaccessioned National Trust garments. The resulting pieces were briefly exhibited in a live event as part of Making an Appearance.
After another drought lasting several years, 2009 was a boom year for fashion exhibitions in Brisbane, with five museum and gallery shows of various sizes. The most significant were In Fashion: Dressing Up Brisbane, curated by Michael Marendy for the Museum of Brisbane, and Easton Pearson, curated by Miranda Wallace and assisted by Francis E. Parker, at the Gallery of Modern Art. In Fashion was the first large-scale local fashion exhibition that brought together numerous private and public collections of fashion to tell the story of how Brisbane women have dressed since the late 19th century. Similarly significant and widely attended, Easton Pearson was the first retrospective of a local contemporary design house in the state’s most prominent arts institution. 2009 also saw an exhibition of recent work by Katie Pye at Artisan; the state’s leading craft and design gallery.
I began a PhD at the Queensland University of Technology in 2009 to develop my curatorial practice and examine the history of fashion curation inside and outside the museum. The 5 fashion exhibitions that I curated as part of this project contributed to the growing tally of Queensland fashion exhibitions between 2009 and 2011. The first coincided with an exhibition of Australian Modernism, Modern Times, hosted by the State Library of Queensland. It was an exhibition, drawn from the Jean Brown Archive3, of approximately 20 handbags from the modern period. I also searched the rich photographic collection of the State Library to find complementary fashion photographs of Queensland women. In a second fashion exhibition in 2009 I collaborated with local dressmaker and designer Paula Dunlop to present a show of her recent work for the QUT Art Museum, titled wearer/maker/wearer; the first of three shows I would curate for them during my doctoral study4.
The following year, 2010, saw the arrival of the first major international fashion exhibition in the state. The Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) staged Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones, originally held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. This show proved exceptionally popular and in 2011 the Gallery of Modern Art, QAG’s sister institution, showed Valentino, Retrospective: Past/Present/Future, an exhibition from Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Held at roughly the same time, Dreaming of Chanel was the largest and final exhibition I curated for the QUT Art Museum, drawn exclusively from the Darnell Collection; Australia’s largest private antique and vintage clothing collection.
Other noteworthy exhibitions since this time have included: Flash Women, the first exhibition of Indigenous Queensland fashion, held at the State Library of Queensland in 2012; Gwen Gillam, Dressed by the Best, an exhibition at the Queensland Museum in 2012/13, curated by Michael Marendy; and A Sense of Ocassion: 50 Years of Party Dresses, an exhibition of glamorous garments from the Darnell Collection held at the Rockhampton Art Gallery in 2012 which broke the gallery’s attendance record5.
As fashion exhibitions grow in popularity and regularity worldwide, more and more institutions without dress and fashion collections are able to present fashion exhibitions to an ever-increasing audience. In addition, museums with their own collections are more interested than ever in presenting their holdings to an eager public. In the past five years in particular Queensland has witnessed a monumental shift towards fashion and textiles exhibitions6, but the taste for these should also be viewed in light of a longer history of fashion exhibitions in Queensland. Of course, with more curators and collectors working locally, and with a steady stream of international exhibitions landing in our state, this trend is only set to continue.
- Buick, N. 2011. Up Close and Personal: Art and Fashion in the Museum. Art Monthly Australia. Issue 242, August.
- Buick, N. 2013. Framing Fashion Curation: A Theoretical, Historical, and Practical Perspective, PhD Thesis, Queensland University of Technology.
- Clarke, S. and Maynard. M, 1986. Dressed to Kill, 1935-1950: The Impact of World War Two on Queensland Women's Dress. University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane.
- Daw, R. 2003. Architects of Glamour + Masters of Style: Excerpts from a Century of Fashion Photography, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.
- English, B. 1999. Tokyo vogue : Japanese/Australian fashion exhibition, Brisbane City Gallery Griffith University and Queensland College of Art, Brisbane.
- Golbin, P. 2008. Valentino, Retrospective: Past/Present/Future. Rizzoli International, Paris.
- Jones, S. and Cullen, O. 2010. Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones, Harry N. Abrams, London.
- McNeil, P., Wallace, M., De Teliga, J., & Parker, F.E., 2009. Easton Pearson, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.
- 1914 'A FASHION EXHIBITION.', Queensland Figaro (Brisbane, Qld. : 1901 - 1936), 12 February, p. 8, viewed 1 November, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article84397888
- 1946 'BRISBANE PEEPS AT PARIS.', Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld. : 1885 - 1954), 16 November, p. 3, viewed 4 November, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article62996516
- 1952 'Advertising.', The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), 7 August, p. 9, viewed 1 November, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18276612
Published in Issue 6, on November 5, 2013.