The Museum of Brisbane is dedicated to the stories and people of our city, past and present. As the Deputy Director of the Museum, we imagine you’ve encountered some amazing objects, histories and personal stories about Brisbane. Can you share some of your highlights with us?
It’s one of my favourite parts of my job – people’s willingness to share something of themselves – their personal histories, memories or treasured objects. As a museum that is dedicated to exploring and celebrating the culture and identity of Brisbane, it’s always exciting to collaborate with people who share our passion for the city. It’s hard to choose from the dozens of projects I’ve been involved in during my six years at the Museum but working with painter Robert Brownhall and his wife Sarah on a 20-year survey of his work was a personal highlight. Robert’s quirky views of Brisbane and vignettes of our daily life are both an amazing documentation of how much our city has changed but provide a charming insight into how we live. Also Robert and Sarah are great fun and so humble and gracious that it was a total joy to work with them.
I was also really pleased that the Museum collaborated with one of my personal style icons Thea Basiliou on our 2009 exhibition In Fashion: Dressing up Brisbane. Thea curated a documentary about Brisbane designers during the 80s and 90s which really revealed how exciting Brisbane’s fashion scene was at the time – designers like Lynn Hadley and Chrissie Feld from Glamourpussy – and reminded me of Brisbane’s burgeoning fashion scene and club culture. I suppose everyone is nostalgic about the time of their youth, but the late 80s and early 90s in Brisbane were so much fun.
More recently it has been a great privilege to work with Easton Pearson who created the uniforms for our Customer Service Team/Gallery attendants ahead of the Museum’s reopening in April this year. What they have created is so distinctive and playful – so classically Easton Pearson, but something that also connects with the Museum’s brand and identity. We are really grateful to Pamela and Lydia for their generous support of the new Museum – and hope it’s the beginning of a long collaboration with them.
Fashion is increasingly appearing in museums around the world, and the Museum of Brisbane is no stranger to fashion exhibitions. Do you think that fashion can tell us something about social history that other material or cultural objects can’t?
I think what is interesting about looking at garments in a museum context is that they offer so many different layers of insight into a time and place. Obviously looking at the garment as an object – the designer, the fabric, its construction – can be of interest, but fashion can also provide wonderful insights into the social and cultural landscape at the time of design and construction. But what makes the display of fashion really fascinating is when there is a strong personal connection or memory to contextualise the garment. I think this is the real opportunities for museums – to reveal the ‘real life’ of the object so that it can come alive – who wore it and why. How did it make the wearer feel? It’s this type of information that can make the display of fashion relatable in a broader sense – independent of a detailed knowledge of fashion or history by the viewer. Everyone knows the thrill of dressing up for a special occasion or having a piece of clothing that they love, so to explore fashion from a platform of shared human experiences can allow a wonderful connection for audiences.
I’m also particularly interested in film costume which provides even more layers of design detail for exploration as well as the celebrity of the wearer, the film it was featured in – and how perhaps the garment furthered the development of the character or the plot of the film. Also what the costumes say about the era; the socio-cultural landscape of the time and how they in turn influenced fashion trends of the day. I’m very excited that the Museum is working with a local private collection of film costumes to presenting a major exhibition set to open in October 2014!
What is your relationship to fashion; self-loathing, or self-expression?
Hmm. Probably a healthy dose of both throughout my life. I definitely used clothing as form of self-expression when I was younger and was really immersed in the club culture of the early 90s. Stores like The Mask, Hyena and of course Blonde Venus were radically different to the conventional retail offerings in Brisbane at the time and coupled with a fair bit of vintage – or ‘retro’ as we called it then, meant that every night out was an event.
In some ways it saddens me that the distinctive fashion aesthetics of so many subcultures have become consumed by the mainstream. Particularly those based on an ideology or a lifestyle and which have been now been reduced to a high street look.
I think, like most people, my relationship with fashion has evolved as my own sense of self and confidence has grown with age and experience. I would say I have definite sense of my own personal style of dressing which runs to the classic, but I still do enjoy wearing something a little more fashion forward every now and then for an event.
Where do you look for inspiration on matters of style?
My job with the Museum affords me endless sources of inspiration, as do the films of the 1930s-60s which I love, but this is probably in a much broader sense of ‘style’ rather than fashion specifically. For me, great style is about the way someone carries themselves and connects with those around them, rather than what they wear. I am a firm believer that personality, a sense of humour and a lack of ego are accessories that never go out of style.
With that broader view, I have always been inspired by the idea of gracious living throughout time. Social mores, rituals and traditions and etiquette, I find really fascinating. Conversely I am a huge fan of authors like E.M. Forster to Patrick Dennis and their insightful analysis of social customs and conventions of the day, but for also ruthlessly exposing the more shallow aspects of human behavior in their detailed literary landscapes.
Locally, I am constantly inspired by Thea Basiliou from Blonde Venus. I am sure I am not alone in feeling this way – Brisbane is fortunate to have someone like Thea who is one of the pioneers in changing the way Brisbane views fashion, and has had an enormous influence on so many of us. I am proud to have been a customer of hers for 21 years. Not only does she always look amazing, but she is so generous and supportive of the arts and creative industries – genuinely connected to our city’s artists and practitioners.
What is your most treasured dress-related object or memory?
I was very close to a great aunt growing up – my Aunty Kitty. Kitty was a career girl who worked for a shoe distribution company and Gordon & Gotch magazines throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s. She had all of her clothes made by a local dress maker and always left the house looking immaculate – stockings straight, handbag on arm, and even until late in life, gloves in hand and hat in place. She also had an enormous collection of costume jewelry and evening gowns as she taught dancing at Orchards Dance Studio. I remember as a little boy that she always looked so fantastic, and in my mind, just like the stars of the classic movies we watched together. Kitty probably instilled in me a sense of always wanting to look your best, and I think inherited her love of dressing up for an occasion.
Give us three words, people or places you associate with Queensland fashion…
Brisbane Arcade, Gardams, Finney Isles & Co.
Is there such a thing as a distinct Queensland style?
While we have an obvious love of colour and the pragmatics of dressing for our climate, in this global age, not really.
Published in Issue 6, on November 5, 2013.