In 2012, you did a project at the Brisbane Square Library that involved getting contemporary designers to respond to the work of respected Australian dressmaker Enid Gilchrist. Gilchrist was a hero to many home-sewers, but she has perhaps been overlooked by the world of contemporary fashion design. Tell us what contemporary design can learn from local histories of dressmaking?
Working through Gilchrist’s many books on drafting and sewing for the exhibition, I was continually struck by the ingenuity, practicality and creativity of her body of work. Coming out of the Second World War when she started designing and producing her books, her thoughtfulness about what women needed to clothe their children and later themselves is just as inspiring today as if must have been then. Gilchrist understood her customer and the lives they led. What was required during the war, due to shortages of fabric and time, fostered her mentality of the frugal reuse of materials—a men’s singlet turned into children’s underwear—the practical nature of clothes that grew with the child, and a simplicity of construction that inspired women to ‘have a go’ and achieve great results. The earnest considerations of dressmaking are so transferable to contemporary ideals of sustainability in fashion where comfort, practicality, use of resources and a sense of place really speak to the modern consumer.
Your own design practice, which relies on complex pattern-making techniques, seems to owe a great debt to the work of dressmakers like Gilchrist. Can you elaborate on this context for your work?
What is exciting about Gilchrist’s work is her seamless connection between the aesthetic design of the garment and the way in which it is cut and constructed. Renowned designers such Madeleine Vionnet and Cristobal Balenciaga mastered this process of design through construction, but they had studios to analyse and reproduce their garments. Gilchrist’s surprisingly sophisticated designs, however, were meant to be reproduced using basic sewing skills. Her drafting methods, along with very succinct instructions and drawings, made this possible for the home sewer. While my sometimes rather convoluted pattern-making processes keep me motivated, the appearance of simplicity in the final garment and the practicalities of production are always a challenge and something that Gilchrist’s work inspires in my own practice.
Tell us how you came to be interested in fashion…
My first interest was architecture. I remember designing shopping centres in my early teens. I loved floor plans of houses cut out of the newspaper and how rooms connected with each other and how they might be used by the people who lived in them. Those plans, my mother’s dress patterns and a love of the precision of technical drawing studied in high school all combined to become a love of clothing. I loved that the patterns offered not only the shapes, but the method of construction as well. The ease and speed of make is something that clothing has over buildings, but which still offers the excitement of developing flat shapes that when connected created an endless variety of three-dimensional forms. Combining all these elements and the interaction with the body means the possibilities were endlessly enticing.
Where do you look for inspiration on matters of style?
I have said several times that my favourite designers are all the dead ones. Poiret, Vionnet, Grès, Balenciaga, Halston, and Beene all inspire my design work as they were technicians and not stylists like so many ‘fashion designers.’ My design practice evolves through looking at clothes and making clothes. When I design clothes much of the time my drawings are of pattern shapes, not anything that really look like a garment until it is made up in fabric. This way the design is not pinned down to come out looking one particular way and the pressure is off if it doesn’t work out as planned. It can evolve into something else on the dummy or through how it works on the body. I also have a great interest in interior design, but it doesn’t consciously inform my design work. Maybe it’s a colour, pattern or texture connection; or a spatial thing. I’m not sure.
What is your most treasured dress-related object or memory?
One of the nice things about starting work is being able to buy lovely things. In 1989 I was working for Ian M Brain and Co. (a uniform company in Fortitude Valley) and after the pittance I survived on during TAFE, I felt very wealthy. That same year I went to the Antiques Fair at City Hall and found a delight that added fuel to the fire. One of the books that had helped inspire my burgeoning love of fashion was Julian Robinson’s book, The Golden Age of Style. This seminal 1976 publication featured many Art Deco illustrators, but the cream of the crop was the marvellous George Barbier. It was one of his pochoir prints that I found at City Hall that day. A glorious design for a production of Salabaccha from 1918 published in the 1927 volume Vingt Cinq Costumes pour Le Thèâtre.
It was enormously expensive—either $400 or $450—being from an edition of only 275, but a joy to behold. Having only seen his imagery published in books, the depth of colour and the fineness of detail that was lost was palpable. The pochoir printing method, in which each colour is applied by hand using a separate stencil over a lithographic base outline gives the image a richness second only to the original watercolour. A sprinkling of silver highlights is the icing on the cake. As Edmond Jaloux writes in his preface to the book, “When our time will be fallen like so many others in the dust of dead things, when today’s flame will be ashes and dust, it will just take a few watercolours, drawings of Barbier to revive the same taste and spirit of the years that we are living. ”
Having been seduced by the image and even with my new found wealth, I still had to put it on lay-by and make the fortnightly trips out to the antique shop at Clayfield to make payments. I had put in some research and found the details of the print which I excitedly told the shop owner on one of my visits. Her disinterest made me even happier knowing that it would soon be coming to live with me. To this day it continues to bring me great pleasure.
Give us three words, people or places you associate with Queensland fashion…
The weather – no matter how much we might try to convince ourselves it shouldn’t affect our wardrobes, it makes a difference to all we wear, if not all we buy.
The Brisbane Arcade – for me represents a golden age of Brisbane designers: the 1980s and 90s. Fashion has moved on, but this period of Parisian style with a local spin—short-sleeved jackets anyone?—holds nostalgic memories of when dressing was a leisurely retail experience, not a speedy internet one.
Blonde Venus – the Brisbane boutique of note. For more than 20 years Thea Basiliou has managed to dress Queensland in a curated selection of merchandise that combines cutting edge international labels with the best local ones.
Is there such a thing as a distinct Queensland style?
It is hard to think of anything that is particularly “Queensland” in an age of internationally trend-driven fashion. The weather is certainly an influence, but I don’t think it means different clothes, just less of them.
Published in Issue 5, on October 22, 2013.