Tracy Cooper-Lavery

Tracy Cooper-Lavery is Director of the Rockhampton Art Gallery. Prior to this appointment she held the position of Senior Curator at Bendigo Art Gallery for eleven years. In that time she was instrumental in raising the profile of the gallery as a space for staging fashion exhibitions; a move which has seen them host several international and national exhibitions of fashion since. During her time at Rockhampton Art Gallery Tracy has also started to show fashion and fashion-related exhibitions to great local acclaim.

You’re the Director of the Rockhampton Art Gallery. In recent years the gallery has hosted some fashion related exhibitions. Can you tell us what the reaction to those exhibitions has been? Does Rockhampton have an audience who is interested in fashion?

I have to admit that I have been extremely fortunate to gain experience working on a number of significant fashion exhibitions in my previous role as Senior Curator at Bendigo Art Gallery (2000 to 2011). I was part of the team that presented three exhibitions from the Victoria and Albert Museum; The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957; The White Wedding Dress: 200 years of Wedding Fashion and Grace Kelly: Style Icon. So I have had the opportunity first-hand to see the power of fashion exhibitions and the absolute joy and awe they bring to visitors. Older audiences can reminisce about their own fashion glory days; younger visitors get inspiration for their own designs and fashion ideas and everyone can appreciate the design, decoration and technical skill in the hands of Dior, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Galliano and Westwood.

I think most communities have an interest in fashion and Rockhampton appears to be no different. From years living in a few various country towns I have realised that people crave occasions to ‘frock-up’ like country racing meets, Mayoral Balls, school formals and Debs – even the dreaded B & S. In Rockhampton one of the biggest events on the social calendar is the “Beef Ball” held every three years as part of Beef Week, Australia’s national beef exposition and one of the world’s biggest beef cattle events. In 2012 the event attracted more than 85,000 people to the region – I have never seen so many Akubras in my life!! But to me it seemed like perfect timing for a fashion exhibition as there is a lot of down time for partners of delegates. So we organised with Charlotte Smith, Curator and owner of The Darnell Collection (whom I had worked with at Bendigo) to put together an exhibition of occasion dressing. A Sense of Occasion became the Gallery’s highest-attended exhibition in recent memory and transformed the Gallery’s reputation within the community. This year we also presented two exhibitions working with indigenous textile designers – a local group The Murri Girls into Art and the Artisan travelling exhibition Jimmy Pike: Desert Designs; again these were both really well attended. Due to the success of these exhibitions I am working with Charlotte Smith on another exhibition for our 2014 program – Some Kind of Wonderful: 80s fashion from the Darnell Collection. I am also working on my ensemble for the Beef Ball 2015!

We believe your family was responsible for establishing a Queensland children’s fashion brand from the 1940s until the 1970s? Can you tell us more about that?

After reading The Fashion Archives it got me thinking about my own family’s involvement with Queensland fashion. Tumbl-Togs (originally TUMBLTOGS) was the name of the Brisbane-based children’s clothing company started by grandmother Veronica (Vere) Cooper in 1945. Vere started her career working for Harry Hansford (of Players in Queen St, Brisbane) in the early 1940s and realised that there was a niche in the market for simple, stylish toddler/children’s clothing. Through her training with Hansford she started out designing and creating garments from under her house in Wavell Heights.

She would dress my father and uncle up in the prototypes and then take them both into McWhirters in the Valley to ‘model’ and see if their buyers were interested in the outfits. Once the deal was confirmed she would create the designs in bulk. The clothes were targeted at 1 – 4 years and consisted mainly of romper suits and bloomer/shirt sets. One of the best sellers was a reversible gingham appliquéd romper suit. In the mid to late 1960s the line expanded to include older children to teenage clothing (the sub-brand was called TWIG)

In the late 1940s my grandfather, Ron, left his job and joined the business and Tumbl-Togs bought a factory in Station Road, Nundah (Hansford was also originally a silent partner); where the business stayed until the early 1970s when the company moved to leased premises in Kitchener Road, Kedron. Both my Dad and Uncle also worked for the company for many years. At the height of the business’s success they also bought the uniform manufacturers Lloyd Masons in the mid-1960s, selling it in 1970.

The Tumbl-Togs business and trademark was sold in the 1980s after my grandparents retired and my uncle no longer wanted to run the business. By that time they had moved into more designer-based children’s clothing and couldn’t compete with the market. However another generation of Cooper’s became clothes models for a time; both my cousin Angela and I did advertisements and parades when we were kids!

Unfortunately my grandmother Vere suffered from Alzheimer’s for many years before she passed away and inadvertently a lot of records, patterns and clippings got disposed of before they were passed on to anyone. So far all we have uncovered are two supplier gifts that were given out by Tumbl-Togs as Christmas presents – a letter opener and a picnic set! No fashion though!!!

What is your relationship to fashion; self-loathing, or self-expression?

I think it depends on the day. Generally it’s self-expression though. Working in a gallery provides a lot of opportunities to glam up for exhibition launches and other events, so I usually put a bit of time and effort into the outfit. Since moving back to Queensland I have embraced colour again which has been a nice surprise after 11 years of Melbourne black!

Where do you look for inspiration on matters of style?

I am quite the 80s tragic so I do tend to revisit the style, cut and colour from that decade. I have started collecting a lot of Stuart Membery designs. They were like nothing else at the time. I keep them more for inspiration but I do wear a couple of the jackets. I particularly like his collections from around 1984 – 85 when the colour and designs went from the Kasbah to Chairman Mao!

What is your most treasured dress-related object or memory?

There are a few but probably my favourite memories are from around 1989 to 1991 when I worked part-time at an amazing vintage fashion store in Townsville called Vincent Dior. I worked there to help pay my way through art school and museum studies. The woman who owned the store was WAY ahead of her time and had buyers who would scour the big op shop warehouses in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne and every month about five wool bales full of clothes would arrive for the store.

My whole wardrobe came out of that shop – from a 1960s sequined vest and black fringed hot pants to a 1950s red Dior wool coat. Let’s just say that not much of my wages went towards paying HECS fees. A big part of the job was also doing the window dressing and mannequins in the store and I was given free rein to do some fun stuff. Thursday afternoon was always a good time to do the windows as people came looking for their outfits for clubbing over the weekend.

My most treasured object though is a beautiful cream shell top that is covered in sequins, beading and tassels. It had been my grandmother’s and she gave it to me about the same time I was working at Vincent Dior. That top had a workout for many years until I put it into retirement; but it still looks just as good as the day she gave it to me.

Give us three words, people or places you associate with Queensland fashion…

Cool, confident, colour

Is there such a thing as a distinct Queensland style?

I think it’s hard to pinpoint a distinct style; however I think Queenslanders are willing to take more risks with fashion. They are not afraid to use colour and pattern to excess and always appear confident and proud to show off!

Jimmy Pike: Desert Psychadelic exhibition, Rockhampton Art Gallery, 2013
Jimmy Pike: Desert Psychadelic exhibition, Rockhampton Art Gallery, 2013
Tumbl-Togs Advertisement, 1949
Tumbl-Togs Advertisement, 1949
Installing 'A Sense of Occasion'  at the Rockhampton Art Gallery, 2012
Installing 'A Sense of Occasion' at the Rockhampton Art Gallery, 2012

Published in , on December 3, 2013.