Couture: convention and conflict

After visiting the Chinese Museum on Saturday, I made my way down to the State Library to attend a free lecture, Couture: convention and conflict.  The blurb:

Enjoy a journey of fashion transformation, from the Edwardian hobble skirt to the freedom of the flapper.

Dramatic social upheavals in the first decades of the 20th century brought radical shifts in the way we lived, worked and dressed. Join a fascinating discussion with fashion and history experts to discover how the suffragette movement, World War I and the increased use of bicycles, automobiles and electricity all influenced and dramatically changed fashion.

100% relevant to my interests!  How could I not put my name down?

Quokkas, I was disappointed.

The panellists were Katie Flack, Collections Coordinator, Collection Development & Discovery, State Library Victoria; Karen Webster, Head of Strategy & Development, Whitehouse Institute of Design — yes, that Whitehouse Institute; and Katie Somerville, Senior Curator, Fashion & Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria.

Now, this event was held as part of the Melbourne Fashion Festival, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that it went a bit sideways.  On the other hand, I’ve also seen partnerships between private industry and public knowledge centres* work really well, so maybe this was just a dud event.  Or, rather, a promising event with a dud panellist.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first third of the hour was a presentation by Katie Flack on the fashion industry from the late 1890s to the 1920s, particularly in Melbourne.  The talk was illustrated with pictures from SLV’s extensive archives, which include locally produced fashion magazines.

1896 woodcut illustrating woman wearing classic late Victorian puffed sleeves.
Leg o’mutton sleeves: conspicuous consumption, Victorian style. (Not vegan.) 1896. State Library of Vic.

Historically, it was a fairly broad overview — rational dress, the corset wars, bicycles and the development of a fitness culture, the First World War — but it was peppered with intriguing facts (did you know that the current City Square was the site of a women’s gymnasium in the late 19th century?) and an all-too-brief look at how electrification enabled the rise of mass produced ready-to-wear clothing and fast fashion.

This was all fantastic, and I was very sorry when it came to its end.  (I was also sorry that, by the end of the event, I had developed a terrible headache and didn’t really feel up to fangirling Katie as she deserved.)

The panel itself was … less good.  Moderator Giovanna D’Abaco, SLV’s programming manager, first asked the panellists what they considered were key points of change in fashion.  Karen answered first and spoke at length about Mary Quant, the rise of the teenager and the adolescence of the Baby Boomers — her own experience, in fact.

She went on to dominate the panel for the remaining forty minutes or so, engaging in what is best described as Boomer Reminiscences.

Very little of her information was new to me, and it was all tediously removed from the subject of social upheaval in the early 20th century — or social upheaval at all.  There was a brief allusion to the rise of unisex slogan T-shirts in the ’70s, but Karen failed to tie it in with the Vietnam War. She didn’t seem to have much of a sense of history in fashion, and in fact at one point started historysplaining to Katie Somerville, the NGV curator, who barely got a word in through the whole panel.

(Somerville did get to briefly discuss the philosophy behind the NGV’s textile and apparel collection, which is quite significant — as an art gallery, they seek out designers who have — or the gallery hopes they will have — long term impact on the field.  This was interesting, but again, not really relevant to the topic.)

Suffice to say, the second two-thirds of the session were disappointing.  I expected the panel to go into modern issues; I didn’t expect it to focus exclusively on the ’60s onwards. (Not even World War 2! Tons of interesting fashion things happened then!)  I wanted to learn more about the twenties from the point of view of a fashion professional, I wanted to find out why, in the late 1990s — a relatively peaceful time — a trend developed for cargo pants and army fatigues.

Some objects — nineteenth century fashion magazines published in Melbourne — were on display at the end, along with a WW1 nurse’s uniform, but by then my headache was so bad that I couldn’t appreciate them.  I thanked Katie Flack for her presentation and oozed sadly home.


*I have a Grad Dip** in Library and Info Science, you know.

** Obsolete.