Two Exhibition Reviews

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Powerhouse: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney

I wouldn’t dream of visiting Sydney and not visiting the Powerhouse Museum. For textile and dress exhibitions, it never disappoints. During a quick trip in April this year I saw exhibitions of shoes from the museum’s own collection, and three centuries of underwear as an unexpected bonus. I didn’t have time for to more than glance at the student fashion exhibition and the lace collection…

Recollect: Shoes (until 19 July 2015)

The museum has collected shoes from around the world over the last 100 years, swelling significantly in the 1940s with the acquisition of the Joseph Box Collection into one of the most diverse collections in the world. It seemed that they were all on show. Many hundreds of shoes were displayed shelf upon shelf in tall glass cases, in what they called ‘visible collection storage’. And although the shoes on the top shelf were out of reach to my eyes, there were many others to see, ranging from tiny baby shoes to an enormous black postilion boot from 1770, complete with spurs, buckles and a knee-cover.

Fashion shoes were well represented, from women’s seventeenth century high heels in embroidered leather from England, to Claude Montana pony skin flats and Vivienne Westwood blue platforms made famous by Naomi Campbell’s runway fall. The absolute perfection of one pair was visible from twenty paces: a pair of elegant red silk pumps circa 1956, their impeccable interiors crafted in the finest softest leather while the simple ‘Dior’ label in the arch explained everything. Mid-century Dior is simply unparalleled for quality and style.  Iconic shoes also appear in this collection, including Ferragamo’s 1938 cantilevered high heels and Louboutin’s yellow suede pumps with daisy–shaped buckles, trimmed in black silk. Can you picture them? Fashion shoes for men ranged from truly marvellous 1970s platforms from Amsterdam, perfect red crocodile skin Oxfords, to the powerful and subtle lines of 1950s black winkle pickers by Raoul Marton.

Subgenres such as sneakers also take their place in the collection, alongside sports and ballet shoes, ice and roller skating boots, fetish and costume shoes, boots, sandals, bespoke shoes, plus many interesting examples from around the world including wooden clogs, fur Arctic lined boots, Egyptian sandals, and Turkish slippers. Two walls were hung with lasts, almost as an art installation. The show was complete with shoe making tools, machines, video loops, and 3D paper shoes for children to decorate. Dim lighting and minimal curation meant that issues of storage and display were part of the experience, an interesting side effect.

Undressed: 350 years of Underwear in Fashion (until 12 July)

This interesting exhibition was impressive for the range and quality of items, and also for how it was displayed. Some examples of undergarments over 350 years were shown flat, yet most were worn by standing mannequins to great effect. Each mannequin appeared as an idealised body shape to fit the particular era, for example the hour glass figure in the golden age of corsetry, the athletic curves of the supermodels, the slim androgyny of the 1920s and 70s, and the mono-breasted Edwardians. Brought to life in this way the underwear appeared as clothes worn by people instead of looking like disreputable old clothes, while also commenting on ideas of the body and historic social conventions. And while an underwear show is inevitably a little risqué, revealing as it does what is normally hidden, this dimension was not avoided. Old television corsetry ads ran on continuous loop, the mini dramas attracting a small crowd (and a few lone men).

My favourites in this show were an eighteenth century man’s felt dressing gown with tufted spots and lots of buckles, a 1960s bras and pantie set encrusted with huge gauze daisies, a commercial version of Gautier’s cone brassiere made famous by Madonna, and a corset with a waist two hands could span. Incredible.

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The eye must travel

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Have you seen “Diana Vreeland: The eye must travel” yet? Watch this film if you want to see a woman with real style. Peppered with her Wilde-ish bon mots, the film is full of gorgeous visuals and interviews with the grand dame of C20th fashion. As editor of first Harper’s Bazaar then Vogue, she generated most of what we love about fashion magazines. Although no beauty herself, Diana showed the world how to dress well. Born in 1903 she lived well into her 80s, and in explanation of her fabulous life she gives the following advice: arrange to get born in Paris and the rest will follow naturally.
For those of us who love style but were born in NZ, this film offers a feast of encouragement even if it is too late to have dinner with Nureyev.

Travelling the world in a yellow coat

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In May I went to Hong Kong, UK, and Germany, leaving a chilly Dunedin Autumn behind. Into my borrowed purple suitcase and my turquoise tote bag I squeezed a selection of music, reading, other essentials, and wardrobe for 3 weeks, 3 times zones and 3 wear zones. This was my first time in Asia, Europe and the UK, first time over the equator and I was travelling alone. Wonderful and scary.
“Take your yellow coat’” advised my sister who went in 2010 as a backpacking tourist and missed her artistic clothes and the connections they can spark. Her advice is classic Out There Dress Theory promulgated by Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp: dress obviously as yourself to attract like-minded others. “Wear comfortable shoes,” said several people, even though the achievement of both comfort and style in shoes borders on the miraculous. “Layers,” said others. And I agree, making everything work together is an excellent way to deal with temperature changes. “After you have finished packing, take half of it out” was another piece of advice I only partly followed, to my regret.
After hours of effort I was packed and flew off to Hong Kong, wearing my yellow coat and my comfortable, stylish shoes. (Yes, I found some: black suede lace-ups with 15cm of rubber sole by Isabella Anselmi, and 2 women in Glasgow and Hamburg wanted them). Hong Kong was amazing and a humid 30 degrees so I wore a summer dress. People queued to get inside the big fashion stores in Kowloon, but to me it all looked fake and strange. Endless expensive bags, watches, perfume, jewellery, and clothes that made no sense in the street outside. Who cares enough about the distinguishing details of wealth, of status? I didn’t.
In Glasgow I saw interesting looking people wearing some colour, some retro, some arty and my yellow coat took its place in the crowd. But the cold weather forced me to buy another coat: a gorgeous blue wool 1960s double breasted coat in perfect condition for 20 pounds from one of the many retro shops on that long street running parallel to the Kelvin River, just along from the Laundromat and the great little bookshop where I found a Chinese classic I had been reading about….My suitcase complained. I began to wonder what I could ditch. Nothing rare of course; what did I carry that was generic enough to be easily replaced at home? Actually not much.
In Hamburg it was summer and I was part of an international community, so absolutely wonderful. In the street I loved the direct, handsome people and the naturalness of being myself there.
But London! I was surprised how dull and gloomy most of the people looked, even in that great beating heart of culture and history, that teeming great city. Don’t they care anymore about the art of dress in London? I walked and trained and bussed and tubed my way through a list of adventures, encounters and visits, all the time also looking for stylish people, something to impress me. I met a wonderfully stylish woman in the Museum of London (from Australia!) but in the street most people were camouflaged in black, grey, and neutrals. Tourists like me provided the occasional splash of colour and in my yellow coat I began to feel obviously from Elsewhere.
Then I saw another yellow coat. She was in the City, and dressed like she belonged there. She crossed the road and glanced at me as our paths diverged, deep in conversation with her suited companion. Later I saw another, far away. During my 5 days in London I counted 3 yellow coats in the street, including 1 in a shop window near Harrods. But then I went to the Globe. They were doing 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 languages and I saw “As you like it” in Georgian. What a blast! It was so good. There I was in the Globe Theatre in London, 12,000 miles from home and in a centre of history and excellence, captivated by this wonderful performance. And in the audience of about 100 people there were 4 yellow coats.

Simple maths

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Looking for a little woollen cardigan in every shop in town and elsewhere, just wanting a bit of colour, in a style that fits well, and wool. Could I find one? There were many nice colours and styles in wool mixes, which look dreadful after 3 weeks even with hand washing. There were some lovely colours in merino but the styles are so Old Lady. Two months and some sad looking cardies later I found an opportunity for shopping in the Capital.
Thank goodness for Minnie Cooper, rich in all my requirements. I left her shop in Wellington completely delighted and feeling well dressed for winter, although slightly light headed at the scale of monetary separation I had just enacted. And I didn’t even dare look at the shoes.
Purple! Gold! Red and orange stripes! Blue and green stripes! Not just colour, but well cut warmth that makes me feel years younger.
And anyway, what is a savings account for?

Fashion week in Dunedin NZ

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Hot on the heels of Fashion Week, I was interviewed by Chanel O’Brien on on her regular show “Switched On!” for Otago Access Radio. The interview covered Fashion Week and more. Here’s the link:
http://www.accessradio.org/media/ondemand/play.asx?_uid=1333587180-501-13

Note: Mac users need to visit http://www.oar.org.nz, click on the podcasts tab, click ‘browse by name or category and find Switched On, choose episode from the list and click the download icon. It will open up in iTunes.

Fashion twins

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Street level stylists in New York were photographed for years by Bill Cunningham and collected into a fabulous movie recently to celebrate his art, his eye, his devotion to the goddess. The film also shows us that his photographs were his tribute paid to these mainly anonymous women making an appearance on the streets of New York. Dressing with flair, care, and sometimes courage, such a woman stands out against the incoming tide of grey neutrality. She earns attention by constructing a look, and at the same time she inspires a broader understanding of fashion, the fashion that she makes by wearing her take on what’s going on. This takes skill, commitment, and a kind of love – love of clothes and colour and display, and love of fashion as an active, daily exchange between players where the currency is aesthetics and finesse. This is fashion as participation, not imitation.
Her home is her dressing room and all the world’s a stage (thank you Oscar). And with any luck, someone has their eyes open and their faculties engaged, able to receive the gift of her appearance. Whatever else she does, she’s giving us that.
You don’t have to live in New York to be like this. Dunedin twins Nellie and Elza Jenkins do it all the time. Hang around George Street at the end of the day and keep an eye out. You might just see tall redhead twins parading along the main street, performing being stylish, famous, and twins. Even in this small city, the street is a stage. They own it. They dress up for their audience; they drink the ambrosia of attention. Friday nights are especially good as there are repeat performances, sometimes with entourage.
Identical twins grow up being noticed so its almost natural to take this a step further and milk it. Elza and Nellie have part time modelling careers and got public notice last year in a New Zealand’s Next Top Model, where they were close to the top then split up to great dramatic effect. Later there was talk of going to New York and signing up with modelling agencies, but whatever happened they are back again, walking up and down and being seen. They are not yet twenty so have plenty of time to develop real style – at the moment they are still doing fashion as imitation. But the great thing about these striking young women is that they keep doing it, they keep giving us this. They really are grand.

White Shoes

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I fell in love with them on sight. A wonderful pair of white golf shoes, the same style as that fantastic pair of red ones I wore out twenty years, a style and quality which have long since disappeared from shoe shops. Relics of a bygone era yet in almost new condition, they sat there on the shelf in a Riverton Op Shop, waiting for me.
A perfect fit! Mr Ayers ground off the spikes and gave them a new rubber sole, and off I went out into the sunshine in my first ever pair of white shoes. I love them, but somehow feel slightly uncomfortable actually wearing them out of the house. What’s that about?
Come to think of it I used to loathe white shoes and have made many nasty comments about them over the years, provoked to scorn by those hideous white sports shoes worn by people either too lazy or lacking the skill to dress well, but who pretend they just want to be comfortable. Also there was a time when men wearing white shoes looked like middle-aged predators in the worst way. Is that what the problem is?
Then again, why do I suddenly like them so much? I admired Jolene’s fawny cream brogues last summer – perhaps I’ve been looking out for something similar. Jolene is always ahead of the game. It turns out these pale brogues are in the shops again, as fashion cycles toward and away from black: 2012 might even be the Year of the White Shoe.
But most of all I love shoes I can actually wear all day and walk for miles in. I love shoes that fit well and are made of leather and lined with kid. I love finding them like that, as if they have been waiting to reward my taste and discernment, not merely succumbing as those new, thin-soled fashion objects succumb to any purse. It’s the start of a new friendship, a smile from the patron saint of dress.
I wore them to party with black pants and an aqua vintage coat, felt like a queen. I wore them again, this time with bare legs and a skirt. Everything changed. Nobody said anything. They were the elephant in the room.
Its been a wet spring in Dunedin and my legs are as white as my ancestry – so not great with white shoes. There is no contrast, and suddenly they look a bit shabby. (What can I do about those scuff marks?) I still like them, but maybe just with trousers.