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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