What typifies Australian fashion? Is it the flamboyance and gleeful kitsch of ’70s designers Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, and their natural heirs, Romance Was Born?
Is it the conceptual but wearable work of contemporary masters Dion Lee and Toni Maticevski?
Or is it about beachwear, resort wear, clothing that reflects our temperate climate and our love of sun, surf and the great outdoors?
For the National Gallery of Victoria fashion and textiles curator Paola di Trocchio, it's all of this and more.
Ahead of the launch of 200 Years of Australian Fashion, which opens tomorrow at Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Di Trocchio says there can be no single definition of what Australian fashion “is”.
“We've been building our Australian collection for a very long time and, considering it’s the 20th anniversary of Melbourne Fashion Festival, it seemed like the perfect time to make a really big statement about Australian fashion,” she says.
The exhibition features 120 works from more than 90 designers over four galleries. It runs chronologically, with a special focus on key moments, such as the rise of the department store; the emergence of the “Paris end” of Collins Street; our love affair with race-day millinery; the avant-garde ’80s.
From the first Australian designs of the 1800s, to Prue Acton's mod styles of the ’60s, and on to some of today's best-known creators, 200 Years of Australian Fashion proves just how diverse our designers are.
“To me, Australian designers have always been independent, even If they did, in the past, look to Paris or London for inspiration,” di Trocchio says.
"I think the moment we really broke through with a uniquely Australian voice was with the arrival of Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson and the launch of Flamingo Park [the Sydney fashion boutique they ran together] in 1973."
Does the work of Kee and Jackson – eclectic, eccentric, proud of the symbols of Australiana, wilfully kitsch at times – define Australian fashion, then?
“There's definitely something in the Australian character that loves to dress up,” di Trocchio says. “But at other times, we've been seen to 'under dress', so there is that opposite extreme, too."
Multi-award-winning designer Dion Lee has been commissioned to create a spectacular four-metre high, Swarovski-encrusted gown that literally glows from within; di Trocchio says Lee's work is the perfect illustration of marrying form and function.
“Dion is an expert in tailoring and structure, and he masters that mix of conceptual and wearable that is actually really hard to do,” she says.
“I think Australians really do 'get' conceptual fashion, but it has to be grounded too. It's why resort fashion has become our signature: design-driven, but practical.”
200 Years of Australian Fashion is at Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia from March 5 to July 17.