The new exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery, Modern Love, showcases around 60 works from more than 30 designers, with fashions ranging from Thierry Mugler’s fetishistic evocation of the Wild West to Christian Lacroix’s gilded rococo opulence to a pair of Adidas high-top sneakers.

It is the first travelling exhibition of its kind from The Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, a Los Angeles fashion school and museum whose collection comprises some 15,000 garments. The exhibition is co-curated by FIDM’s Kevin Jones and Bendigo Art Gallery’s senior curator Leanne Fitzgibbon.

“We’ve tried to strike a balance between designers and design houses that are known as being incredibly influential, the pivotal figures in fashion design in the last 40 years,” Fitzgibbon says. “We’ve also looked at other individuals who may not be as well known to an Australian audience, but who have been visionary in their time and whose work has influenced future designers.”

A sculptural gown by Melbourne designer Toni Maticevski is one of many pieces of wearable art on display. Made from white neoprene, a fabric traditionally used for making wetsuits, it is especially notable for being the only Australian design so far acquired by FIDM.

Certain garments resonate historically. Alexander McQueen’s Peacock Dress, commissioned by FIDM in 2010, is from McQueen’s ‘The Girl Who Lived in the Tree’ collection, and references the history of the British Empire. The dress is a favourite of Jones’s, he says, adding “it is a piece that would not exist if the museum had not commissioned it from McQueen’s atelier”. Inseparable from the mannequin it was constructed on, the show-stopping dress travelled first class from Los Angeles to Melbourne in a custom-built crate.

While visitors can expect to find hallowed sophistication in numerous haute couture offerings, there is also plenty of grit amongst the glamour.
The earliest piece is the Bondage Suit (1974-1980) by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, an ensemble that was chosen, Fitzgibbon says, because it reflects a turning point in fashion history. It’s an iconic piece whose seditionary spirit is echoed elsewhere in the show.

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The changing context as a garment makes its transition from runway to magazine page, to a static mannequin in a museum, poses a particular set of issues for the curator. “The criteria in fashion is different to costume,” Jones says. “Fashion has to capture the eye. Our society is used to quick imagery so you have to be able to read it in an instant.”

One of the biggest challenges, he says, is how to bring out “the lines, the silhouette and the intent of the designer”. For Modern Love, mannequins were selected to highlight the integrity of each garment, such as the Issey Miyake Pleats Please ensemble, which features heat-set pleats that create its dramatic shape. “Pleats Please is all about surface design,” Jones says. “It’s part of an artist series so you don’t want a high fashion model wearing it; instead we have a serene mannequin that brings out the qualities of Miyake’s work.”

A Versace purple leather studded biker jacket from the mid ‘90s encapsulates the perennial spirit of the show. “I could see it on the street now and it’d still be edgy and of the moment,” Fitzgibbon says. “That’s what’s innovative about these designers. They weren’t just forward looking; they were perhaps predicting the future and creating something that is almost timeless.”

Modern Love is showing at Bendigo Art Gallery until February 2 2014. For tickets, click here.