There’s something unmistakably graceful about the building on the corner of Burton Street and Darlinghurst Road. The 1920s façade conjures a certain narrative presence, a stillness that’s unusual for a part of the city reserved for trashy pursuits and urban renegades. It comes as little surprise that the building is home to the Sydney Jewish Museum, a world-class space dedicated to preserving Jewish history and remembering the legacy of the Holocaust.
What is surprising, however, is the way the museum uses a leftfield curatorial approach to recast familiar narratives in a contemporary light. Dressing Sydney: A Jewish Fashion Story is a powerful example of this. The exhibition, which was spearheaded by Barbara Solomon and curated by Roslyn Sugarman, weaves together photographs, clothing samples and vintage memorabilia to tell a story of the way Jewish migrants have shaped the city’s rag trade and reassembled a future that defied historical logic.[fold]
“We wanted to initially honour holocaust survivors who were doing something special for Australia,” offers Solomon. “And understand why Jewish people gravitated towards the fashion industry. We also wanted to stage an exhibition that would be fun and involve the whole community. Although we knew it was going to be a huge job and was probably going to be a year’s work, we knew it would be worthwhile.”
Solomon was right. Equal parts cultural excavation and history project, the team conducted over 150 interviews and made tough curatorial decisions in a bid to showcase the way contemporary Jewish stories were steeped in a sartorial past.
For Sugarman, deciding which stories to include and leave out proved the biggest obstacle to the exhibition’s success. “The sheer volume was daunting. We knew the major stories would involve the big brands such as Katies, Lowes and Best & Less. But we also tried to be very democratic and represent everyone from seamstress and tailors, to designers and cutters.”
The exhibition also traces the evolution of iconic Sydney brands such as Camilla and Marc, Josh Goot, Dinosaur Designs and Jets – fashion heavyweights who owe their current success to a tradition of tenacity and resourcefulness.
However, the exhibition’s most powerful stories are the ones that have rarely been told, such as the rise founder Bernard Leser. “For me, the life of Bernard Leser is so interesting and encompasses the whole story of the exhibition,” offers Solomon.
“Leser was a German Jew – he was born in Germany and his father was a decorated soldier in the First World War who won a military honour for saving another man. Coincidentally, the man who was saved by his father kept in touch and was the head of the Gestapo in the area where he lived in the 30s. On Kristallnacht, he came face to face with Leser’s family and said: “You once saved my life and I’m going to do the same to you – on the condition that you leave everything and flee Germany.”
Arriving in New Zealand first and then Australia, Leser went on to establish Australian Vogue in the 50s and strike up partnerships with the likes of fellow German Jew Helmut Newton, then a fledgling young photographer.
“These were things people did,” says Solomon. “They were a remarkable group of people who were in a negative territory when they got here. I really don’t know how they got out of bed in the morning – but they somehow did.”
Dressing Sydney shows at the Sydney Jewish Museum for the remainder of 2013.