On the Saturday of the Australia Day long weekend, sporting my self-painted Australian flag pedicure, I took myself out for a fashion-themed treat which wasn’t shopping, for a change, purchasing a combined ticket to Future Beauty: 30 years of Japanese Fashion at GOMA and Undressed: 350 years of Underwear in Fashion at the Queensland Museum.
I must admit, I was looking forward to Undressed a little more than Future Beauty because I had actually tried to see it before. But for some reason, I was drawn towards GOMA first so Future Beauty was my first stop.
I arrived at about quarter to eleven, quite unintentionally, which was perfect for the guided tour that began at 11am.
Our guide’s name was Shirley and she reminded me a little bit of a pixie crossed with a modern Miss Marple – dainty, small and sharp with cheekiness in her croaky whimsical voice. She toured us through the semi-translucent curtains making small talk to the two asian fashionistas and accompanying fashionisto at the very front of the group, who were very clearly into the Japanese fashion scene, based on their outfits – tropical razorback singlet and black bike pants covered by a net vest and sheer black skirt – and that was the guy!
Photography was forbidden in the exhibition so the pictures you’re seeing are either stolen from the internet of are from postcards I bought in the gift shop.
The first room was called “In Praise of Shadows” and was based on a 1933 essay about Japanese aesthetics, with pieces that were black and white but that were also textured so that shadows and negative space where featured. The concept of “ma” relates to the energy created by the space between the garment and the wearer (occupier?).
The first three garments were quite modern, around 2009, and Shirley told us how cutting edge they were at the time. There was a black sleeping bag dress held together by Mr T-style gold chains, a hoodie dress made from newspaper negative fish scales and a lovely basic black coat which I would have happily worn if not for the flecks of glitter.
Further down the space, which was set out like a catwalk, was a grand shoulder-less ball gown, all in black, except for some cheeky tan spots which peeked out through a slit in the front. Apparently this was to facilitate the “four-in-one” functionality of the dress, which allowed for panels to be removed to achieve four different looks.
At the next catwalk, we had pieces for the 1983/4 season. There was a black jumper which was made of hand knitted fabric, which was then woven like a basket and a whole dress that was made in a similar style, with a finer knit to begin with.
The next two pieces where particularly avant garde at the time, being described as a fashion “holocaust” by some fashion commentators. There were two white pieces that were very tattered, featuring intended holes and rough edges.
After a translucent divider, there was a tamer version of the same idea, where the holes in the white garment where all exactly square and placed in geometric patterns. The shadow given by this piece really was as interesting as looking at the piece itself.
These were followed by three black numbers, with slightly different shades of black – a rectangular skirt with pleats that protruded at the top as well as the bottom, a piece with a low neckline with a lot of ma where a baby bump would be and an off the shoulder trench coat with massive pockets, another piece I’d actually want to own if my budget allowed.
The last one of the shadow room was, I believe, intended to be the wedding dress finale of the “collection”. It was made of mother of pearl silk twisted into vines and roses.
Shirley led us to the next section of the exhibition which was to do with “flatness” (of garments, not models). There were two darling, behive-shaped coats, with ma “out to here”, one blue and one red. I was quite partial to the blue one, although I would be at risk of being mistaken for Violet Beauregard (from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
There were a number of pieces that were more artworks than functional garments – a black jersey wrap dress that wrapped in many directions, including between the legs; 20 sheets of beige binding wrapped around a mannequin which looked a like a wad of paper towel from a public toilet; a very comfy grey patterned moo-moo with an extra arm hole around the right knee; a beige wool coat without darting that folded into squares when flat; a black princess sleeved dress with tales and a turtleneck neck that covers your nose; and a red dress with a cutout at the right hip to allow it to fold flat. My engineering brain went into over drive comparing the dresses on the mannequins to the photos of the pieces folded completely flat displayed behind them. Shirley explained that most European fashion is about making two dimensional fabric into three dimensional shapes, but that these designers were happy to maintain the two dimensionality.
The next piece was one of a series of 21 garments which folded into atlas-sized books, with beautiful library-worthy spines. These pieces were very unusual when unfolded and reminded me of the fold-out lanterns and party decorations of my childhood.
Not surprisingly, Japanese fashion is often inspired by the kimono and the next pieces we saw certainly where, except they appeared to be made from plastic and as a consequence, were very revealing. Shirley suggested wearing a body stocking under them.
The next room was all about the intersection between innovation and tradition. These was a dress that looked like a human-sized loofa; dresses with padding inserted to obscure the shape of the body, which had the appearance of grotesque tumours; an amazing jacket which was grey felt at the top but transformed into knitted cable patterns at the bottom; a red flapper dress made of translucent skulls; a glow in the dark coat that looked like it was out of mine craft; a beautiful gown that was black at the top with a red and gold oriental pattern at the bottom; a rhinestone body suit worn by Lady Gaga featuring Geisha training shoes (Geisha were trained using platform shoes containing bells so that they knew they were walking too boldly if the bells rang); waterproof dresses that looked like glass shards; and a dress made from a shredded magazine.
The “Cool Tokyo” section was where “the young people hang out” according to Shirley. There were some very interesting combinations of items, such as an astroboy singlet dress and a motorcycle helmet, but there were two pieces which I loved – a red and black lolita outfit and a cape with anime cupids.
The next room focused more on the fabric than the shape of the garment. There were some gorgeous “hipster” style prints of balloons, bicycles and toddler’s silhouettes. My favourites in this room where a shoulder less tea dress made of fabric that sat in cone shapes; a pink lolita dress which incorporated an actual large teddy bear; and a tartan piece which was accessorised with a tartan elephant handbag.
There were also some amazing dresses which were designed to fold back down into completely flat Y or hexagon shapes.
Shirley ended the tour there and began to ask the fashionistas which pieces they would actually wear.
It was about midday so I stopped for a quick snack which I had packed and then headed to the Queensland Museum for the second part of my fashion experience, Undressed.
I’m not going to describe everything I saw because I think I would have seen about 30 corsets which I couldn’t distinguish from each other but here were some of the highlights.
I had assumed that corsets would have become less restrictive and consequently less detrimental to one’s health as time progressed. This was not the case for Edwardian S-bend corsets, which were in fact much worse for posture than their Victorian predecessors because they thrust out the bust and pushed the hips backwards. Edwardians valued women who looked like they were rich enough to be well fed and the word “mono-bussom” was used to describe one of the desirable features of the “it girl” of the time. According to this information, I think that Mrs Hughes and Mrs Patmore would have had the most fashionable figures of the Downton Abbey ladies for the Edwardian season. Ladies Mary, Edith and Sybil would have been considered far too skinny with too much distinction between their breasts and their hips too far forward.
I saw a scarlet flannel petticoat which was recommended as a solution to many of the health issues plagued by British women. Flannel makes sense. It’s warm and breathes. But the health recommendation related to the colour of the flannel too. Apparently the shade of red mattered a great deal… Perhaps it made the women go faster so they spent less time outside or got more exercise?
The collection displayed a Liberty Bodice which was a type of corset advertised for war work. It looked pretty sturdy and featured industrial strength suspenders. I can’t imagine having to go through the horrors of treating men who’d been gassed or had limbs severed, fighting off infections, flies and dysentery in a make shift camp, only to have one’s stockings slip. What a nightmare!
One of the oldest bras in any museum collection was actually in pretty good condition. It was a little cotton thing that looked a little bit like a cropped v-neck shirt with a button at the front, darting in the appropriate places and a tie from the back to the front that met under the bust line.
One of the corsets that sticks out in my memory was one that looked like it was made of ribbons which was recommended for being worn while playing golf.
My favourite piece was a bed jacket that was made of emerald green brocade and was almost shaped to accommodate a bustle. I would definitely be happy to stay home all the time if I was allowed to wear one of those throughout my palatial estate.
I also saw actual underpants worn by Queen Victoria. They were technically crotchless because closed drawers were considered unhygienic at the time. We were quite amused.
Another fun(bag) fact… most bullet bras of the 40s contained plastic, foam or even inflatable inserts to achieve the very pointed look that was in fashion.
I was also quite intrigued by the Little X girdle – a feat in materials engineering. And also, it came in blue!
There was also a set of medical metal stays, which were used to treat spine problems, many caused by fastening one’s ordinary stays too tightly.
Very close to the end, a corset dress worn by Emma Watson to a Harry Potter premier was on display.
I watched a looped documentary about many of the pieces in the exhibition. One of the interesting points made by the underwear expert (Corsetologist?) was that throughout history the (perceived) perfect body shape can be traced by underwear artefacts found but that now, underwear is not really designed to enforce a body shape and women are just expected to be a particular shape, controlling their bodies by diet, exercise and surgery.
Have we really been emancipated by having our corset laces cut or have we just swapped one torture device for another?