The practice of Australian art history has displayed a consistent tendency towards a canonical narrative.
The word ‘canon’, as it is used today with reference to works of art, builds on these two ideas of ‘aesthetic value’ and ‘ one standard’. When people speak of the canon of works they usually mean a body of works that have passed a (rather ambiguous) test of value. Despite its inherent ambiguity, the idea of a canon has assumed the air of spurious precision: it has come to mean a body of works deemed to be of indisputable quality within a particular culture or influential subculture (Perry 1999: 21).
The foundational narrative that established this tendency is the writings of Bernard Smith, long regarded as exemplary benchmarking. Smith established a highly modernist practice of art history based upon a binary exclusion of conservative art against radical and a search for the holy grail of modernism. Smith had a particular preference for humanist and figurative content, exemplified by his advocacy of the antipodean mythic figurative painters in the late 1950s against abstraction which was seen as a cultural influence from North America. Whilst the heroic modernism of Smith’s approach is no longer cogent, with the development of more updated metanarratives such as post-colonialism and art theory, which have shaped the practice of writing around historic Australian art, aspects of his triumphant binaries of good and bad, important and irrelevant still remain.
Whilst scholarly competence may be the stated aim, the desire for a clearly defined, narrowly-stated, self evident narrative of art itself upholds highly conservative paradigms, especially in the practice of discussing historic art. Overseas scholars debate the limitations of public presentation and discussion of art history. Gallery exhibitions, especially the blockbuster, may even be ‘inimical to the development of art historical scholarship’ on account of their ratification of the ‘old, familiar narrative of a heroic avant garde pursuing its artistic goals without regard for conventional expectations’ (Barker 1999: 139). If we follow a Canadian text by Sharon Brooks and suggest that curating ‘is a modernist practice’ emerging from ‘the modernist impetus to transform the world’, (Brooks 1996: 97) we can see that the curator functions like Bernard Smith’s history of Australian painting to deliver (white) Australia from the abject, liminal and ambiguous. Brooks notes that in Canada despite ‘a rhetorical divestment of modernist assumptions’, the structures of ‘curatorial practice’ are still modernist and exhibition projects are embedded in such concepts as “eureka! I’ve found ‘the idea’ …” or the ‘great artist’ (Brooks 1996: 99). Similar patterns are in operation around Australian public gallery exhibitions. In recent discussion by the Melbourne Age around the theme of the validity of the blockbuster, it is interesting to note that Brian Kennedy, a figure who was often at the controversial outer margins of peer-group esteem, considered them to be “a triumph of form over content”, whereas Betty Churcher, a figure wholeheartedly granted peer-group validation, defended their credibility.
This paper seeks to make an intervention into the predictability if not de facto conservatism of discussing historic Australian art by using fashion and artists’ depiction of fashion in Australian art from the 1880s to the 1940s. I present a loose a-historical catchment of artists, who engage attention because, despite its invisibility within conventional narratives such as those of Bernard Smith, dress is clearly a matter of great interest to these artists, and the attention that they pay to it in their artworks does allow for a range of interesting and diverse issues to emerge. As I have consciously sought to establish wide and loose parameters, I do not seek to draw any closely argued theoretical conclusion from the examples that I give, other than to indicate the fashion and dress have – albeit in perhaps simple and illustrative vocabularies – engaged the emotional and aesthetic attention of Australian artists for at least a century earlier than the current clear interest in and interchange between fashion and art. This limpid vocabulary of fashionable cross-references not only gains cogency because it is one of the many elided ‘Others’ in the long-accepted metanarrative of Australian art history, but also it does provide a pedigree and a context for current practices of both writers and artists in Australia. Rather than providing an exhaustive list of artists engaged with fashion, I have consciously sought to indicate the variety of artists engaged with fashion and the variety of the possible points of interaction with the subject. Before discussing the chosen artists, I outline a fairly basic and standard overview of the interaction of curatorial, academic and art historical discourses around fashion and public visual culture overseas and in Australia that has greatly vivified and expanded the possibilities of mainstream framing of visual culture over the last decade and a half. The work of British art historian Aileen Rebeiro indicates how detailed fashion knowledges can revive and breathe new interest into expected and known areas of art history. I also identify Australian art writers such as Callaway and Niehoff who have engaged with specific aspects of dress represented in historic Australian artworks. The intention is to indicate how fashion and dress have had a longer cultural presence in Australia than either the current interest in cross-overs of Australian art and fashion. Also relevant is the last half decades’ increased media interest in and recognition of Australian fashion and its practices.
The fashion/art interchange
The relationship of fashion and contemporary Australian visual culture is a central platform of current ideas around present day art practice. This is indicated by the fact that conferences like ‘The Space Between’ conference (Perth, April, 2004) have occurred. Nevertheless the multiple relationships between white Australian visual experience of the last two hundred years and dress has not been systematically studied and overviewed. This paper raises some basic issues around the relationship of dress to historic white Australian visual culture. Textual description provides some introductory case studies of the diverse manner in which artists have interacted with fashion. Text-based discussion also indicates how fashion has shaped and illuminated the Australian visual culture experience generations before fashion has been accorded a place within the institutional and academic hierarchy. Methodological purists may notice that my broad definition of fashion includes high fashion, historic dress, fancy dress, fantasy costuming, middle class domestic practices of both display and garment making and transnational cosmopolitan elegance, amongst others. My aim is to indicate the variety and multiplicity of nodes of contact with ‘dress’ with the sensibilities and Weltanschauung of many different Australian artists. I have purposely kept the parameters loose and open to provide a basic indication of the pervasive quality of fashion in the visual arts. I do not attempt to set out a firm theoretical trajectory of the role of fashion and dress in Australian art; that is a much-desired project which would demand more time, research and wordcount than is available.
Some performative aspects of dress and self-presentation have received attention from Australian scholars. Anita Callaway integrates the more expressive and strategic elements of exceptional dress such as masquerade and theatrical performance into her discussion of alternative art practices in colonial Australia (Callaway 2000, pp. 86-101). This inclusion of aspects of dress into Callaway’s definition of an alternative colonial art cohort has a strategic post modernist-feminist, pro-fashion impetus. As a colonial society writing over an indigenous society, the whole of nineteenth century white Australian culture could be regarded as an act of masquerade, an act of impostership, and dress certainly assisted this Eurocentric and Europhile transformation of the supposedly empty and culture-less Australian land.
In the last decade fashion advanced up the intellectual ladder, partly because there is a far greater intellectual honesty about the imbrecation of art and commodity. The shared histories of fashion and contemporary art and shopping and contemporary art have been celebrated in recent years by major curatorial projects: the 1996 Florence Biennale, Rapture: Art’s Seduction by Fashion Since 1970 (Townsend 2002) and Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture (Gruenenberg and Hollein 2002). The latter indicates how fashion and the display techniques associated with the selling of fashion and style have influenced the framing and presentation of ‘high art’. Advanced thought from Baudelaire to photographers such as Atget, to Walter Benjamin to the surrealists has acknowledged the role of fashion, commodity fetishes and retail in cultural life and the shaping and defining of the experience of the modern city. Modernity in public life has been tied up with a sense of negotiating modern life as the trafficking and counter trafficking of commodities. These ideas have in turn informed the madeover genre of fashion writing. Authors such as Valerie Steele, Paris Fashion (1999) and Elizabeth Wilson The Sphinx in the City (1991) particularly associate fashion with a sense of ‘place’ in the modern city. Nancy Troy posits that the anxieties about replication and exclusivity that have concerned art theory in the wake of the art of Marcel Duchamp are similarly articulated through high fashion (Troy 2003, pp. 7-10).
The consistent and prolific oeuvre of Aileen Ribeiro particularly indicates the importance of fashion to the development of the New Art histories. She ratifies the firm and intense connoiseurship and knowledge of the old English school of ladylike object-based dress studies but also uses paintings to generate more sophisticated and intense discussion around the fashion of a given era. Other examples of new art histories where dress, gesture, mores and status extends the field of discussion for the historian would include Hollis Clayson’s writings (1991; 2002) and Degas and the Dance (Devonyar and Kendall 2002). For Aileen Rebeiro fashions seen in portraiture (1999, pp. 9-13; 2000, pp. 9-11, 22-23) become part of a complex dialogue of choices, parries and exclusions between represented and represented. Dress is a series of codes that the represented engages in to assist in projecting their persona and chosen image and status to the world. Rank, status, position, social and political allegiances, personal relationships and history and finally the intimate details of their inner state and psychology are all to be ‘read’ through the portrait. Additionally functional illustrative information about the clothes being worn may be gleaned from the picture. The message of the sitter then interacts with and is partly facilitated by and partly overwritten by the artist. The hand/mind of the artist colours and edits the final message. These editings again can take place on several levels and in different processes and contexts. Differing patterns of patronage can inflect the portrait. In eras when the artist was relegated to a functionary, his or her fairly transparent presence permitted the efficient detailing of the message chosen by a sitter, backed by state, regal or religious structures. Rebeiro also identifies certain artists as more fashion literate than others suggesting that some artists respond with a particular intensity to the details of fashionable style and are alert to nuances of stylistic and seasonal variations and class hierarchies as expressed through dress (1999, pp. 15-16).
Illustrations of and interactions with dress in Australian art history
Which Australian artists could sustain such readings, as offered by this overseas synthesis of fashion and art history? Certainly dress has been indicated as being important to the 1920s visibility of women and has been treated as a sign in itself of the increased visibility of women in public life. Although in one of the earliest essay on the roles of women in relation to the growing modernity of daily life in 1920s Australia by Pamela Niehoff (1994, pp. 38-52) there is relatively little discussion of certain artists such as Esther Paterson The Yellow Glove (1938 New England Regional Art Museum) or Agnes Goodsir Woman With A Cigarette (c. 1925 Australian National Gallery) who make the most vivid connection between the new fashions of the interwar period, the practical and tailored aesthetic and the more unmediated and the direct social personas assumed by women. Paterson and Goodsir are possibly invisible in early accounts of representation of women as they are relatively illustrative and conservative artists. However this very narrative quality allows the viewer to read the gestures of the new women who publicly smoke and drink, who challenge the viewer with their glance, but are not marked as prostitutes. Seeking only of signs of progressive formal techniques in paintings may in fact obscure the sophisticated uses of dress codes that can appear in supposedly ‘academic’ artists.
Thea Proctor is one of the few historic Australian artists who is consistently discussed in relation to fashion (Jordan 1994, pp. 33-37; Nunn 2002, pp. 73-89). She is aligned with the uses of dress and styling as signs of the modern in an early twentieth century European context. Her art drew from the Australian Charles Conder who forged and was part of a pan-European trend in fin de siËcle art. Conder sought to reference the fanciful nature of historic dress as a radical refusal of the bourgeois and an expression of an avant garde spirit, including in his overview artists such as the Mir Isskustvia group, Lucien Leandre and Thomas Theodore Heine. The connection is made more explicit as Proctor painted fans, a genre associated with Conder (Nunn 2002, p. 75) and she depicted actual costumes worn by Diaghilev’s company. Proctor used fashion and dress as part of the development of a charismatic persona and there is a famous photograph of her taken in the 1920s wearing a Victorian styled dress
Janet Cumbrae Stewart is another artist for whom costume in the sense of disguise and fantasy has also been very important (Peers 2003, pp. 22-24). This fact has been rarely acknowledged because her conservative style encouraged later historians to misread or belittle her work. Like Proctor, photographs of Cumbrae Stewart in period dress survive so we know that fashion was part of her personal self-projection. Even her travelling scholarship picture entitled Grandmother’s Gown showing a girl in a crinoline dress parading before her friends acknowledges generational change in fashion. Photographs of Cumbrae Stewart in period style clothing also reference popular rituals of dressing up, fancy dress and tableaux vivants that were part of the social life of Australian artists’ societies and guilds in the early 1900. She is one of the earliest Australian artists to proactively reference the potential of dress as a strategy, a mask to create a certain desired impression or to evoke a fantasy -driven, exotic world. Unlike the work of Norman Lindsay from the same era, who has received less criticism from art historians for the overall folly of his vision, Cumbrae Stewart does not embed exotic costume into an extended quasi-cinematic story but focuses on the transformative potential of dress and accessories worn (or partly worn) by a single figure to imply/create wideranging escapist associations and narratives.
Rituals around costume also feature in Australian artists’ works, such as scenes of shopping: Margaret Francis Milliners Shop (c 1939 Warrnambool Art Gallery) or Thea Proctor Hat Shop (1919 Art Gallery of New South Wales). Grace Cossington-Smith’sLacquer Room (1936 Art Gallery of New South Wales) is an indication of the shopping space that provided both a safe haven for the respectable woman in the city and a new site for transgression as the shop lifter. Amalie Colquhoun’s tonal painting The Bridesmaid (c 1940 Bendigo Art Gallery) which shows a young woman being fitted for a dress in production on a home sewing machine both indicates the importance of dress to suburban rites of passage and affirms the ubquitousness of the making of dresses in ordinary Australian homes prior to the opening of the market for cheap clothing imports in the 1970s. Another important issue around the domestic place of sewing: the patriotic role of female handicrafts in backing the male heroics of the state in wartime is referenced by Grace Cossington Smith’s Sock Knitter (1915 Art Gallery of New South Wales) Vida Lahey’s Monday Morning (1906 Queensland Art Gallery) indicates the cyclic, Sisyphus-like curse of washing clothes – the downside of fashion. Lahey’s work is often celebrated as a clear incursion of the female experience into early 20th century art making. The more ambiguous issue of dressing and undressing rituals appear in Proctor and Cumbrae Stewart whose oeuvres include figures actively removing or putting on garments, as well as motionless artschool nudes.
Any indication of the garment industry from the couturier’s atelier to the sweatshop is relatively underrepresented. Sewing machine operatives in Australian art are generally home dressmakers, not only in Colquhoun’s work but also in John Brack’s image from the 1950s. Artur Loureiro’s Seamstress’s Dream (c 1885 National Gallery of Victoria) shows the artists’ wife working with a sewing machine, but in real life she was an artist and writer , and worked for some years as art critic for The Age, sewing clothes was only part of her identity and certainly not the sum of her professional life amongst her peers. Sewing women are well outnumbered by painted women in the kitchen preparing food. Could one suggest that Australian male artists sought to obliterate sewing as a site of female creativity that embellished women as much as served the more insistent needs of male nourishment and support? Whilst Annie McCubbin sewed many elaborate dresses for herself and others, she is depicted mostly as a cook or as a mother when her husband’s pictures show her engaged in work.
Fashion as more than illustrative subject for Australian artists
The previous examples could be categorised as more or less documentary in their approach to fashion. From such artworks one can gain a great understanding of style and fashion and how it was worn in Australia. For some Australian artists fashion became a point of more theoretical issue-based contemplation. Rupert Bunny had a personal judgment of and investment in fashion that is not so much the clear, neutral reportage that it was for Roberts. The latter, despite his reputation as an authority in bush scenes, painted many effective images of fashionable women. Often the surfaces and substances of dress fabrics can be read in detail. Other artists who provide satisfying informational images of fashion include Herbert Badham in his 1930s and 1940s realist scenes of inner suburban Sydney interiors and Paterson and Goodsir, as cited above.
Conversely rather than illustration, for Bunny, costume was part of a theoretical contemplation, a paradigm. Bunny’s pictures are now considered not to ‘mean’ or illustrate anything and are posited to be a symbolist elaboration on a theme rather like an abstract musical expression. It is, therefore, no surprise that dresses are repeated, as too, the image of his wife becomes paradigmatic of woman or beauty. Her features also appear from work to work. Mary Eagle, who describes Bunny as ‘Proustian’ in his vision (1991b, p. 8) notes that in a particular series of works Days and Nights in August, fashion remains frozen around 1907 in work after work (1991a, p. 60). Bunny, however, in his formal portraits observed the passing fashion scene with great authority.
In the work of both Bunny and his contemporary Emmanuel Phillips Fox, clothes are studio props that can be repeated from work to work, therefore they are not the real choice of an actual wearer. Fox’s striped dress appears both at supposedly an elegant Parisian afternoon tea party The Arbour (c1910 National Gallery of Victoria) and with the addition of a hat and a stole it serves as fashionable streetwear on a quay at a fashionable seaside resort, possibly Trouville, in The Ferry (c1910-1911 Art Gallery of New South Wales). Fox did not have the same complex avant garde aims as Bunny, rather he was constructing scenes of an elegant belle Èpoque life that he could just manage to aspire to economically in the pre-first world war era. He adapted various source materials, Australian and European, into the seemingly natural reportage of his scenes of elegant French life (Fox 1985, pp. 66-68). Most famous is the boy wearing a red sailor suit in The Arbour. His body was painted from a model in Paris, but Fox used a study of an Australian nephew for the head and facial features. As Len Fox wryly commented seven decades later, he would not have survived very long in the schoolyard at Tooronga Road State School, Melbourne, had he worn such an elegant sailor suit (Fox 1985, p. 68).
Edwardian and 1920s dress as depicted by George Lambert assumes a degree of symbolic timelessness – yet remains very much expressive of the material reality of the originating era of the artworks. In pictures such as Important People (1914 Art Gallery of New South Wales), Weighing the Fleece (1921 National Gallery of Australia) and The Shop (1909 Art Gallery of New south Wales) dress becomes part of a code of layered symbolic meanings evoking the symbolic languages of earlier artists. Lambert’s aesthetic was informed by his knowledge of seventeenth century and baroque art. Violet Teague’s Sergeant-esque formal portraits of women suggest that such elegance could be constructed in Melbourne, as both works and sitters were based in that city. Hilda Rix Nicholas suggests that the Australian landscape could itself inform cosmopolitan concepts of elegance – and she sites fashionable style at both polarities of the difference around the Australian rural property – the homestead garden In the Summer House (c. 1933 Newcastle Regional Art Gallery) and the outer areas of the pastoral holdings.
There is no special pleading needed to indicate that fashion is central to a range of contemporary visual cultural practices in Australia from cultural programs of fashion promotional festivals, to the subjects of honours and postgraduate art projects to popular media and the explosion of magazine titles in Australia around the lifestyle and fashion area. Whilst popular media commentaries have claimed that Australian fashion has ‘come of age’ in the 1990s, the evidence provided by Australian artists also indicates that knowledges and uses of fashion have a far longer history than the recent emergence of industry-based celebrations of the Australian fashion trade. This paper indicates that even an empirical uncritical sweep attests to the range and the variety of artists’ engagement with fashion. Not only is fashion present in many historic artworks at the basic level of illustration of the society around the artist and its social and personal practices, but there are more conscious and strategic approaches to fashion, where it invokes an imagined world, creates a persona, indicates a simple but crucial movement from the mimetic to the constructed. This preceding account does not claim to be comprehensive but it does indicate that current practice has a lively prehistory that until recent years found no validation in the methods of constructing and coalescing metanarratives. Fashion is a point of short circuiting the narrow predictable art historical content of narratives justified by landscape, nationalist and art-market/collector paradigms
This discussion is drawn from my forthcoming essay: ‘Grasping the Gecko’s Tail – Some considerations of the Heidelberg School in a Post Nine Eleven Millenium’ in the forthcoming anthology Radical Revisionism in Australian Art , ed Dr Rex Butler, Brisbane: IMA Press.
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