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Modern Australian fashion

Nicola Finetti, Dress of silk georgette, silk chiffon and metallic embroidery on silk organza. Photographers: Lyn Balzer and Anthony Perkins. Image courtesy of Powerhouse Museum.

Modern Australia has a unique fashion style that is able to be clearly distinguished from European fashion lines. Whereas European fashion has a more tailored approach, Australian fashion has a more casual approach.

Fashion is distinguished from dress by its nature in that is been fashioned or created, often by hand, and it reflects the prevailing styles in 'polite society' rather than being based on function. Fashion can be defined by colour, cut, cloth, garment type, garment styles and interpretation of looks.

Many of Australia's top designers have been inspired by an extraordinary range of Australian fashion textiles and cultural influences. In turn, Australian creations, such as those by Wayne Cooper, Collette Dinnigan, Akira Isogawa, Lisa Ho, Martin Grant, Carla Zampatti, Easton Pearson, Michelle Jank and Nicola Finetti are in global demand.

Cloth and colour

Chinese and Japanese silks and Egyptian cottons

A photograph of a cotton dress trimmed with beads, ruched silk-velvet shawl by Akira Isogawa.

Cotton dress trimmed with beads, ruched silk-velvet shawl by Akira Isogawa. Image courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum

Chinese silk embroidered shawls and Chinese surcoats brought into Australia by Chinese Australians in the late 1800s through to the 1930s have influenced the choice of cloth, cut and colour of Australian fashion. Women in the 1920s and 1930s wore silk and embroidered evening coats and overblouses made of chiffon, georgette or velvet, which borrowed heavily from the prevailing Chinese influences in cut and colour as well as using locally sourced materials.

These items were worn over decades and have a place in the living memory of women's wardrobes, such as a tangerine coloured georgette evening coat, labelled by Freebody & Debenham in 1920, with long sleeves and the hem set off by broad bands of figured black and tangerine ground velvet (H6214).

Japanese silks have also been influential - evident in Akira Isogawa's collections of the 1990s based on his mother's kimonos. In 2002 Isogawa reinterpreted a turn-of-the-century hand-ruched silk taffeta frock to create a shawl from silk velvet. Isogawa's work is distinguished by his use of transparent fabrics, layering of garments, unusual combinations of textures and fabrics and his re-use of antique kimono fabrics and traditional Asian textiles.

Silk organza and other lightweight silks are a favourite cloth for Nicola Finetti and Collette Dinnigan. Finetti and Dinnigan dresses are renowned for the way they drape and sculpt bodies in a wearable albeit subtle cut, often to sensual dramatic effect. In 1995, Collette Dinnigan was the first Australian to mount a full-scale ready-to-wear parade in Paris as invited by the 'Chambre Syndicale du pret-a-porter des courtiers ets createurs de mode'.

Cut and garment type

The choice of colour and cloth in combination with an outdoors life and a 'greater freedom' with which Australians express themselves has contributed greatly to an Australian sense of fashion, in the cut and garment types.

Australian women know what they want to wear and their choice may vary considerably from what European and American women wear. They want to be comfortable and favour a casual attitude. Australian women tend to be tall, with good figures, which means they can wear pants and jackets, for instance, with flair and style.
Symons 1983 in Craik, 2006

Coats and stoles 1920s–1930s

The cut and style of overdresses and coats in Australian fashion have been influenced by Chinese and Egyptian surcoats and Japanese kimonos. Formal and informal Chinese surcoats were brought into Australia by Chinese Australians in the latter half of the 19th century. Egyptian 'Asyut' embroidered cotton coats purchased in Cairo were popular with ship passengers travelling between Great Britain and Australia from 1900 to the 1930s.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the cut of these coats was translated into a more casual and flowing line using lightweight silks and local fur and down for decoration. A black and white chiffon silk velvet evening coat with pink floral patterning made around 1920 has its sleeve and neck edges trimmed with broad bands of black swans' down - an exquisite light sensual combination showing definitive Chinese, Egyptian and native Australian influence (H6024).

Designers and dress makers made use of locally available Chinese fabrics, interpreting the popular style in surcoats and overblouses, like 'Rosetta of Clifton' and 'Franosa' (H6017), who created a hip-length woman's overblouse in black chiffon with a crossover front and loose long sleeves, about 1928.

Trousers and jackets 1930s–present

Trousers were adopted by the squatters' daughters and the aviatrix of the 1930s, and this contributed to trousers becoming a popular icon of the modern Australian woman. In the 1940s, women's experience in war time, including their contribution to the Women's Land Army, cemented the popularity of trousers for Australian women.

In the 1960s, Australian designer Joseph Saba began cutting trousers as part a response to the new uncomplicated chic styles of the 1960s. Since the 1980s, Carla Zampatti has been renowned for her cut and interpretation of jackets and trousers, mixing traditional Italian styling with post-modern references to create a distinctive cut using cloth, such as linen and lightweight wool, suitable for the Australian climate. Zampatti is regarded as taking women's business clothes into understated, elegant feminine styles.

Frocks – the mini skirt 1965–present

The cut of frock which has had most influence on Australian fashion was the mini skirt worn by English model Jean Shrimpton at Derby Day at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne on 30 October 1965 (Image ID 1754900).

'The Shrimp' left many VRC members aghast when, as a judge for Fashions on the Field, she wore this simple - and, at the time, revealing - outfit, sans gloves and hat, to Derby Day.

Prue Acton, a young 21-year-old fashion designer in Flinders Lane, Melbourne, responded by supplying mini-dresses to her clients: 'Overnight we were cutting the skirts. We were cutting two inches off, and the next week, another two and another two. By Christmas we were up to something quite disgusting' (Interview with George Negus, ABC TV, 29 April 2004).

A photograph by Helmut Newton, c. 1960, from the

Helmut Newton (1920-2004), No title, c. 1960, gelatin silver photograph in Paris End exhibition. Helmut Newton and Henry Talbot Estates. Courtesy National Gallery of Victoria.

The young Australian designers of the 1960s recognised that, universally, young men and women no longer wished to dress like their parents. They created garments that were 'inexpensive, uncomplicated and chic'. The new 'look' was a fusion of image and attitude created through fashion, make-up, accessories and hairstyles. The new Australian fashion was:

a clean, well-scrubbed beauty, dead-level gaze and complete disregard for compromise or artifice. They go with their generation in a very Chelsea direction... these are the girls who will wipe the fashion slate clean and scrawl on it with their own straightforward, but unmistakable signature.
Flair, February 1964

Central to this was the establishment of the boutique with its mass-produced, ready-to-wear designs and fast turnover. This transferred what had previously been the preserve of the elite to a mass audience.

Prue Acton is said to have led the democratisation of fashion and laid the foundations for today's fashion industry through the process of converting her young girl's dress label into an international enterprise. Prue Acton was described as someone who 'effortlessly created fashion in the Australian vernacular' (Humphries, 1996).

A photograph of a camel coat designed by Martin Grant, 2005-6.

Martin Grant, Camel coat, 2005-06 autumn-winter, wool, polyamide. Collection of Martin Grant, Paris. Photographer: Polly Borland. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.

The mini-dress demonstrated the quintessential baby-doll look - synonymous with the 1960s - which displaced the womanly 'New Look' silhouette of the 1950s. Skinny pinafores, cut-away shifts and hotpants all represented new types of garments.

Martin Grant, established in Paris since 1992, has continued this preference and is well known for his finely cut, classic-lined signature dresses, coats and capes. His first collection on the official schedule of the Paris couture fashion runway shows of Paris Fashion Week was presented in 2006. Martin Grant began his career in Melbourne in the early 1980s and was named the Cointreau Young Designer of the Year in Sydney.

Sarongs, saris and skirts 1970s

Sarongs from Indonesia and saris from India have influenced the choice of cut in skirts and garment style for Australian women. Sarongs have been brought into Australia since around 1900, mainly from central Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra, Bali, Timor and Malaysia. Saris from Gujarat and Varanasi in India were notably brought into Australia from the 1950s. This influenced 'the look' of the 1960s and the hippy idiom.

In the 1970s, the sarong design became very popular through Mary Shackman who, after 1975, specialised in hand-painted and printed designs for her own resort wear ranges of t-shirts, sarongs and accessories. These sold through Country Road, Sportsgirl, Dynamite, Cherry Lane, Hot Shops, David Jones and Robert Burton. By the 1980s, the cut and style of sarongs came to dominate Australian beach wear and leisure wear and most Australian woman would have had at least one sarong style skirt in her wardrobe.

Fashion design and installation 1980s

Straddling the boundaries between art and fashion, Katie Pye was an Australian fashion icon throughout the 1980s. Pye was renowned for her avant-garde works, explorations of graphic forms and innovative fabric treatments. These were developed in a context of contextual photography and video works.

Individual, experimental and highly unorthodox, her work constantly challenged the conventional limitations of fashionable dress. Integrating performance, design, art and fashion, Pye represented an energetic current that introduced new visual and conceptual models to Australian fashion.
Katie Pye, Clothes for Modern Lovers, The Ian Potter Centre.

Headwear and millinery

Due to the lack of imported hats and the need to wear a hat in hot climate areas, cabbage palm hats were also a popular item of early Australian dress. These hats are significant as the only distinctive item of Australian dress made entirely from Australian materials, with the plaiting often done by local Aboriginal groups.

Serena Linden, Myers winning hat, Melbourne, 2006

Serena Linden, Myers winning hat, Melbourne, 2006. Courtesy of Serena Linden and Victorian Racing Club.

Emu feathers and horses have also influenced local dress since the 1800s. By 1900 an emu feather plume adorned the slouch hats of the Australian Light Horsemen, worn on active service in the Boer War and again in Egypt during the First World War - soldiers fought for the right to wear this plume.

The Akubra hat, made from rabbit hair in a mechanised felt making process, perhaps epitomises the look of bushwear. The label 'Akubra' was coined in 1918 and has become synonymous with the hats themselves (Eager 1998).

Feathers, felt and trimmings continue to play a large part in the labour intensive Australia's headwear and millinery industry. A Millinery Award and Design Award is presented each year at the Melbourne Cup by the Victorian Racing Club. Styles vary from the quirky to the outrageous and draw their inspiration from Australian flora and fauna as well as other global influences. Millinery themes, colour, materials and inspiration can vary from sea anemone through serpentine trees to a black cockatoo's plume and tropical flowers as evidenced by Serena Linden's creations - winner of the Myer Fashions on the Field Millinery Award at Flemington in 2006.

Today the headwear/millinery industry comprises manufacturing of high volume production headwear, and creation of customised millinery, in an small trader and fashion environment. An estimated 280 businesses employed 2,560 people, generating an annual turnover of $245 million, in 2000-01.

Fashion promotion

In 2010, 190 Australian fashion companies are listed in the Austrade Stylefile with full profiles available of companies exporting overseas. Australian labels are currently exporting their designs to boutiques and department stores in Asia, Europe and the United States as well as many other countries across the world. These have been helped variously by the fashion promotion events below.

The Source @ RAFW. Courtesy of Rosemount Australian Fashion Week.

Australian Fashion Weeks – Sydney and Melbourne

The Fashion Weeks showcase the work of emerging designers. Especially noted by the fashion and beauty bible Vogue as designers to watch are Tina Kalivas, Claude Maus, Kit Willow Michelmore, Arabella Ramsay, and Gabriel Scarvelli.

In May more than 150 Australian designers participate in the Australian Fashion Week in Sydney. This is an industry event attended by international fashion buyers and fashion media to preview the designers' forthcoming spring/summer collections.

Long known as Australia’s style capital, Melbourne hosts the L'Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival, held each year in March. Established in 1997, it is a combined initiative which offers fashion lovers a choice of catwalk shows, parties, product launches, exhibitions, and industry events to attend that capture the glamour and creativity of Australian fashion.

Careers

Many Australians have attracted international acclaim working in the fashion industry. As well as designing and textiles, other fashion-oriented careers include fashion journalism, fashion photography, make-up artistry, hairdressing, fashion styling and modelling. Aspiring designers in Australia usually complete a tertiary qualification, with the highest-profile course in Australia offered by Melbourne's RMIT.

Useful links

Australian fashion and textile resources

Australian fashion events

Australian designers

Fashion and textiles education

Fashion reading

About fashion

Look, listen and play

Print references

Eager, Alan, 'Akubra. An Aussie Icon', Outback. The Heart of Australia, vol. 1, pp. 58- 62, 1998

Last updated: 25th November 2013

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