Flora & Fauna

October 2, 2015
Embellishment - metallic thread and gilt bead reticule, 1890
Embellishment - metallic thread and gilt bead reticule, 1890

Fashion exhibitions have drawn millions of visitors to the world’s leading art museums, but there are still cultural snobs who believe such events merely trivialise an institution. I can hardly be bothered rehearsing the old argument that sees fashion as a filthy commodity while art is food for the soul and the intellect. It’s an utterly specious idea that doesn’t survive one minute’s exposure to a great costume display.

Charlotte Smith, who styles herself a fashion anthropologist, is the owner of the Darnell Collection, Australia’s biggest private fashion holdings. Unlike figures such as Judith Neilson and David Walsh, Smith has no gallery, and relatively modest resources. She has been obliged to put the collection to work in an enterprising program of events and exhibitions in Australia and overseas. The latest installment is Flora & Fauna: The Nature of Fashion, at the Blue Mountains City Art Gallery, in Katoomba.

The Darnell Collection came into Smith’s life in 2004 when she inherited 3,500 items from her god-mother, Doris Darnell, of Philadelphia, who must have been the only Quaker in history with a fashion obsession. Smith felt inspired by Doris’s example and has continued to expand the collection to the point where it numbers more than 8,000 pieces. Most of her recent acquisitions have been donations from people who have long preserved some wonderful items of clothing they’ll never wear. Every Darnell exhibition unearths new discoveries.

Part of the fun of owning such a collection has been the opportunity to produce shows on diverse themes, and Smith has turned herself into a highly professional curator. In 2013-14 she put together a survey for Hazlehurst and Newcastle called After Five, which concentrated on evening wear. For her home territory, the Blue Mountains, she has gone back to nature.

The relationship between fashion and nature is an uneasy one. Nothing could be more artificial than a piece of haute couture, while nature has traditionally been seen as the antidote to all forms of artifice and pretense. Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose 1836 essay, Nature, laid the foundations for American Transcendentalism, saw the experience of the natural world as a communion with the Divine spirit. His precondition for this spiritual connection was solitude.

Solitude finds its antithesis in fashion, which exists to be seen and appreciated by others. The pilgrim may take a lonely walk in the woods, but the dandy strolls down the high street, eager to impress. No wonder Emerson’s view of fashion was so sour: “It is only when the mind and character slumber that the dress can be seen.”

This line proves that even the greatest of intellects is capable of a shallow thought, because clothing is a universal language by which we set the boundaries of our identity. Before a person opens their mouth to speak we make a preliminary judgement about their mind and character from the way they are dressed.

Nature is enlisted in the social theatre of fashion in terms of materials and symbolism. Nobody would contend that a bikie’s leather jacket is sending the same message as a floral print dress. Fashion is an expression of our tribe, our personality, or simply our mood. It may also be a form of disguise – a feeling I get whenever I put on a suit and tie.

The earliest clothing was simply an animal skin, followed by garments made from coarse plant fibres. As we have grown more sophisticated we have moved further away from the state of nature, but looked to the natural world for an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

Flora & Fauna is divided into six sections: Lace, Embroidery, Printed Textiles, Embellishments, Woven and Textured Textiles, Flora and Fauna as Material. This list gives no suggestion of the quality of the items on display, which range over two centuries and many different parts of the world. The theme has allowed Smith to include some oddities, such as a stole, made by the Melbourne firm of Nettleburgs in the 1890s, that incorporates no fewer than four dyed fox pelts complete with eyes, teeth and claws – albeit plastic.

M. Nettleberg Pty Ltd fur capelet and muff 1890 Melbourne & Port Melbourne, Australia dyed fox, boot buttons, plastic combs, silk satin lining, leather

M. Nettleberg Pty Ltd fur capelet and muff 1890 Melbourne & Port Melbourne, Australia dyed fox, boot buttons, plastic combs, silk satin lining, leather

What makes this piece even weirder is that the foxes have been dyed jet black, rendering them almost unrecognisable. It may have been an attempt to make them resemble a more prestigious animal, such as a mink, but the effect is sinister, like a prop from a Hammer horror movie.

On the other side of the ledger there is a late Victorian lace tea gown by the Cincinnati dressmaker, Anna Dunlevy, that is the result of many hundreds of hours of patient stitching by poor Irish seamstresses. Each woman would have specialised in a different type of floral motif, the gown growing by a process of accumulation. It’s a staggering piece of work – a dress to astound the guests when worn at one of those at-home functions where tea and buttered toast were served. One also thinks of the lacemakers being paid a few pennies for the painstaking labour involved in its creation.

Fashion has been one of history’s most lop-sided industries, with articles that sell for thousands of dollars being produced in sweatshops. This is still the case today, as profits will always be more attractive than ethical considerations. There are progressive campaigns among some of the big fashion houses to avoid the worst forms of exploitation but only the most rarefied tip of the industry is immune from suspicion. If you’re buying haute couture from Paris you may be certain it was made on the spot. The prices are so astronomical there is no need to look for economies. During the annual shows many outfits are being worked on up until the moment they appear on the runway.

New innovations such as silkscreen and digital image printing, by contemporary designers such as Mary Katrantzou, have allowed for incredible detail for far less effort. The show includes a Katrantzou evening gown with a purplish floral motif.

Historically there were other dangers for textile workers apart from eyestrain. A beautiful, delicately embroidered French skirt and bodice (c. 1845) was most probably arsenic-dyed – a process that shortened the lives of factory hands, and sometimes customers. A popular arsenic-based pigment called Scheele’s Green was used in textiles, wallpapers and even candles. There is a theory that Napoleon Bonaparte was assassinated by his green wallpaper in St. Helena.

Whatever the damage inflicted on human beings by the excesses of fashion, the animal kingdom has also suffered, with hides, feathers, tusks, shells and other natural items being plundered by designers. This show includes a shawl made from peacock feathers, and a simple, anonymous gown in electric blue, with glossy black cock feathers sprouting volcanically from the bustline.

In a brochure, Smith notes the Edwardian vogue for ‘garden hats’, decorated with twigs, leaves, and dried flowers. There are several hats in this show – one vintage, the others more recent – that look as if they had been grown in a greenhouse rather than constructed.

For the most part this collection of garments and accessories takes a playful and stylised approach, as exemplified by Emanuel Ungaro’s version of a little black dress with a life-sized sunflower on each breast. For sheer elegance it is impossible to go past a pink chiffon evening gown from the 1930s with a translucent floral pattern, or perhaps a jazz age coat with a pure Art Deco aesthetic. There’s also a memorable jacket by Akira Isogawa, with a landscape design that resembles a woodblock print.

The subtext of the Darnell Collection is that every item tells a story, or several stories – from the creative ambitions of the maker to the social aspirations of the purchaser. There is also the social history embodied in such instruments of torture as a Victorian-era corset, or a pair of tiny Chinese shoes made for bound feet.

It is one of the hallmarks of fashion that the most dazzling, most expensive dresses are also the least worn. Pieces made for a special occasion, their unveiling is a grand gesture that can never be repeated. Such dresses are emblems of conspicuous consumption with an active lifespan no greater than a butterfly’s, followed by long entombment in a closet or a chest. Exposed in public for a single night, like Cinderella, one could argue that these luxurious items find their natural habitat in the art museum.

Flora & Fauna: The Nature of Fashion
Blue Mountains City Art Gallery, Katoomba,
Until 1 November

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 3rd October, 2015