Mitchell Oakley Smith: Start at the very beginning of the exhibition with the iconic Bar Jacket by Christian Dior, why start at 1947? Was Christian Dior's collection so revolutionary to audiences?
Pamela Golbin: Why start in 1947? Because that's when contemporary fashion begins, right after the war. Why 1947? Simply because Christian Dior opens his house the 12th of February of 1947 and with that opening, he becomes the dictator of fashion for the next, well some could say until now, but in any case until 1957 when he passes away. We at the decorative arts have the original prototype of the Bar Suit. Now, what is this Bar Suit? Well you will find out because you're going to see it, but it is the original one that set in motion what we call today the "New Look". Carmel Snow who was the Editor in Chief of Harper's Bazaar, happened to go to the fashion show, and when she got up, after applauding for half an hour, she said "This is the new look!" meaning it is a new look after these war years, not only the second World War but also the first World War where archetypal femininity was born, and he really wrote that vocabulary and so to start off this exhibition, it was only normal to begin at the beginning, and that beginning is the beautiful, simple, but extremely efficient Bar Suit.
MOS: Do you find, Pamela, that in the, to explain to the audiences, the exhibition is essentially spread out over different decades that follow fashion from 1947, and in that first room that captures the last few years of the 1940s and 1950s, do you think its representative of the certain type of elegance of that era in terms of the other pieces in that room?
PG: Sure, I think an important thing to say is that is a survey, so it does take you from 1947 all the way through to today, not only does it show you the sartorial differences of every decade, but also all of the major designers that played a key role in the landmark changes of fashion, so that for those who know little about fashion history, you will come out with a very clear view of the changes within the decades since 1947. For those who do know a lot about fashion, hopefully you will also be surprised by a lot of very new names that are less well known outside of France. We're quite lucky at the decorative arts, we've always worked with the designers, ever since the founding of the institution, and particularity they have given us prototypes. Now the difference between a prototype and a regular garment, is that a prototype is the one that is shown on the catwalk, which means its the perfect model size, but it also includes the most creative aspect of the designer, so that the difference with a piece that is ordered by a client, where she can modify certain aspects of the look, it is a very pure, creative vision and so we have brought all of those pure creative visions here to Adelaide, in this landmark exhibition so that you can see exactly how the designers conceived the vision that they brought forth into fashion.
MOS: And Pamela, what constitutes a garment worthy of exhibiting or collecting, does it have to say something about the time it was created or does it have to showcase exemplary craftsmanship and skill?
PG: That's a wonderful question and unfortunately I don't have a very straight answer because everything is made to measure. We are very lucky, we already have an exceptional collection several hundred thousand pieces to chose from. Obviously not only from the 20th century, but when it comes to textiles in a collection it dates from the coptic era, so there are archeological pieces, and for costumes in the 13th century we do have pieces all the way up till today. It is important that everything that is acquired helps better understand what is already in the collection. One of the things that you can imagine just by having your own closet, it gets filled up very quickly. We also have a closet, but it is a very big closet, and there's never enough space. And on top of that, we have National collections, so it is considered a National Patrimony, so that the state itself has to take care of these collections for generations to come. Each piece that is acquired is presented to a committee, directors of different museums and institutions in Paris and we are kind of like lawyers in that we present all the reasons why this piece needs to be taken care of for the rest of its life, and thats a very long life. So, each time its a very different argument that we have.
MOS: And just how many pieces are there in that collection Pamela?
PG: We are actually doing the inventory now as we have for many years and we're far from knowing exactly how many pieces. One of the questions is always is it each singular piece? is it an ensemble? is it just the left and the right shoe? is it one pair of shoes? so it also is difficult to say. We are trying to get the entire collection on a database. we have come a long way, and we are now at over, I actually don't know how many pieces, a lot to take care of and to know exactly where they are, there is a lot of upkeep, they are very high maintenance, just like us, we need a lot of spa treatments. You know, they are old, for some, so we do have to take special care and those occasions like this one they travel, we're able to restore them, we're able to photograph them, so it is a very long term commitment.
MOS: You were talking about the process of caring for these garments and how important that is, I imagine that the process of shipping them around the world must be quite daunting, to see your babies packed up and shipped away.
PG: Daunting is definitely the word. Packing almost 100 pieces, master pieces from the collection is not something that you can do overnight. I think it took at least 3 months to prepare just the packing aspect, without including getting them packed, and then they actually had to come over. Because of insurance value, they couldn't all be on the same plane, so they had to take different planes, it was quite a feat. And then the crates started coming in, and what's incredible is that most people don't understand the amount of work that goes into the making of this kind of exhibition. Here we have had almost 8 weeks of installation to create the build before the couture arrives, and there was 4 weeks of just dressing the pieces because once you see the pieces on the mannequins it looks seamless and I hope that is the case because that is what its supposed to look like. But to get there our team in Paris worked for 3 months preparing every mannequin, and every mannequin had a specific dress that was assigned to it, and then the mannequin was moulded to fit the size of the dress. Most of these dresses were made to measure for one person, so in order for it to fit properly on the mannequin you have to remake the body of the person who wore it so that then you can place the dress on it, and all the ladies here know that its very difficult to get little things right. These are dresses sometimes that are several decades old so its quite a feat, so in all it took almost 4 months to dress the pieces that you will be seeing in the show.
MOS: And talking about the mannequins and their different shapes, do you see the body change over the decades?
PG: Absolutely, already in the 40s a women's height was about 5'2 on average, with a size of feet that was maybe 35, was the average shoe size. Also the sizing is quite different, the models of today are already close to 5'10/ 6 feet tall, where at the time if they were already 5'3 it was quite tall. So it is difficult as well to have a very coherent message throughout the exhibition because women, as well as men, because there are men's pieces in the show, their sizes are quite different so it is also a challenge that we tried to address so that when you go through the show you don't realise the major shift, not only the height, and width sometimes of the models, but also in the type of bodies that there was.
I haven't shared our entire conversation with Pamela and Art Gallery decorative arts curator Robert Reason in this post (what you see above is only about 10 minutes of the hour we shared). Throughout the discussion, Pamela and Robert painted a picture of how an exhibition of this magnitude comes about and how much work is involved in making it all happen. We were also given a rare insight into Pamela's work at Les Arts Décoratifs and how she and her team manage their collection of pieces and how relationships with donors and design houses are maintained. As well as some very amusing anecdotes from Pamela's work in Paris.
The Fashion Icons exhibit is exclusive to the Art Gallery of South Australia, no where else in the world will you have the chance to see this exhibition that contains not only very special pieces from the archives but also iconography from each era, allowing the pieces coming to life. This exhibition is as much about cultural history as it is fashion history.
The exhibition is now open and runs until February the 15th.
- Caity x
*Disclaimer: some sections have been paraphrased due to such factors as feedback or other noises around the room.