Curator and costume historian JUDITH CLARK selects her favourite designs and images of clothes from the national collection.
Un Costume pour deux, Magic City (One suit for two) c 1931
Magic City was an amusement park, built a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower to coincide with the 1900 Paris Exposition. From 1900 to 1934, it was home to the legendary bal travesti (transvestite balls) — the interwar nightlife so famously documented by the Hungarian photographer Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899–1984). ‘Immense, warm, impulsive fraternity’,1 he wrote of the balls in which thousands of men, from all walks of life, participated. The suit — the quintessential male uniform that was a foil to women’s fashions — became a focus for change. Here, the suit is split in two, making a new kind of couple. They match; they go together.
GIORGIO DE CHIRICO
Costume for a male guest 1929
The National Gallery’s dress collection will always be associated with one of its first major acquisitions of costumes designed for Les Ballets Russes (1909–29), which were acquired from Sotheby’s ‘Costumes and Curtains from the Diaghilev and de Basil Ballets’ auction on 3 March 1973; it was built upon significantly in 1984 — when this costume was purchased–and again in 1995–1996. The Italian metaphysical artist Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) designed Costume for a male guest for a masked ball (a costume of a costume). He employed clearly identifiable classical architectural fragments as an extension of his deconstructed set design, and as commentary and camouflage — reminding us of his native Greece and his home in Rome. The presence of major artists such as de Chirico in the costume collection — alongside Léon Bakst, Natalia Goncharova and Pablo Picasso, among others — meant that an interest in dress was significantly legitimated and provoked.
not titled [textile design for a pyjama sleeve] c 1934–51
It is not in the Gallery’s remit to collect everyday dress. If you search for ‘pyjamas’, there are no actual pyjamas — here, the word appears as the subtitle to a pencil drawing. The floral design is part of the large donation to the National Gallery of the estate of Australian artist Una Foster (1912–96), which includes designs for textiles and furnishings, as well as extraordinary calligraphic studies for her celebrated abstract printmaking. This is the design for a decorative panel that sits perfectly within the pattern piece of a sleeve (allowing space for the seams). The sleeve will belong to a pair of pyjamas, we are told, providing us with a window into another category: dress. The boundaries of the Gallery’s departments are porous.
Evening dress (Robe de style) 1927
The last time I visited the Gallery, this dress was on display next to another by Jeanne Lanvin (1867–1946) from 1926. Made only a year earlier, the other dress was listed as ‘Garçonne’ style: boyish, tubular, it was the design associated with the 1920s modernist and streamlined fashions. Lanvin’s Robe de style is always shown as the exception to the rule but is the exception that is cited in all histories of dress — the throwback to the extravagant fashions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that illustrates so well the cyclical nature of fashion, and the silhouette that Lanvin loved and made again and again.
It was bought by the Gallery in 1992 from Martin Kamer, a beloved international collector of couture and costume. The Gallery purchased this iconic design in preparation for Roger Leong’s exhibition the following year, Dressed to Kill, dedicated to a century of fashion.
GRACE LILLIAN LEE
Future Woven Floral Forms [Natural and Red — Ebony, Gilly, Jaydah, Neal] 2020
This recent acquisition is a sign of the preoccupations of the current curatorial team. The piece not only addresses the need for a work by Meriam Mir artist and designer Grace Lillian Lee but, with it, the lack of visibility of First Nation communities within mainstream fashion. Produced under the label First Nations Fashion Design, the cape [Gilly] is part of the series Future Woven Floral Forms first exhibited in 2021 at Cairns Art Gallery in the exhibition Ritual: The Past in the Present. It was hung (without a mannequin) on a long wall, revealing its complex sculptural form. The past referred to is an image of Lee’s grandmother on her wedding day; the costume was created in the traditional Zenadth Kez / Torres Strait Island grasshopper weave. The work is connected both to a moment of ceremony within the artist’s family and to the ritual practices from which her art and craft is derived, but by which it is never constrained, as the title reminds us.
Hands of marionette player, Mexico 1929
Marionettes and their larger‑scale counterparts, mannequins, are essential surrogate bodies for exhibiting dress. The purchase in 1987 of this extraordinary image by American‑Italian Comintern activist and photographer Tina Modotti (1896–1942) coincided with a major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London of Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s murals. The hands that provide us with a guide to its scale, which are visible at the top of the photograph, belonged to Rivera’s assistant, Lou Bunin. The politics of the body is always in the forefront for fashion. Politics is the organising of bodies in space.
Beauty posing for a photograph 1901–03
This colour woodblock print from the Meji period in Japan depicts a woman at a transitional moment in how fashions were — and would be — portrayed. Her beauty, we are shown, qualifies her for a different kind of portraiture. The print coincides with the rise in photographic studios at the turn of the century in Japan. The only print by Shodo in the Gallery’s collection, it is part of his notable series Kinko fuzoku hyaku bijin (One hundred beauties: modern and ancient manners and customs) adding to it a new kind of modern custom — the pose.
not titled [apple, costume glasses]: face‑mask from a Yellow House event c 1972
The paper ‘glasses’ were a gift to the Gallery by James Mollison in 1980, during his time as director (1977–89). By preserving these most disposable of objects, Mollison was making sure a key cultural moment — one that was both irreverent about institutional life but also engaged with the history of art — was kept and remembered. In 1970, Martin Sharp had founded the Yellow House Artists Collective in Potts Point, Warrang / Sydney, and dedicated a room to the surrealist artist René Magritte. It was here that Sharp turned the apple from Magritte’s famous painting The Son of Man 1964 into an accessory; the attribute of temptation placed on the wearer’s head — and mind. How collectable is fast fashion — how culturally significant? Fashion has struggled to have its fleeting nature documented.
This story was first published in The Annual 2022.
Art & Artists
`Un costume pour deux', Magic City
c. 1931 prtd c. 1979
Costume for a male guest
not titled [textile design for pyjama sleeve]
Evening dress (Robe de style)
Hands of marionette player, Mexico
Beauty posing for a photograph
not titled [apple, costume glasses]: face-mask from a Yellow House event
Future Woven Floral Forms