Review: The Krystyna Campbell-Pretty Fashion Gift
The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia (March 1 - July 14, 2019)
To those working in fashion studies, asking the question, ‘Is fashion art?’ can feel passé. The joy of an exhibition like The Krystyna Campbell-Pretty Fashion Gift, a free show displayed in a public gallery—is that it shows not only that the question is still relevant, but that many people haven’t seriously thought about the answer. Curator Katie Somerville doesn’t try to confront viewers with this puzzle; the question is never directly articulated. The clothing is merely placed amongst the works of the permanent collection as though it were obvious it belongs there.
In the 19th Century European Salon, dresses are literally elevated, positioned upon platforms among the walls of paintings. Walking through the crowded rooms in the National Gallery of Victoria, I was struck by the diversity of the patrons. Unlike the retrospective displayed by the gallery several years ago, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, the Fashion Gift didn’t seem to be populated by those already hyper-aware of the designers on display. This was not just an excuse for the Melbourne fashion crowd to head into the city, but an opportunity for a broader public to view what is likely the finest historical fashion collection in Australia.
Of course, there were some who came out of genuine excitement for the Schiaparelli and Galliano, but there were far more who had never encountered this kind of display of clothing. It was most interesting to see those who weren’t expecting to see clothing at all; making the journey for paintings and sculptures, only to end up pondering the lines of a meticulously constructed bustle. In this environment, where practicality and comfort are no longer relevant, it is hard to see the items in front of you as anything other than an attempt at the aesthetic. That they might keep you warm, or that the material might be scratchy or uncomfortable, is simply irrelevant.
The Fashion Gift is one of those sprawling exhibitions with so many items it’s almost in danger of undercutting their individual value. There are a few moments when you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve been trapped inside a fashion labyrinth. I occasionally wondered if the donation might have been better presented as a series of smaller exhibitions, and there are certainly key items lost among the clutter; Issey Miyake’s pleats hide in a corner, and Alexander McQueen is relegated to a back room. The advantage of a show of this scale, however, is how similarities between different eras are highlighted. This sense of timelessness is elevated by the artworks surrounding the garments. A blue and white floral 1957 Carven dress is observed by John Hoppner’s blue and white clad beauty from his 1795 portrait, while a bronze Adam and Eve embrace behind the sensual lines of Lanvin’s little black dress. The parallel lines and forms of art and dress are demonstrated time and again, echoed in the illustrations spread throughout the displays.
For those interested in fashion history, the reasons to visit the exhibition are already obvious. The very first item on display is a gleaming velvet and satin dress by the House of Worth, covered in tiny flowers and radiating orange. Behind this stand, staggered plinths of beaded evening dresses from the 1920s, immaculately preserved. In an interview with the gallery, Ms. Campbell-Pretty (who donated the vast collection) remarked: “For me, fashion is also visual and social history, reflecting the role, perception, and lives of women in society.”  This sentiment certainly resonated with the women I encountered. Two friends compared their suit jackets with the folds on a Chanel dress, while another woman remarked to her husband how much the cut of a 1970s gown reminded her of her late mother. Another visitor joked with her friend about how she would walk down the street inside the tight corsetry of an 1890s day-dress.
Despite these personal connections, the garments displayed were certainly not those of an everywoman. The clothes of the Fashion Gift belong to the wealthy, fashionable elite, and the exhibition reflects the history of those women far more than it does any broader account of Western fashion. But then, museums like the National Gallery of Victoria have never claimed to showcase the art of the everyday. Such institutions show us - or attempt to show us - the pinnacle of taste. Whether they succeed in this goal (or if this should even be their goal at all) is debatable. But whatever your feelings on the modern art institution, entry to this exhibition alone legitimizes fashion in a way I have never seen before in an Australian gallery. To walk towards that glorious Worth dress, you must pass Warhol’s Self-portrait no. 9, one of Picasso’s earthenware vases, and a collection of Man Ray’s photographs. Is fashion art? The exhibition might not directly confront the question, but it certainly hints at an answer.
 "Interview with Krystyna Campbell-Pretty." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83VC3GGxIqU (accessed May 17, 2019).