Jenny Kee fears aloud that we got off on the wrong foot. I had expressed amazement that, as a rebellious teenager in the late 1960s, she had walked into the Biba boutique, the butt of London’s fashion and music scene, and she had found work. When I ask her if it was by accident or on purpose, she is outraged.
“Nothing was by chance!” she says. “We were hungry for action in Australia and just wanted to get to the heart of it all, with all our Aussie persuasion. That’s what the Australians did, because we were in convict colonies, as they said in London.
Correct point: a career as celebrated as Kee’s can hardly have been a heavenly blip. His early sense of purpose fits perfectly with the migratory patterns of some of the 20th century’s greatest cultural influencers, many of whom are celebrated in Bendigo Art Gallery’s new exhibition, Australiana: Designing a Nation.
Australiana is a term that covers historic objects and decorative arts with a distinctly Australian character – many of them offensively colonial – but the term was adopted in the 1970s and 1980s to mean loud and cheerful kitsch. The exhibition includes numerous examples of the latter, such as Suzanne Forsyth’s Dame Edna series of teapots, Kee’s famous ‘Blinky’ koala knit sweater – worn by Diana, Princess of Wales for a polo match – and the mini white dress by Jenny Bannister modeled after the then recently opened Sydney Opera House.
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There’s been a resurgence of interest lately – from clothing companies using “rinky-dink” slogans to Harry Styles wearing a Bunnings straw hat on stage. There’s the social media phenomenon of Crikeycore, which is essentially other nations taking care of weird stuff that Aussies like. And in April, Tony Armstrong will host ABC’s Great Australian Stuff, a four-part program that will see household names, many of them non-Anglo-Saxon, unravel “the startling, strange and sometimes dark story behind our most iconic things,” including meat pies, speedos, stubbies, the hoist hills and the boomerang.
While cultural rage has seen many Australian creatives lured overseas to be taken seriously, Gough Whitlam’s art funding brought them home in the golden days of Australiana. Kee brought that energy back to Sydney and in 1973 she launched the Flamingo Park Frock Salon with fellow stylist Linda Jackson. She reads me a 1974 Sunday Telegraph headline: “New Nationalism Inspires Australian Dress: Our Lovely Ockers Go For True Blue Look!”
“The store opened in 1973, and by 1993 it wasn’t that trendy anymore,” Kee says. “People were walking away from all that Aussie feeling, but now she’s back again. Seeing Romance Was Born makes me happy Know it’s back again.
Models by Kee and Jackson storm the central room of Australiana, alongside flamboyant gowns by Bannister, Prue Acton and Romance Was Born.
The germ of the Bendigo exhibition – a mammoth collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria – came from curator Emma Busowsky thinking of two different artists: the late 19th-century cabinetmaker Robert Prenzel, who incorporated Australian flora and fauna into his sculptures; and contemporary fashion house Romance Was Born, which has designed a line of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie clothing, in homage to children’s author May Gibbs.
“I put these two images together in my mind, I’m thinking, there’s a lineage here,” Busowky says.
Luke Sales is one half of Romance Was Born, formed in 2005 with Anna Plunkett. Over the years the pair have collaborated with Kee, Jackson and Ken Done. While their work — like the Iced Vovo dress that now lives on in the Powerhouse collection — is distinctly Aussie, their fans include Miley Cyrus and Cyndi Lauper.
“Australia is a big interest of mine,” says Sales. “I have a pretty serious collection of Australian luster pottery, especially shells and swans. I have a Ken Done painting and we have vintage tablecloths in all of our offices. The idea of sustainability is very important. For people to get interested in second-hand furniture and fabrics, rather than trying to get everything shiny and new, is a really interesting shift in consumer thinking.”
While Sales and Plunkett have a fondness for the 1980s, an era that celebrated Australian nationalism, Romance Was Born was conceived the same year as the Cronulla riots.
“The way we deal with nationalism is by being sensitive to it,” Sales says. “We understand that there are many problems with our country and so we are doing our bit to make Australia look otherworldly. We focus on our natural environment, and then on cultural things that have to do with nostalgia and childhood memories. We want our customers to have an emotional response to a garment.”
Melbourne artist Kenny Pittock also plays with nostalgia in his works, such as Melted Bubble’O: a liquefied ceramic Bubble O’Bill. Pittock, who grew up in the Dandenongs, made it in response to global warming anxiety: “The bushfires were very much in the foreground,” he says.
The gallery has commissioned Pittock to create a new sculptural installation, 100 Australian Ice-Creams, which is sure to spark memories and conversation.
“It’s hand-sculpted and glazed ice cream spread over several decades that you might find in the latte bar and gas station,” says Pittock, whose grandparents ran a latte bar. “Even during the installation, people gravitated towards some of them. Everyone has these deep connections that are unique to them.
As a curator, nostalgia resonates for Busowsky as well, but she feels it most in the 1930s exhibition hall.
“There’s the Great Depression going on but also this art deco style that’s taking over the world,” he says. “So you have this sentimental style of painting, of longing for a quiet time and life on earth.”
A short walk away is what could be described as the pub room, with works by Russell Drysdale, John Brack and Sidney Nolan. “It’s the idea of the pub as the center of secular Australian society,” says Busowsky. (He unsurprisingly has a Rennie Ellis room just a few steps away.)
Related: How Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson invented Australian couture – in pictures
Any exhibition on Australiana comes with ethical challenges; recently, museums have faced a reckoning when it comes to colonialism. But here, visitors are greeted by Fay Carter’s emu feather cape and Rodney Carter’s kangaroo skin cape, both used in ceremonies today. Elsewhere are Marrithiyel artist Paul McCann’s gorgeous ball gowns, which he calls “bling bling faboriginal.” Also on display is artist Tony Albert’s 30-year “Aborginalia” collection of Girramay/Yidinji/Kuku Yalanji – souvenirs and bric-a-brac, like decorative ashtrays, featuring depictions of First Nations people. It’s a new take on something old and makes Australiana worth (re)visiting.