Museum Life: museum collections and sustainable fashion

Working in a museum with many collection areas, attending the recent Australia Fashion Researcher’s Network Forum in Melbourne was a great opportunity to meet like-minded people working with fashion.   The theme for this forum was Fashion and Global culture. I was particularly interested in the second part of the forum, which focused on sustainability in the fashion industry.

Issues covered included:

  1. How to encourage the fashion industry to value ethical and environmental issues over profit
  2. How do you get the consumer to value these issues?
  3. How to create longevity of style to reduce waste
  4. Transparency in the fashion industry

Many of the presenters talked of the historic clothing industry and how it could help to inform and improve the current international fashion industry. This included producing longevity in manufacture and style as well as creating designs that are individual and innovative. This made me think about the fashion and dress collection I work with. How can it inspire change in the current industry?

Day dress, women's made by David Jones Pty Ltd, Sydney, owned by Mrs Grimley, Sydney 1890 - 1900 Powerhouse Museum collection Photo: Penelope Clay

Evening sleeves for dress, women's made by David Jones Pty Ltd, Sydney, owned by Mrs Grimley, Sydney 1890 - 1900 Powerhouse Museum collection Photo: Penelope Clay

This dress came to mind as an example of a historic piece that can inspire sustainable fashion. Made of silk brocade, lace, beads and sequins it was made by famous Australian department store David Jones in Sydney. David Jones is also the oldest department store in the world still in trading. The dress consists of a bodice and skirt accompanied by a pair of ¾ exchange sleeves trimmed with lace. These exchange sleeves enable the dress to be worn in the evening as well during the day. I would love to see designers making garments that can be worn for multiple purposes. I do think that by looking back at historical fashion designers and consumers can move forward to form a sustainable fashion industry.

I would love to hear from you. How do you think historic dress can help to inspire a sustainable fashion industry?

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  • Arianna April 03, 2012 03.26 am

    This is such a great question, Rebecca. I love to see the continued use of museum text in reminding us about the impact of buying clothes, but there are only so many times I can read about how many tons of water it takes to make a pair of jeans, etc….

    Something perhaps more subtle is that by continuing to show clothing in exhibitions, I believe we continue to create value in these objects, since the greater public still respects museums as a trustworthy authority. By acknowledging well-made and beautiful clothing objects, hopefully we can convince others to do so too, and to buy for the years to come, not just for tomorrow.

    Tough when we are all taught that fashion is by its very nature mercurial and that its value resides in its novelty, at any price level. But maybe we follow your lead and show not only t-shirts made with organic cotton, but also this beautiful dress–what a great example.

    It seems like it is easier to connect economic factors to historic clothing practice, rather than eco-friendly aims. Is ecological awareness a phenomenon from only the past half-century or does anyone know of eco-minded fashion from earlier centuries? Or is it impossible to compare?

  • Rebecca April 04, 2012 07.55 pm


    Many thanks for your comment.
    Yes, I agree in that displaying clothing in a museum contect feelings of respect and awe can be created in the visitor.

    I can’t think of historic references to sustainable and eco awareness in dress. Such practices were probably more due to economic reasons. However, the historic consumer, especially mid-Twentieth Century seem to have placed a higher value on quality in fashion as oppossed to ephemeral fashions (or is this just what my Grandmother did in Australia?)

    Of course the second-hand clothing trade is an example of historic sustainable fashion, but again most likely the result of necessity.

    I also have some sewing plans of my own to made a LBD with day sleeves for work and evening sleeves for going out afterwards. Inspired by this dress from David Jones, it will be interesting to see if I am able to use 19th Century construction in 21st Century dress.



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