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Modern Australian fashion textiles

Linda Jackson, Desert Dress (1982) using Utopia silk work.

Linda Jackson, Desert Dress (1982) using Utopia silk work. Image by Fran Moore. Courtesy of Linda Jackson and Powerhouse Museum.

Australia's unique fashions have relied upon textiles, the colour and the cloth, as much as garment type, styles and looks. A wide variety of Australian fashion textiles - hand-coloured, printed and painted silks, woven wool, dyed discharge and devore prints, ground velvets, and ochred designs based on traditional Aboriginal body paintings have all contributed to the definition of modern Australian fashion.

In the 1960s and 1970s especially, Australian fashion manufacturers and designers tended to use the work of local textile designers rather than sourcing their materials from overseas or large textile manufacturers. During this time Australian textiles and fabrics cut a credible swathe in the European and east coast USA markets. In the 1980s, major Australian fashion designers put Indigenous textiles on the map.

Chinese and Japanese silks

Chinese silk embroidered shawls and Chinese surcoats brought into Australia by Chinese Australians in the late 1800s through to the 1930s have influenced the choice of cloth, cut and colour of modern Australian fashion.

Women in the 1920s and 1930s wore silk and embroidered evening coats and overblouses, made of chiffon, georgette or velvet which borrowed heavily from the prevailing Chinese and Japanese influences in cut and colour as well as using locally sourced materials.

These items were worn over decades and have a place in place in the living memory of women's wardrobes, such as a black & white chiffon silk velvet evening coat with pikle floral patterning made around 1920. This garment has its sleeve and neck edges trimmed with broad bands of black swans' down - an exquisite light sensual combination showing definitive Chinese, Egyptian and native Australian influence (H6024).

Patons Wool, magazine clipping, 1969.

Patons Wool, magazine clipping, 1969. Image courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum.

Japanese silks have also been influential - evident in Akiro Isogawa's collections of the 1990s based on his mother's kimonos. In 2002 Isogawa reinterpreted a turn-of-the-century hand-ruched silk taffeta frock to create a shawl from silk velvet. Isogawa's work is distinguished by his use of transparent fabrics, layering of garments, unusual combinations of textures and fabrics and his re-use of antique kimono fabrics and traditional Asian textiles.

Silk organza and other light weight silks are a favourite cloth for Nicola Finetti and Collette Dinnigan. Finetti and Dinnigan dresses are renowned for the way they drape and sculpt bodies in a wearable, albeit subtle cut, often to sensual dramatic effect. In 1995, Collette Dinnigan was the first Australian to mount a full scale ready to wear parade in Paris as invited by the 'Chambre Syndicale du pret-a-porter des courtiers ets createurs de mode'.


While wool was a staple of Australian dress, especially for men's suits, designers Norma Tullo and Prue Acton put wool on the map as a fashion fabric in the 1960s when they won successive Wool Fashion Awards. Tullo was instrumental in raising the profile of wool by choosing to design with woollen fabrics. Fabrics were often woven and produced to her specifications, which featured trade mark floral motifs.

Since the 1970s, lightweight wool has been used by award-winning designers such as Carla Zampatti and Joseph Saba to create elegant feminine suits as well as men's suits especially suitable for the Australian climate. Martin Grant, established in Paris since 1992, is well known for his finely cut, classic-lined signature wool dresses, coats and capes.

Textile designers – Mary Shackman

In the 1960s, handpainted silk organza from an original design by Mary Shackman for outfits, designed by Anthony Kendal, were sold to Collette in Paris, Selfridges in London, Henri Bendel, New York, Villa Moda in Dubai and Kuwait and was the first Australian label on sale in Jeffrey's, New York.

Mary Shackman, Screen printed silk, 1980.

Mary Shackman, Screen printed silk, 1980. Image courtesy of Powerhouse Museum (A7530).

Mary Shackman's textile designs have been used by some of Australia's key fashion designers and manufacturer's from Sportsgirl, Carla Zampatti, John J Hilton, Kenneth Pirrie and Mark & Geoffrey in the 1960s and 1970s to Nicola Finetti and Anthony Kendal in the 2000s.

Shackman's sophisticated and bold designs vary from striking large scale patterns and bright coloured prints created in the 1960s to hand painted clothing in the 1970s and more recent 'painterly' designs for Anthony Kendals 'Thys Collective'. Shackman drew inspiration for her prints from various sources including Australian native flora and fauna, landscapes, faces, geometric shapes and graphic images.

Tapa cloth


Samoan 'siapo' (bark cloth) c1930. Courtesy of Powerhouse Museum.

Colour and the patterning of surface designs in Australian fashion textiles has also been influenced by the tapa patterns of the South Pacific. Tapa collected from Tonga, Fiji Islands and Samoa was known to have been brought into Australia from around 1900.

The Fijian masi or tapa ceremonial cloth is made by beating strips of bark together until the fibres meld and pieces are then joined together with starch paste to make one large piece of cloth. The print pattern is made using ink and stencils cut from banana leaves with the brown dye sourced from the sap of a mangrove tree and the black dye from kerosene lamps.

Georgia Chapman and Maureen Sohn of Vixen describe their label as 'sensual, in terms of the nature of the cloth'. In 2002 Vixen created a diamond scarf from cotton tulle with handprinted designs and glass tassels as well as an 'Artefact skirt' inspired by the tapa cloth of Samoa and Fiji. The surface designs for the skirt were created using dyes on power mesh, discharge and a devore print on a silk viscose velvet with a silk georgette border.

Indigenous textile production

In the 1980s major fashion designers such as Jenny Kee, Linda Jackson, Katie Pye and Robert Burton helped put Indigenous textiles on the map. They worked with Tiwi Designs to print fabric which was made up into fashion garments for an exhibition by Coo-ee Aboriginal Art at the Hogarth Galleries in Sydney (1983).

Textile production in the Tiwi Islands.

Textile production in the Tiwi Islands. Photograph courtesy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

In 1980 Jackson travelled to central Australia, Utopia Station, where batik techniques were introduced in 1977 and where women were producing unusual lengths of fabric. The designs had developed from traditional ceremonial ground and body paintings and personal totems. The result was a collection of textiles and garments and an exhibition from a selection of 30 5-metre Utopia batiks. The batiks were exhibited in 'Peintres aborigenes d'Australie' at Parc de la Villette in Paris in December 1997, assisted by the Powerhouse Museum (Collection 98/86/1).

The focus on Indigenous textiles by Australian designers was reinforced by the expansion of Indigenous cultural production, including fabric lengths, clothing and accessories within Indigenous communities in the 1980s. Jackson continued her connections with several Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory including Yuendumu, Bathurst Island, Hermannsburg, Santa Teresa and Oenpelli.

Contemporary Indigenous textile production centres include Ernabella Arts ( the longest continually run Aboriginal art centre in Australia who produce weaving, batik and screenprinting), Tiwi Design, Utopia Outstations and Keringke Arts at Santa Teresa. From Darwin, Leonore Dembski runs a fashion label which produces its own textiles, Paperbark Woman.

A Banjulung woman from northern NSW, Bronwyn Bancroft ran a successful company, Designer Aboriginals, in Rozelle, Sydney, from 1985 to 1990, where she sold printed and hand-painted fabrics, clothing and jewellery. Recognition of her talents in the high-fashion arena came when she and four other Koori designers were invited to parade their garments at the prestigious department store Au Printemps in Paris in 1987.

Desert Designs and licensed work

Desert Designs originated in Western Australia in the 1980s with many of their designs created by Walmajarri man, Jimmy Pike (1932 - 2003). Pike's traditional country was the Great Sandy Desert country in the Kimberley region. Desert Designs established licensing agreements with accessory and textile manufacturers, Oroton and Sheridan allowing them access to a national and international market.

A Perth based designer Rebecca Paterson set up Di Marzio line in Sydney to manufacture and retail clothing with an emphasis on innovative prints. In the early 1990s she worked as a design and marketing consultant for Desert Designs in Fremantle. Paterson met Megan Salmon and in 1996 they launched a fashion label SpppsssP, attracting wide acclaim at Mercedes Fashion Week. Since 2005, Megan Salmon has licensed Jimmy Pike designs for inclusion in the DD by Megan Salmon brand. Salmon interprets Jimmy Pike's work in texture and textiles rather than surface prints.

Useful links

Australian fashion events

Australian designers

Australian fashion and textile resources

Fashion and textiles education

History of fashion and textiles

Last updated: 12th December 2007