Australia’s Abstract Fashions

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Before the 1960s, Australian art was identified for its Aboriginal dot painting and Heidelberg School watercolors. However as the swinging times of the decade began to turn, the country’s art scene experienced a change. Brighter colors, graphic prints, and organic shapes alongside influences from gay, Australian Aboriginal, and female voices influenced a new wave of art. No longer was Australian art subdued and conservative, from the 1960s well into today, Australian art has been making a statement by being more abstract and avant-garde.

Although not at the same magnitude as the art scene, the high-end fashion industry in Australia experienced a similar change. A plethora of fashion designers from different backgrounds emerged, with many sharing a love for avant-garde inspired fashions. These were designers whose work could fit in both a store and art gallery, and are now a part of historic clothing collections. Plus, some of these influential fashion designers helped broaden the world’s view of Australian design from swimsuits to high-end ensembles.

Below are a few designers who took Aussie fashion into a fabulous abstraction.

Mary Shackman (1960s- Today)


Patchwork Coat by Mary Shackman (1965-1966), Powerhouse Museum

Although she wasn’t creating clothing directly, textile artist Mary Shackman designed for some of the top fashion designers of the 1960s. Mary began designing and screenprinting textiles in 1965, where she sold hand painted and printed textiles to department stores, fashion designers and boutiques. Her work is noted for its emphasis on nature scenes in square and pixel shapes.

Serving as textiles for high-end yet avant-garde outfits, Mary’s work first came to notice for her handpainted silk organzas for Anthony Kendal, a designer who sold internationally. What is important about Mary’s textiles in the 1960s and 1970s is that it occurred during a time in Australia where designers and manufactures were choosing home-based goods than those from overseas. Still an artist today, Mary’s legacy as a reigning queen of print and color helped garner in abstract Australian art to the fashion world. Her current work can be found at

Jenny Kee (1960s- Today)

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Opal Designs, Jenny Kee via Jenny

Fashion designer Jenny Kee also sought brought eye-catching patterns and colors to Australian fashion, but with her signature touch.

Jenny was born in Bondi and first got her start in fashion as a model. In 1965 Jenny moved to England and became involved in the Swinging London scene. While in London, Jenny sold bohemian and vintage clothing, including cast-off Diors, and Indian embroideries at the Chelsea Antique Market.

After London, Jenny returned to Australia in the early 1970s and opened the boutique, Flamingo Park. She understood the importance of the then underlooked young female customer, a demographic that is a major focus today. Also during this time Jenny began to collaborate with fashion and textile designer Linda Jackson. Together the duo created colorful knitted pieces made from pure Australian wool with much of their work emblem with fauna and flora. One of the duo’s most noteworthy pieces was a knitted koala jumper worn by Lady Diana Spencer, who borrowed it from her then-husband Prince Charles while she was pregnant.

Jenny’s own work recalls Australia’s modern art movement. According to her website, the designer draws inspiration from “a passion for nature, to reflect a “strong, spontaneous, bold and optimistic” Australia.” Jenny also likes to recall Aboriginal Australian motifs, Fair Isle patterns, and contemporary art with her work, while blurring the line between art and fashion in oversized silhouettes.

Although Jenny based her business in Australia, her influence has reached all over the fashion world. Her work has been featured in Vogue Italia, Women’s Wear Daily, and her Opal designs were used by Chanel in 1983.

Jenny has had her work featured in numerous museum exhibits, fashion collections, and has garnered a number of awards. Today she continues her line both through her online store and a number of Australian retailers.

Linda Jackson (1970s- Today)


“Bush Couture” by Linda Jackson, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 

Just like Jenny Kee, fashion and textile designer Linda Jackson brought art to Australian fashion. Linda found success in the 1970s and 1980s from her store Bush Couture, in which she sought inspiration from Indigenous cultures around the world.

She is considered a pioneer for her work, which not only explores but highlights Australian cultures and nature. On speaking about her work, Linda has stated, “My rainbow of inspirations came from interpreting things I love the outback colors and shapes, the sea, music, the Opera House, leaves, colors in wildflowers and opals. One would progress into the next.”

Much of Linda’s work includes Australian animals and plants overtop colorful and graphic prints. Her pieces were sold all over, including a store in LA owned by Aussie Olivia Newton. Now Linda’s clothing can be found in art galleries and museum collections, like The National Gallery in Canberra, which has the designer’s wildflower dresses, and the Victorian National Gallery has her some of her opal and wildflower collections.

Bronwyn Bancroft (1980s)


Cycle Of Life Opera Cape (1987) by Bronwyn Bancroft, Powerhouse Museum via IBM

Artist Bronwyn Bancroft has the honor of not only being among the first Australian fashion designers to be invited to show work in Paris, but also one of the first Aboriginal Australian women to succeed in the field.

From Tenterfield, Bronwyn began her design career with a shop in Sydney called Designer Aboriginals. There she sold her own clothing and textiles, and staffed her store with Indigenous female students.

In 1987 Bronwyn, designer Mini Heath, and Aboriginal artist Euphemia Bostock were invited to exhibit their designs in Paris for the department store Printemps’ Fashion Parade. The trio had young Aboriginal girls modeling their clothes in order to introduce the culture’s art and design to an international audience. For the Fashion Parade, Bronwyn showed her signature painted cloths. Two years later the designer contributed to Australian Fashion: The Contemporary Art in London.

Bronwyn’s work is seen as representing a “contemporary perspective on the family, politics and the natural environment,” through telling stories and displaying symbols on traditionally western styles, like a cape or dress. Bronwyn now works as an artist and is known for her children books.

Katie Pye (1970s- 1990s)


“Bran cusi” by Katie Pye (1981), Powerhouse Museum 

A Sydney native, Katie Pye has established herself as a fashion designer of self-expression. Her designs have been recognized for its Japanese avant-garde influences, hand-embroidery, and block printing. Katie often reached beyond Australia’s borders for her inspiration, citing the colors and techniques of other cultures.

After holding her first fashion parade (fashion show) in the late 1970s, Katie achieved critical acclaim and experienced commercial success for years. Her pieces were seen in high-end boutiques and department stores, but experienced a downturn as styles changed.

Her unorthodox designs experimented with organic shapes on New Wave pieces. Katie’s aesthetic mirrored 1980s modern Australian art, where both combined the abstract with the classic. Similar to other designers of her time, Katie was an artist and fashion designer. According to The Fashion, Katie was a part of the 1980 exhibition Art Clothes at the Art Gallery in New South Wales. This 1980 show also featured works by avant-garde designers of the time, including Linda Jackson and Jenny Kee. Her pieces are now prized possessions of an experimental time in Australian fashion, and can be seen in collections of museums across the country.

For more information about Australian fashion designers during this time, check out The Fashion, the Powerhouse Museum and or one of the country’s many other fashion museums.


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