For Brisbane-based fashion and costume designers Kiara and Bianca Bulley, finding inspiration by delving into the wardrobes of history has long been a mainstay of their common design vocabulary.
“As a college student, I felt the fashion industry’s constant demand for the new, the fresh and the next big thing to be overwhelming,” says Kiara, the 18-month-old younger sister.
“Going back to the past is a rejection of the fast paced and novelty culture of the industry. It’s a way to slow down a bit. “
Their fascination with the history of clothing has served the designers very well.
Bianca, a Churchill Fellowship recipient, is currently Deputy Wardrobe Manager at Opera Queensland, and Kiara is Cutting Manager at the Queensland Theater.
They also run a bespoke fashion brand, Bulley Bulley, which references historic designs, and have worked in film and television.
So when the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art invited the sisters to recreate three historic costumes as depicted in paintings from her current blockbuster – the European masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – they jumped at the chance.
“As part of the exhibition’s public program, live models pose in the gallery space every day for people to draw, and the clothes we recreated are what the models wear,” says Kiara. .
The duo will present an after-hours conference on Wednesday, Fashion in Focus, exploring key developments in Western fashion across 500 years of painting.
It’s a story of blue and gold brocade, red velvet, pink silk and peacock green tulle, with masterpieces by Carlo Crivelli, Piero di Cosimo, Dieric Bouts, El Greco, Titien, Rubens, Caravaggio , Velazquez, Goya and Renoir among the 65 on display.
Additionally, Kiara and Bianca will share the process of bringing the three costumes to life.
The first garment they remade is the one worn by the female subject in the 17th century painting by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, Allegory of the Catholic Faith.
Conceived as a personification of the Catholic Church, the woman is dressed in a magnificent blue (for heaven) and white (for purity) dress and wears Roman sandals on her feet, one of which is perched on a globe in wood to signify reaching for it.
“A lot of people look at her and think, ‘Oh, she’s wearing thongs,'” Kiara laughs.
The sisters used duchess satin of silk and cotton imported from Germany to construct the dress.
“We needed duchess satin to achieve that shiny fabric effect you see in painting,” says Kiara, adding that such flourishes were popular among artists of the time.
“It was seen as a true demonstration of the artist’s talent to be able to capture in a painting the effects of light on the fabric.”
The second outfit is that of the desperate maid depicted on the left in the moralizing genre work of the French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze from 1756, Broken Eggs.
The artist’s original title, A mother scolding a young man for knocking over a basket of eggs her servant brought from the market. A child tries to mend a broken egg, does not exactly roll his tongue.
It’s also deceptive, judging by the dark face of the young woman and the red cheeks of the young man. As the catalog entry says: “Something more than an egg has been broken.”
“Because this outfit is worn by a maid, we used strong linens and highly textured fabrics,” says Kiara.
The third piece is a period dress modeled by a teenage Marie Joséphine Charlotte of Val d’Ognes in a portrait of her in 1801 by the French artist Marie Denise Villers.
The sisters made the dress in a mint blue cotton veil.
“The inspiration for this style of column dress comes from classicism,” says Kiara, adding that the work was painted shortly after the French Revolution.
“We are witnessing the disappearance of the great extravagances of Paris in the history that preceded this, and then, after the revolution, a more democratic style of dress.”
“And they took it very literally, because they were trying to get at the heart of democracy, so they looked to the classical world, ancient Greece and Rome.”
Kiara loves studying those “time loops” of the past.
“Fashion has been cyclical for a long time, it’s just happening at a different pace now.”
Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow, curator of international art at the gallery, explains that the influence of ancient Greece and Rome can be discerned at different times throughout the exhibition’s 500 years.
“In Rembrandt’s painting Flora around 1654, he shows us a portrait of his current companion, Hendrickje Stoffels, but combines it with aspects of his late wife Saskia van Uylenburgh, who died in 1642,” explains Kirrihi Barlow.
“He represents her as the Roman goddess Flora, a mythical figure in history, yet she wears a contemporary undershirt, which is not how a lady of the day would have been portrayed.
“But because Rembrandt represents these women, who are very dear to him, like a goddess, he can have her half undressed.
“The composition of the painting, for its part, is borrowed from Titian.”
One of Kirrihi Barlow’s favorite paintings in the exhibition is The Fortune Teller by French artist Georges de la Tour, from the 1630s.
“De la Tour has a great love for color, costume and fabric, especially the details of the fabric,” she says.
“The costume of the old lady who announces the man’s fortune would have been understood by people of the time to mean that she is Roma, or gypsy. You can see how her main garment is slung under one arm. and on the other shoulder with a clasp. “
Moreover, Kirrihi Barlow reveals that contemporary viewers would have recognized in the image an echo of a popular short story, La Gitanilla (The Little Gypsy), by Miguel de Cervantes of Don Quixote.
“Written 20 years before de la Tour painted this work, it tells the story of Preciosa, a young woman of noble birth raised by gypsies,” she says.
“The young woman who cuts the victim’s chain of medallions in order to steal her has a paler face than her accomplices, which was an indicator of noble birth, and she wears jet beads and beautiful golden lace.
“You also see them exchanging intriguing glances. There’s so much going on in this painting. It’s amazing work for its fashion iconography.”
Does she have a favorite fashion period?
“Not as such,” says Kirrihi Barlow.
“But what I love are those times when different energies come together in unexpected ways, for example, opening a trade route and people accessing new fabrics.”
Kiara Bullley names the period around the French Revolution as her favorite.
“I love the late 18th and early 19th centuries for these distinct and dramatic moments of change, driven by political and class ideas,” she says.
“We are emerging from the decadence of the end of the 18th century to enter a very reserved period, quite subtle.
“It is also the time of the great masculine renunciation, when men start to wear more streamlined, flexible and democratic clothes, like the tailor.”
Kiara and Bianca believe that taking into account what people have worn throughout history allows for a richer and more nuanced understanding of the past.
“We also need to reflect on our past in order to contextualize what is happening in the present,” says Kiara.
“Civilization is a dressed up story. We are all dressed in one way or another, and the clothes have so much cultural and social significance if you’re willing to take a closer look.”
Fashion in Focus Wednesday tickets and more information are available at qagoma.qld.gov.au
Associated Australian Press