OBEYING the ``don't touch'' signs in museums is not usually a problem for me; but with the sumptuous fashions on display at the National Gallery of Australia, it is. Other visitors must have the same reaction: The museum has posted signs next to every garment.
``Dressed to Kill: 100 Years of Fashion'' presents some of the most beautiful and startling creations by the world's top designers. From tassled-and-beaded flapper dresses to short chain-mail dresses of the 1960s to pants created out of random pieces of men's suits from the '90s (not to mention a collection of shoes that Imelda Marcos would covet), the exhibition is an illuminating sartorial romp through time.
Curator Roger Leong says the exhibition emphasizes fashion as art, not sociology. ``We focused narrowly on those designers who have influenced fashion on an international scale,'' Mr. Leong says.
``We're not interested in pedal pushers just because they represent an important step in history for women. We would collect them if they formed part of a design statement by a particular designer,'' he says.
Accompanied by music from Mozart to Marvin Gaye to Madonna, the viewer moves through dimly lit rooms, each containing fashions, illustrations, and accessories. It begins with the ``House of Worth.'' Originally, fashions in Europe were set by royalty and the aristocracy. Clients would commission a dressmaker or tailor to create designs according to their specifications.
But in the late 19th-century, Charles Frederick Worth, and later his son Jean-Phillipe Worth, chose the fabrics and executed designs, which were then presented to the clients. This approach helped launch the world of haute couture.
One of the Canberra exhibition's gowns that was hardest to resist touching was Jean-Phillipe Worth's sumptuous raspberry-satin Afternoon Dress. The deep, rich pink bodice has a bobbin-lace collar, slashed sleeves through which more lace peeks, and a five-paneled skirt with an inverted pleat at the back.
Italian designer Mariano Fortuny was a painter, an engraver, a photographer, and a theater designer, and all these talents are evidenced in his creation of new fabrics.
His famous luminescent Delphos gowns, made in many styles between 1907 and the '50s, consisted of three or four pieces of delicately pleated silk, sewn into a cylindrical shape, weighted with glass beads and handpainted.
Each decade is represented by two opposing styles. Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel's 1920 Day Gown combines an elegant fabric - black satin - with a loose, casual middy style. But she's also represented by a slinky black-sequined evening gown that epitomizes the Art Deco period.
Madeleine Vionnet, who, with Elsa Schiaparelli and Chanel, held a grip on the fashion industry for many years, brought forth a radical new way of designing and constructing clothes between the two World Wars. One of the techniques she invented was to cut soft fabrics like crepe de Chine or silk jersey on the bias to produce clothes that gently move with the wearer.
The presence of whimsy
But if the emphasis in the exhibition is on unique uses of fabrics and artful constructions, the element of humor is not left out.
The impish and irreverent Elsa Schiaparelli created an elegant broad-shouldered suit with clever stitching. But look closer. Each of the four large buttons contains a gilded fly stuck in treacle in a different place.
She also designed, in 1938, an evening cape of crocheted silver-lame net, decorated around the edges with coiled hot-pink cellophane that she collected from newspaper vendors.
``Schiaparelli's point was that she would use nonluxury materials to create high-fashion design,'' Leong says.
Christian Dior created ``the New Look,'' after World War II, when designers were celebrating the end of fabric rationing by creating clothes with lots of material.
His 1947 intricately constructed cream silk jacket nips in the waist and has padded peplums around the hips. It was worn with a long pleated black wool skirt. The effect was of an hourglass.
Dior put women back into cages. His 1953 ice-blue satin ballgown has a huge frothy skirt that looks like it's blowing in the wind. But it's structured so stiffly (thanks to four petticoats) that it could stand up on its own.
After seeing these tight clothes, it's a relief to walk into the modern rooms, where clothes are looser and freer. Yves Saint Laurent borrowed from Modern art with his famous ``Mondrian'' dress of 1965-66, a straight sheath with geometric blocks of primary colors. Some said putting sharp angles on women's curves wouldn't sell. It did.
The designers put their own spin on techniques and styles of their predecessors. Brash young French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, like Dior, used traditional boning and padding to make constructed garments, but in the '80s, he turned the style inside out: corsets worn as outerwear.
Issy Miyaki's 1989 origami-inspired Evening Ensemble looks like a box, but it floats. He's borrowed from draped togas and Japanese kimonos to create this dress with miniscule pleats and sides that jut out. A radically new pleating technique using a secret formula results in a garment that looks hard but is actually light and supple. The dress also fits in a tiny bag without crushing.
A daring display
The most daring gown, used in publicity shots, is a satin taffeta tartan-plaid wedding gown by British punk designer Vivienne Westwood, made for the 1993-94 season. The plaid and satin were not the only strange combination: poking out underneath the voluminous skirt is a riot of cobalt and chartreuse petticoats. But that was not what made it daring.
At a fashion show, it was worn by Australian supermodel Kate Moss. As she strode down the runway, Ms. Moss accidently stepped on the hem of the already low-cut wedding dress, which then pulled the bodice down far enough to widen eyes in the audience. But with one hand holding a huge bouquet and the other hand the folds of her skirt, she couldn't stop and pull it up. The unfazed model just cranked her smile up higher - and kept walking.
* ``Dressed to Kill: 100 Years of Fashion'' continues through Feb. 27.