Exhibition review: Silhouettes, David Roche Foundation Museum

More than just a collection of beautiful garments, this exhibition features stories of the many designers impacted by HIV/AIDS.

From the Studio 54 glamour of a gold-beaded Halston dress to an entire football team decked out in safe sex activism ‘Condom Power’ T-shirts, not to mention Franco Moschino’s mocking deconstruction of a Chanel suit and Willi Smith’s pioneering streetwear designs, this is an exhibition about the multifaceted power of fashion.

Curated by fashion historian Skye Bartlett and currently on show at the David Roche Foundation Museum, Silhouettes introduces the stories of some of the many designers whose lives were tragically impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It explores how their creations reflected a changing world, and in many cases became tools for change themselves.

With over 100 vintage designer pieces on display, it’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of the clothes – the fur, feathers and beading, the technicolour silks and soft knits, the patterns, the textures, and indeed, the silhouettes. There’s Chester Weinberg’s classic mod tailoring, the Grecian draping of a Halston gown, chic separates from Perry Ellis, and Fabrice Simon’s slinky, hand-beaded dresses (favoured by the likes of Whitney Houston).

And, of course, many an 80s power shoulder – from Bill Gibb’s regal Bronze Age-inspired take to Patrick Kelly’s playful and provocative daywear. Accessories are not neglected. Highlights include jewellery by model and designer Tina Chow, and Tokio Kumagaï’s whimsical hand-painted shoes.

It is curator Skye Bartlett’s aim, however, that this be more than simply a collection of beautiful garments. Care has been taken to structure the exhibition in a way that tells the story of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and in particular the way the fashion industry responded.

The first rooms introduce many designers who, while household names in their day, were consigned to be forgotten after their passing because of homophobic smear campaigns and the stigma associated with AIDS. An effort has also been made to showcase the innovative work of black designers – Willi Smith, Fabrice Simon, and Patrick Kelly among them – and to highlight the particular impact of the epidemic on the black community.

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The exhibition ends on the theme of activism. Moschino features heavily, with designs incorporating the red AIDS ribbon and, uniquely among the design houses showcased here, present-day pieces from a continued legacy of creative political engagement. There is also a welcome opportunity to see the work of local artists, including slogan T-shirts preserved by the Australian Queer Archives and the found object jewellery of Peter Tully.

One of the most moving pieces of the exhibition is a colourful AIDS Memorial Quilt panel created by Peter Tully and David McDiarmid to commemorate their friend Carlos Bonnici, whose parting instruction was to ‘make sure it’s funny, darling.’

While there are certainly moments of playfulness and hope here, the importance of Silhouettes as a memorial is brought home by what closes the exhibition: a soberingly long list of names, uncovered during the course of research, of the fashion industry professionals whose lives have been lost to AIDS-related illness.

Whether you’re there for the fashion or the history, or both, Silhouettes makes for a fascinating collection. As Bartlett says, this is hopefully just the beginning: a stepping stone to further research and the rediscovery of those whose lives and legacy were too soon lost.

Silhouettes: Fashion in the Shadow of HIV/AIDS
Curated by Skye Bartlett
The David Roche Foundation Museum

Exhibition Entry: $12 adult. $10 concession. Children under 12 free.

Silhouettes will be on display until 18 June 2022

Megan Koch is a writer and bookseller based in Adelaide. She studied English and Applied Linguistics at Flinders University.