Australiana exhibition celebrates Dame Edna, Ken Done and melted ice cream

Jenny Kee is vocal about worrying we got off on the wrong foot. I had wondered that as a rebellious teenage girl in the late ’60s she went to boutique Biba, the hit of London’s fashion and music scene, and got a job. When I ask if that was by accident or on purpose, she is outraged.

“Nothing was accidental!” she says. “We were hungry for action in Australia and just wanted to get things straight with all our Aussie persuasion. That’s what the Australians did because we were out in the penal colonies, as they said in London.”

Fair point – a career as celebrated as Kee’s can hardly have been a bolt from heaven. Her early determination fits perfectly with the migratory patterns of some of the 20th century’s greatest cultural influencers, many of whom are celebrated in Bendigo Art Gallery’s new exhibition, Australiana: Designing a Nation.

Australiana is a term that encompasses historical objects and decorative arts with a distinctively Australian character – many of them aggressively colonial – but the term was co-opted in the 1970s and 1980s to mean loud, happy kitsch. The exhibition features many examples of the latter, such as Suzanne Forsyth’s Dame Edna series of teapots, Kee’s famous koala-knit ‘Blinky’ jumper – worn by Diana, Princess of Wales, to a polo match – and Jenny Bannister’s white mini dress at the then newly opened Sydney Opera House modeled.

Related: Crikeycore: What is it and should Australians shy away from it?

Interest has surged again lately, from clothing companies using “rinky-dink” slogans to Harry Styles donning a straw Bunnings hat on stage. There’s the social media phenomenon of crikeycore, which is essentially about other nations making fun of weird things that Australians like. And in April, Tony Armstrong will host Great Australian Stuff, an ABC four-part series in which household names – many of them non-Anglo – unpack “the surprising, weird and sometimes dark history behind our most iconic stuff,” including meat pies, speedos, stubbies , the Hills hoist and the boomerang.

While many Australian creatives were lured abroad for cultural reasons to be taken seriously, Gough Whitlam’s patronage of the arts drew them home in Australia’s heyday. Kee brought that energy back to Sydney, opening the Flamingo Park Frock Salon in 1973 with fellow designer Linda Jackson. She reads me a 1974 Sunday Telegraph headline: “New Nationalism Inspires Australian Gear: Our Dear Ochers Opt for the True Blue Look!”

“The store started in 1973 and wasn’t as fashionable in 1993,” says Kee. “People moved away from that whole Australiana feel – but now it’s back. Seeing Romance Was Born is killing me knowledge it’s back.”

Designs by Kee and Jackson roam the central space of Australiana alongside bright dresses by Bannister, Prue Acton and Romance Was Born.

The seed of the Bendigo exhibition – a mammoth collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria – came from curator Emma Busowsky, who was considering two different artists: late 19th-century carpenter Robert Prenzel, who transformed Australian flora and fauna into included its carvings; and contemporary fashion house Romance Was Born, which designed a range of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie garments in homage to children’s author May Gibbs.

“I put those two images together in my head, I think there’s a lineage here,” says Busowky.

Luke Sales is one half of Romance Was Born, which formed in 2005 with Anna Plunkett. Over the years, the pair have collaborated with Kee, Jackson and Ken Done. While her work – like the Iced Vovo dress that now lives in the Powerhouse collection – is decidedly Aussie, her fans count Miley Cyrus and Cyndi Lauper.

“Australiana interests me a lot,” says Sales. “I have quite an extensive collection of Australian chandeliers, particularly shells and swans. I have a Ken Done painting and we have vintage tablecloths all over our offices. The concept of sustainability is super important. For people to be interested in second-hand furniture and fabrics – instead of trying to buy everything that’s shiny and new – is a really cool shift in consumer thinking.”

While Sales and Plunkett have a passion for the 1980s, a time when Australian nationalism was celebrated, Romance Was Born was conceived in the same year as the Cronulla riots.

“We’re sensitive to nationalism,” Sales says. “We understand that there are many issues with our country and that’s why we’re putting our spin on it to make Australia feel like it’s from another world. We focus on our natural surroundings and then on cultural things related to nostalgia and childhood memories. We want our customers to have an emotional response to a garment.”

Melbourne artist Kenny Pittock also plays with nostalgia in his works, such as Melted Bubble’O: a liquefied ceramic Bubble O’Bill. Pittock, who grew up in the Dandenongs, was reacting to fears of global warming: “Bush fires were the main focus,” he says.

The gallery commissioned Pittock to create a new sculptural installation, 100 Australian Ice-Creams, that is guaranteed to spark memories and conversation.

“These are hand-formed, glazed ice creams that go back several decades and you find them in milk bars and gas stations,” says Pittock, whose grandparents ran a milk bar. “Even during the installation, people were drawn to certain ones. Everyone has these deep connections that are unique to them.”

As a curator, nostalgia also resonates for Busowsky, but she feels it most strongly in the 1930s room of the exhibition.

“You have the Great Depression going on, but also this Art Deco style that’s taking over the world,” she says. “So you have this sentimental painting style, the longing for a quiet time and life in the country.”

A few steps away is the so-called Pub Room with works by Russell Drysdale, John Brack and Sidney Nolan. “It’s the idea of ​​the pub as the center of a secular Australian society,” says Busowsky. (Not surprisingly, there’s a Rennie Ellis room just a stone’s throw away.)

Related: How Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson invented Australiana high fashion – in pictures

Any exhibition of Australiana brings with it ethical challenges; recently, museums have had to settle accounts with colonialism. But here visitors are greeted by Fay Carter’s emu feather cloak and Rodney Carter’s kangaroo skin cloak, both of which are used in ceremonies today. Elsewhere are Marrithiyel artist Paul McCann’s stunning ball gowns, which he calls “Bling Bling Faboriginal.” Girramay/Yidinji/Kuku Yalanji artist Tony Albert’s 30-year collection of ‘Aborginalia’ – souvenirs and bric-a-brac such as decorative ashtrays depicting First Nations people – is also on display. It’s a new take on something old – and makes Australiana worth visiting (again).

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