Designer sisters inspired by art history

Kiara Bulley and sister Bianca are recreating historic costumes as depicted in paintings.
Kiara Bulley and sister Bianca are recreating historic costumes as depicted in paintings.

For Brisbane-based fashion and costume designers Kiara and Bianca Bulley, finding inspiration by rifling through the wardrobes of history has long been a mainstay of their shared design vocabulary.

"As a 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 younger sister by 18 months.

"Looking back to the past is a rejection of the industry's fast pace and culture of newness. It's a way to slow down a bit."

Their fascination with the history of dress has stood the designer-makers in good stead.

Bianca, a Churchill Fellowship recipient, is currently assistant head of wardrobe at Opera Queensland, and Kiara is head cutter at Queensland Theatre.

They also run a made-to-order fashion label, Bulley Bulley, which references historical designs, and have worked across film and television.

So when Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art invited the sisters to recreate three historical costumes as depicted in paintings from its current blockbuster - European Masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York - they jumped at the opportunity.

"As part of the exhibition's public program, life models pose in the gallery space each day for people to sketch, and the garments we recreated are what the models wear," Kiara says.

The pair will present an after-hours talk, Fashion in Focus, on Wednesday, exploring key developments in western fashion through 500 years of painting.

It's a story of blue and gold brocade, red velvet, pink silk and peacock-green tulle, with masterworks by Carlo Crivelli, Piero di Cosimo, Dieric Bouts, El Greco, Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio, Velazquez, Goya and Renoir among the 65 on display.

In addition, Kiara and Bianca will share the process of bringing to life the three costumes.

The first garment they remade is that worn by the female subject of Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer's 17th century painting, Allegory of the Catholic Faith.

Intended as a personification of the Catholic Church, the woman is clothed in a magnificent gown of blue (for heaven) and white (for purity) and wears Roman sandals on her feet, one of which is perched on a wooden globe to signify the church's reach.

"Lots of people look at it and go, 'Oh, she's wearing thongs'," Kiara laughs.

The sisters used silk cotton duchess satin imported from Germany to construct the gown.

"We needed duchess satin to get that lustrous fabric effect you see in the painting," Kiara explains, adding that such flourishes were popular among artists of the time.

"It was seen as a real show of the artist's talent to be able to capture in a painting the effects of light on fabric."

The second outfit is that of the forlorn maid depicted at left in French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze's 1756 moralising genre work, Broken Eggs.

The artist's original title, A Mother Scolding a Young Man for Having Overturned a Basket of Eggs That Her Servant Brought from the Market. A Child Attempts to Repair a Broken Egg, doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

It's also deceiving, going by the young woman's gloomy countenance and the young man's flushed cheeks. As the catalogue entry puts it: "Something more than an egg has been broken".

"Because this outfit is worn by a maid, we used hard-wearing linens and heavily textured fabrics," Kiara says.

The third piece is a period gown as modelled by a teenage Marie Josephine Charlotte du Val d'Ognes in an 1801 portrait of her by French artist Marie Denise Villers.

The sisters made the dress in a mint-blue cotton voile.

"The inspiration for this style of column dress comes from classicism," Kiara says, adding that the work was painted shortly after the French Revolution.

"We're seeing the demise of the great extravagances of Paris in the history leading up to this, and then, after the revolution, a more democratic style of dress."

"And they took that very literally, because they were trying to grasp at the heart of democracy, so they looked back to the classical world, to ancient Greece and Rome."

Kiara loves to study these "loops in time" from the past.

"Fashion has been cyclic for a long time, it's just happening at a different pace now."

Curatorial manager of international art at the gallery, Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow, says that the influence of ancient Greece and Rome can be discerned at different points throughout the exhibition's 500-year span.

"In Rembrandt's circa 1654 painting Flora, he shows us a portrait of his current companion, Hendrickje Stoffels, but combines that with aspects of his late wife Saskia van Uylenburgh, who died in 1642," Kirrihi Barlow explains.

"He represents her as the Roman goddess Flora, a mythical figure from history, yet she is wearing a contemporary undershirt, which is not the way a lady of the day would have been represented.

"But because Rembrandt is representing these women, who are very dear to him, as a goddess, he can have her half-undressed.

"The composition of the painting, meanwhile, is borrowed from Titian."

One of Kirrihi Barlow's favourite paintings in the show is French artist Georges de la Tour's 1630s The Fortune-Teller.

"De la Tour has a great love of colour, costume and fabric, especially details of fabric," she says.

"The costume of the old lady who is telling the man's fortune would have been understood by people of the day to signify that she is Roma, or gypsy. You can see how her main garment is slung under one arm and up onto the other shoulder with a clasp."

Further, Kirrihi Barlow reveals that contemporary viewers would have recognised in the picture an echo of a popular novella, La Gitanilla (The Little Gypsy Girl), by Miguel de Cervantes of Don Quixote fame.

"Written 20 years before de la Tour painted this work, it tells the story of Preciosa, a young woman of noble birth who is reared by gypsies," she says.

"The young woman who is severing the victim's medallion chain in order to steal it has a paler face than her accomplices, which was an indicator of noble birth, and she's wearing jet beads and gorgeous golden lace.

"You see them exchanging intriguing glances as well. There's so much going on in this painting. It's an amazing work for its fashion iconography."

Does she have a favourite fashion period?

"Not as such," Kirrihi Barlow says.

"But what I do love are those moments when different energies come together in unexpected ways, for example, a trade route opening and giving people access to new fabrics."

Kiara Bulley nominates the period around the French Revolution as her favourite.

"I love the late 18th and early 19th century for those moments of distinct and dramatic change, pushed by ideas of politics and class," she says.

"We're coming out of the decadence of the late 18th century and into a very demure, quite subtle period.

"This is also the time of the great male renunciation, when men start to wear more rationalised, modular and democratic clothes, such as the suit."

Kiara and Bianca believe that a consideration of 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 contextualise what is happening in the present," Kiara says.

"Civilisation is a clothed story. We are all dressed in some way or another, and clothes have so much cultural and social significance if you are prepared to look closer."

Tickets to Wednesday's Fashion in Focus and more information are available at qagoma.qld.gov.au

Australian Associated Press