Curator Glynis Jones describes the iconic dress that helped launch Australian label Romance Was Born to greater heights. This is an extract from the publication Icons, which can be purchased online.
Red-carpet dressing has become a performance and a public spectacle, primarily viewed, appraised and shared through digital platforms. With commentary on red-carpet gowns overshadowing the presentation of awards ceremonies, the close creative and commercial alliance between celebrity and designer has become increasingly significant, although it dates back to the beginning of the Academy Awards in the 1920s. Actor and motion picture pioneer Mary Pickford recognised the influence of celebrities over consumers, reputedly requesting significant discounts on haute couture, confident the publicity generated would return designers with increased profile and profits.1
Australian actor Cate Blanchett has been dressing for the red carpet since her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her role in the 1998 movie Elizabeth.2 Stylist Jessica Paster commented that as soon as the nominations were announced she ‘received offers from virtually every design house in the world to dress Blanchett’.3 While Blanchett loves couture and delights in dressing up for awards, more recently she has reflected on her conflicted relationship with the red carpet, noting people forget ‘that women are up there because they’ve given extraordinary performances. It’s a wonderful excuse to dress up and have F.U.N. But let’s not forget the work.’4
This crochet dress was designed by Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales for their Sydney-based fashion label, Romance Was Born. When Cate Blanchett wore it on the red carpet she received mixed reactions from fashion commentators and tabloid media.5 The tabloids dubbed her ‘Cate Blanket’ amid discussions about the appropriateness of wearing ‘doily inspired shock frocks,’ ‘nana glamour’ and ‘tea cosy inspired outfits’ on the red carpet. Fashion commentator Melissa Hoyer provided a more considered response. She recognised while Blanchett is more often featured on the best dressed lists wearing haute couture by Giorgio Armani, Givenchy, Chanel and Alexander McQueen, unlike other A-list celebrities she also has a reputation for more independent and avant-garde fashion choices, and should be applauded for championing a local label she respects.6 According to Plunkett and Sales, Blanchett asked to wear Romance Was Born and the dress was among several outfits the studio sent her to choose from. Blanchett’s decision to wear it on the red carpet and the global media frenzy that ensued nevertheless took the designers by surprise.7
What was it about this dress that so irked the ‘fashion police’? The single-sleeved knee-length dress is made from pieced, multi-coloured wool and mohair squares, hand-crocheted by Luke Sales’ mother, Janelle, and trimmed with tiers of black machine-knitted flounces at the neckline, single cuff and hem. Inspired by traditional crochet rugs, an item often associated with women’s work, craft and the domestic sphere, the dress elicited a quite visceral but derisive response.
According to Australian lace maker and historian Rosemary Shepherd, who has written about crochet’s elusive history, this response to crochet is not unique. She says the ease of learning the technique, combined with the speed of making and the freedom crochet affords individual creative expression has led to the makers being associated with immoral behaviour.8 Despite this, by the late 1800s, crochet had become popular with all classes of women, and a wide range of crochet pattern and instruction books became available. For the thrifty, a tradition began of collecting scraps of wool and yarn to crochet into squares for blankets. Crochet was even endorsed by Queen Victoria and photographs circulated of the Queen with crochet project in hand. In 1900, she crafted eight scarves for presentation to distinguished soldiers serving in her forces. One of these was presented to Australian Alfred Henry Du Frayer. Some reports of the gift to Du Frayer reflect the response to the crochet dress over a hundred years later: ‘Lieutenant Du Frayer and his Scarf are a much-photoed [sic] pair in this town. Sometimes the scarf is pictured without the Lieutenant. Never the Lieutenant without the scarf. It is a homely brown thing — such as any old lady might knit — but it has the merit of being entirely the late Queen’s work.’9
Crochet’s long association with women’s domestic crafts meant Blanchett’s crochet dress didn’t fall within the acceptable code of red-carpet dressing. It wasn’t handmade in the haute couture atelier of a celebrated international designer, nor was it a safely appropriate red-carpet style. Blanchett appeared unperturbed by the critical reception. She later reflected, ‘Couture is a cabinet of curiosities. It’s a place of experimentation and I think the red carpet is a great place to display it. I knew people would either hate that dress or really love it. People get so worried about what everybody thinks,’ she says. ‘But I love Romance Was Born because they have a great anarchic freedom.’10
Whimsy and humour are part of Romance Was Born’s DNA. Sales and Plunkett have developed the company as a ‘versatile creative space’ where they not only design, produce and retail their commercially focused fashion ranges, but also work on diverse collaborative projects. These collaborations have included costumes for Sydney Theatre Company, gallery installations at Carriageworks and runway showpieces exploring fashion as art.11
This dress was a one-off showpiece for the designers’ Rosemount Australian Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2009 collection show.12 Its reception at Fashion Week was markedly different to the red carpet. Vogue Australia was so impressed it ran the designers’ work on the cover of the June 2009 edition along with a six-page fashion spread. Godfrey Deeny, a globetrotting critic for Fashion Wire Daily, commented, ‘This was the closest collection outside Europe to reach the technical heights of a Paris haute couture show.’13 Those invited to the show concurred. The invitation to the intriguingly titled show — Doilies and Pearls, Oysters and Shells — came in the form of an embroidered, lace-trimmed doily. Guests found themselves before an underwater tableau, where ‘Romance Was Born open up nanna’s glory box worn by the tides of time to reveal long forgotten treasures and mysterious secrets — glorious old jewels, budgies in a cage, 4711, a fine bone china tea set with a mother-of-pearl glaze, delicately aged lace doilies and other assorted goodies from a bygone era.’14
This collection paid homage to family elders who’d taught the designers to sew and encouraged their creativity. It celebrated domestic craft traditions, illustrating how they could be reclaimed in new contexts. By combining crochet and lace outfits and accessories, with prints by Australian artist Patrick Doherty and shell-embellished shoes by Bidjigal artist and Elder Esme Timbery, this collection displaced craft techniques and motifs from the domestic sphere into a high fashion context. While runway shows are creative spaces, and audiences familiar with Romance Was Born have come to expect whimsy and fantasy, when this dress was displaced from the runway to the red carpet, it met an audience unfamiliar with reading this celebration of craft.
1 Bronwyn Cosgrave, Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards, Bloomsbury, New York, 2008, p 7.
2 Elizabeth (126 mins), Polygram Filmed Entertainment and Working Title Films, London, 1998, directed by Shekhar Kapur, written by Michael Hirst.
3 Barbara Thomas, ‘Oscar Who?’, Los Angeles Times, 19 March 1999, www.latimes.com. Accessed 20 May 2016.
4 Michael Koziol, ‘Cate Blanchett slams red carpet questions “Oh my God, it’s just a dress!”’, The Sydney Morning Herald, www.smh.com.au, 15 April 2015. Accessed 15 May 2016.
5 Blanchett wore the dress to the opening of Screen Worlds, at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, in September 2009.
6 Melissa Hoyer, ‘How Cate Blanchett gets away with wearing a crochet rug’, http://melissahoyer.com. Accessed 11 May 2016.
7 Kate Waterhouse, ‘Date with Kate: interview with Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales’, The Sun-Herald, 13 February 2011, p 5.
8 Foreword by Rosemary Shepherd in Barbara Ballantyne, Mary Card: Australian Crochet Lace Designer, B Ballantyne, Drummoyne, 2002, p v-vi.
9 ‘The Queen’s Scarf awarded to A Du Frayer’, AWM File of Research 569, 15 August 1956, Australian War Memorial, www.awm.gov.au. Accessed 11 May 2016.
10 Edited interview with Cate Blanchett, Harper’s Bazaar, May 2011 print issue, www.harpersbazaar.com.au, 4 April 2011. Accessed 20 May 2016.
11 Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness, Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney, directed by Sarah Goodes, written by Anthony Neilson, 2011. Rebecca Baumann (artist) and Romance Was Born, Reflected Glory, Rosemount Australian Fashion Week, Carriageworks, 2014.
12 MAAS purchased the original dress from Romance Was Born in 2010.
13 Godfrey Deeny, ‘Romance Was Born: Australian Couture’, Fashion Wire Daily, www.fashionwiredaily.com, 30 April 2009. Accessed 7 June 2016.
14 Romance Was Born, Doilies and Pearls, Oysters and Shells, Spring/Summer 2009, www.romancewasborn.com. Accessed 7 June 2016.