Inside the Collection

Pearls: Streetwear to Stilettos

Dress by Karen Walker, 2000 'Etiquette' collection
2001/66/1 Karen Walker, 2000 ‘Etiquette’ collection Collection, Powerhouse Museum

I’ve been doing a bit of research lately on this fabulous dress by Karen Walker and it’s got me thinking about pearls. From this printed graphic to the decorative they are continually referenced in fashion. The Museum’s collection holds a great many objects containing pearls, from buttons and brooches to even fans, and the further I look, the more I see them! In this post I’d love to take you through some of the fabulous and interesting examples of pearls in the collection.

This first outfit was designed by New Zealand designer Karen Walker and shown at Australian Fashion Week in 2000. The collection titled ‘Etiquette’ is Karen Walker’s take on society dressing. She has taken key elements of the socialite’s wardrobe, the little black cocktail dress and string of pearls and turned them casual with a street edge. It’s quite quirky with the broken strand of pearls, which is considered a sign of bad luck and breaks down conventional dressing.

Salvatore Ferragamo stilettos, 1959
88/840 Salvatore Ferragamo stilettos, 1959 Collection, Powerhouse Museum

Looking at footwear now, and not just your average sneaker, but this gorgeous pair of Ferragamo stilettos from 1959. Salvatore Ferragamo was a Florentine shoemaker most famous for his scientific and creative approach to his handmade footwear and the patronage of Hollywood celebrities. These stilettos are just stunning with swirls of beading and five imitation pearl droplets at the toe on red satin. As the saying goes, ‘pearls are like tears’ – gentle and feminine, and I love idea of the pearl droplets on these shoes breaking old traditions; dancing, jumping and bouncing on these stilettos to the quickstep in the 1950s.

Women's cap, late Nineteenth Century
A6362, Women’s cap, late Nineteenth Century Collection, Powerhouse Museum

Tears and pearls have long been associated and often with 19th century notions of the delicate fragile women. This late Victorian cap made of lace and ribbon is intriguing in this respect with the decoration of imitation pearls attached to the cap using tiny metal springs. When the wearer moved her head the pearls would shiver and bounce simulating notions of fragility and delicacy associated with women at that time.

Reflecting on the way pearls have been used in the Museum’s collection, it’s fascinating to see how contemporary designers, like Karen Walker, have used old traditions in new updated ways.
The Museum will be featuring this outfit in the upcoming exhibition, Frock Stars: inside Australian Fashion Week.

Rebecca Evans, Assistant Curator (Frock Stars exhibition)

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