Back in the wardrobe

February 11, 2014 by J-Wire
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The Dressing Sydney exhibition at Sydney’s Jewish Museum has closed following a highly successful 15 month run.

The museum ran a function to which all those associated with the extremely successful exhibit which told many stories of those for many of whom their present day lives were moulded by past and present generations making names for themselves in the tough world of the rag trade.


Lesley Barold, Eva Scheinberg, Barbara Solomon, Margaret Gutman, Roslyn Sugerman, Barbara Linz and Liz Sharota

Curator Roslyn Sugerman spoke at the function. She told J-Wire that in the period the exhibition was on display, more than 18,000 visitors had toured the museum adding “most of them would have spent time at the Dressing Sydney exhibit”.

Sugerman told the meeting: “A warm welcome to everyone here this evening – Holocaust Survivors, people in the fashion industry, generous exhibition donors, exhibition volunteers, contributors to the exhibition, Jisuk Han & Haimeng Zhao our exhibition designer, Professor Peter McNeil the historian for Dressing Sydney, and my personal consultants who helped throughout: Margaret Gutman, Barbara Linz, Eva Scheinberg and Barbara Solomon.

….Thank you all for joining us at the Museum tonight to symbolically Undress Sydney.

First thing on Monday morning we will begin to dismantle the exhibtion.

It will be a sad day, but we have had a wonderful 15 month run.

I would like to share with you some of the highlights of the past year to demonstrate the extent to which the exhibition has enhanced the Museum and contributed to the profiling of the Jewish community amongst the wider community in such a positive and meaningful fashion.

There has been a continuous stream of visitors to see Dressing Sydney. I don’t have exact numbers because the door counter counts movement in and out of the room, whether it’s the cleaner or the security guard. Adult visitors numbers were up last year, to around 18,000 people. It is safe to assume that roughly this number of visitors viewed the exhibition …. Or popped their heads into the space for a peak. Many hundreds of visitors came specifically for Dressing Sydney. And they came from far and wide.

Anna Berger and the exhibition

Anna Berger and the exhibition

One visitor from England wrote in the Museum’s Exit Survey that the purpose of his visit was to find out more about Australian Jews to contrast to London Jews, and he commented:

“The temporary exhibition about fashion was bloody brilliant!”

I showed many groups around the exhibition; many individuals too. There were a few times that I took the exhibition out of the Museum to groups – via a PowerPoint presentation – to Wizo, Bnai Brith, the Montefiore Home in Randwick and the Montefiore in Woollahra.


 There was wide media coverage in print, online, on radio and on television. More than once Peter McNeil and Margaret Gutman were interviewed about the exhibition.

All the local media carried stories – J-Wire, the Jewish News. Daily Telegraph, Sydney Morning Herald, Virgin magazine, Broadsheet, LattéLife, and it was a special triumph to have a double page spread in London’s Jewish Chronicle (January 2013).

And one in Vancouver’s Jewish newspaper (by Professor Karen Ginsberg). As well as a Dressing Sydney review by Lou Taylor from the University of Brighton for Textile History magazine (November 2013).

And in a fashion and beauty publication published by the University of Leeds.

I suspect that the international interest in our exhibition has something to do with Peter McNeil’s network.

The ABC filmed the exhibition for Compass and produced a program called ‘Rags and Riches’ which aired last April. It told the survival and success stories of 3 of our Jewish families who lost everything in the war and who rebuilt their lives in Australia:

The Weinreich’s multi-million dollar bridal gown business. Cobbler brothers Morris and Adam Perkal, who were still making shoes for the rich, famous and physically disabled, up until December/January when they both sadly died within two weeks of each other. And Anna Reich, a Schindler’s list survivor, and a retired fashionista.

Kathy Novak filmed the exhibition for SBS News on 13 April, interviewing Holocaust Survivor Olga Horak of Hibodress Blouses fame and young designer Becky Cooper of Bec and Bridge fame. The newsclip was only two minutes but it featured as part of the coverage of Fashion Week. The section was titled ‘Jewish fashion steeped in tradition’.

20 fashion designers from the exhibition (such as Bernhard Hammerman, Elke Kramer, John J Hilton, Peter Halas, Peter Weiss, Max & Sid Sernack, Liz Sharota, Jody Somogy, Maria Finlay) were included on Design and Art Australia Online – a database with the purpose of preserving Australia’s art and design history.

There was a six page article on the Making of Dressing Sydney which I wrote for the Autumn 2013 issue of Museums Australia Magazine – a really good article if I say so myself, but to confess, the magazines editor fine-tuned it somewhat.

Australia’s flagship textile magazine, Textile Fibre Forum, commissioned an article on the exhibition which Professor Peter McNeil wrote. It is a fabulous article [needless to say, it did not require editing].

The Dressing Sydney Blog which blogged behind-the-scenes development of the exhibition operated from March 2012 with 115 published posts receiving 43,339 page views.

Public Program

An active program of events usually complements our exhibitions. But this time our Public Program team excelled. They are a group of amazing volunteers. At the helm is Aviva Wolff, the Museum’s office manager/events organizer. The team created a Program of events which boosted visitor numbers and brought in a wider demographic of visitors to the Museum. I thank them for making our Museum such a lively place.

I’m delighted that they were inspired by Dressing Sydney to create a number of panel discussions related to the exhibition:


  • In February: ‘The Fashionista and The Frump”. It was moderated by Eva Scheinberg who created the first In Shoppe in 1966. The event was so successful that there was an overflow service and 30 people (including myself) watched via a live feed on a television screen in the auditorium.
  • In April: ‘Living Fashion’ – which was a conversation with Professor Peter McNeil and Dr Gene Sherman, in which Gene shared insights about her personal fashion aesthetic and Japanese clothing collection.
  • In May: ‘More Dash-Less Trash’, also called ‘Saving the Planet One Dress at a Time’ – was about living a sustainable life with style. It featured dynamic speakers, all leaders in their fields, and was moderated by Liane Rossler of Dinosaur Designs fame.
  • In June: ‘Does the media fashion fashion?’. This function had media and fashion experts talking about the relationship between the two industries.
  • In August: ‘Fashionably Faithful’ with Rachel Kohn from the ABC and representatives of various faiths talking about fashion and religion.

The catalogue

 The Dressing Sydney book is on sale in the Museum shop at a reduced price of $20. It’s a good opportunity to buy copies for friends and family and read the brilliant historical overview by Professor Peter McNeil and a lovely preface by the Museum’s President Professor Gus Lehrer.

Two people made this book possible with generous funding: Jeffrey Hilton & Susie Coleman (son of dress designer and manufacturer John J Hilton, featured on the exhibition) and Gene & Brian Sherman (Gene also featured on the exhibition). Now that the exhibition is coming to an end we are especially grateful to have a book which is a permanent record of the exhibition.

In May, the book won a prestigious award. Thanks to the design work of Mark Gowing.

It won in the category of Best Designed Reference and Scholarly book at the Australian Publishers Association’s 61st annual book design Awards

The Australian Publishers Association called it a:

“… beautiful book with wonderful use of black and white imagery and excellent captions throughout. Dressing Sydney: The Jewish Fashion Story has a very modernist yet dynamic feel that suits what it is representing. A nod to fashion magazines through type.”

I entered the book for other awards too, and we were shortlisted for:

  • Most Beautiful Books Australia New Zealand Awards
  • Museum’s Australia Exhibition Catalogue Awards

So, how do you measure the success of an exhibition beyond vistor numbers?

Visitor’s book is filled with positive comments.

“Wonderful exhibit, beautifully set up, easy to read.  I studied fashion Design at East Sydney Technical College 1950-1953…much of this exhibit is so familiar as are some of the people and their stories. I loved it! Thank You!”

“Thank you for putting on an inspiring exhibition showing the strength and courage of people who have not only made a difference in their own community but also inspire others like myself to always be brave, always move forward and always work hard.”

“Amazing exhibition. A highlight of my trip to Sydney!” Jessica, Switzerland

“We are from Portland Oregon were we also have a Jewish Museum. We need to have a copy of what you have done. Great job”.

“I had not realized how much of the rag and fashion trade was centred on Jewish immigration in Australia. A fascinating exhibition that helps us enlarge our understanding of our place and importance in Australia.”

“Well worth the trip from Brisbane.”

“Enjoyed reading all the wonderful stories in the exhibition. Absolutely fantastic exhibition.”

“Fabulous! As an up-and-coming, aspiring designer – great history lesson in ‘Just do it!’”

“This exhibition brings back wonderful memories. Very interesting, beautifully displayed.”

“One of the most fascinating exhibitions I have ever viewed, especially regarding the birth and growth of a fashion industry.”

“An informative, entertaining and inspirational exhibition. I never realised what an amazing contribution to the industry the Jewish community have made to the fashion industry. Wonderful stories of overcoming the worst adversity and replacing it with beauty, creativity and hope for the future generations. This exhibition needs a permanent home. Congratulations!”


Professor Peter McNeil, as mentioned earlier, is the exhibition historian. We benefitted from his expertise. And his name and knowledge, very well respected in the academic world of fashion and textiles, added authority and prestige to our exhibition.

Peter is Associate Dean Research in the Department of Design, Architecture and Building at UTS, and Professor of Design History at UTS. He is also Professor of Fashion Studies at Stockholm University (Sweden).

He works mainly on 18th century West Europe and 20th century Anglo-American topics ranging from fashion to the domestic interior.

He recently completed Currently, he is working on a one million Euro funded project about Innovation and Creativity in Europe in the period 1500 to 1800. He is editor and co-editor of 10 or more works on fashion, including the best-selling book ‘Shoes’ (and the award-winning Dressing Sydney!).

Peter, thank you for your immense contribution to The Jewish Fashion Story. Thank you for accepting the challenge to metaphorically Undress Sydney with your talk entitled:

“Undressing Sydney – New tales and old jokes.”

The space freed up by “Dressing Sydney” will house the Anne Frank exhibition scheduled to be opened next month.

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