by Alessandra Boi
I was one of those curious and mischievous children who, at any opportunity, secretly went through their mother’s cosmetics bag, played with pretty perfume bottles off grandma’s dressing table, or giggled at finding their older sister’s black lingerie carefully hidden at the back of a drawer.
The chance of experiencing again those feelings of awe and mild shame attracted and accompanied me to It’s personal, a special exhibition at the Moreton Bay Regional Council’s Redcliffe Museum, in the ancestral country of the Ningy Ningy people.
The marketing online offered a journey through the evolution of personal hygiene standards, secretive and gruelling beauty regimes long forgotten [Image 1] I did enjoy the Council museums’ earlier exhibition of a similar topic of everyday life. Good night, sleep tight, about sleep habits through the ages, exemplified well the undercurrent trend to transform the private or mundane into identity markers through the pathway of nostalgic sentimentality: It’s personal promised more of that comforting type of cultural reclamation, always welcome especially in our fast-changing and fragmented world, after two years of pandemic.
The exhibition room’s plain glass doors are disguised by a shiny boho-boudoir black fabric fringe, cut out in arches over the entry. The same fringe curtains cover the walls inside the softly lit room and roughly demarcate thematic areas. I assume the design brief was recreating the privacy of one’s own room while making good use of an obviously very tight budget.
Once through the doors, a small sign invites to take one of the visibly well-loved exhibition guides from one pile and return in at the end. Thankful for what I thought was a choice, but hesitant to pick up already perused copies in the middle of a pandemic, I enter without one, only to discover that all objects are just numbered. No labels or secondary panels whatsoever outside of those guides, and no choice to use a QR code or refer to an online catalogue for the description. Only the mannequin outfits are quirkily named for the fashion ‘mood’ they represent, like in a fashion magazine. I reluctantly go back to pick up the guide, struggling for the rest of the visit to match numbers with listings as if I were at an auction.
The shiny black of the fringes contrasts with the introductory and narrative panels, printed on hanging boards shaped as oval mirrors with vintage gold frames. The effect is you are about to pass through theatre backstage changerooms or a glamorous boudoir rather than a ‘personal space’ reflecting the identity of everyday people. The addition of a classic lipstick red, or soft baby powder blues for example, would have better suggested either cosmetics or the intimacy of a bathroom.
At the centre is a circular pod showcasing clothing fashion of the 1940s until 1970s through four female outfits on faceless mannequins, including shoes and bags laid out next to the base, and various hats. Not much of anything else is discernible from here, apart from other apparel (one a man’s) and textiles. Most objects are hidden in cases, and the walls are all covered by the ubiquitous black silky fringe. No staging of bathroom cabinets or dressing tables in sight. For a moment I think I entered the wrong exhibition: was this all about female fashion, rather than hygiene routines or what it meant to be ‘presentable’ in grandma’s everyday life? I decide the idea is to imagine getting ready for a party in my twenties and start my journey into It’s personal by reading about Fanology and looking at fans – produced centuries after the language of fans had been a thing.
The pod suggests a circular flow around the room. More fringy curtains are used to separate a ‘taboo area’ towards the far corner about halfway, because of its ‘adult content’: namely, a medical device precursor of electric vibrators, and menstrual pads and belts. That menstruation and (female) sexual pleasure needed a warning of adult content and viewer discretion, is at odds with the claim that the exhibition wants to show that ‘nothing is taboo’ anymore. It’s giving in to old superstitions and poor education, perhaps in the name of a misguided sensitivity towards a prudish older generation or visitors from other cultures where, sadly, these taboos persist.
The perfume display of signature scents from the 1950s to 1980s, would have benefited from lingering scents in the area or perfumed cards, but I recognize it may have been a budget constraint. The sense of touch is better engaged through the Up çlose and personal sensorial interactives, usually textile swatches which invited reflection on freshness against skin, or heaviness of sequined fabrics.
The soft lighting and boudoir vibe suggested a trousseau lingerie exhibit. Basic underwear was indeed on display, not from an ornate chest of drawers, but as if hanging from a laundry line; white lace slips spur a reflection on how our grandmas’ under layers became the actual slip dress in the Nineties.
The promise of discovering the makeup techniques of the 1920s is (un)fulfilled by one mirror-shaped text panel and a couple of lipsticks on display. Virtual try-ons of vintage looks with a mirror app or filters would have brought great interactivity, however a few magazine pages from the era or a YouTube video tutorial produced with a local makeup artist, would have done just as well, no tight Council budget excuse here.
While I did learn the connection between the now mainstream contouring makeup trend and the drag queen culture, overall, I found the content of the panels not especially well researched or cohesive; mostly superficial historical analysis that sounded as if taken straight from a few poorly written web blog articles or a Wikipedia ‘medley’.
Some use of personae and their stories for the visitor to follow would have added genuine context and improved storytelling and connection with different audiences, from retirees to creatives to teenagers: e.g.: Miss Eileen Fictitious, 16 in 1960s middle class suburbia, would have given a more genuine context to the objects on show. What products would she have had available typically? And her mother Mary or grandma Ethel? Or her beau, Desmond’s hair routine?
To add to the missed opportunities, the display is heavily centred on Western (white) female beauty methods, with a lack of inclusivity perspectives that in itself is as passé as some of the makeup fashions recorded here.
A final interactive station invites us(women) to empty our handbag. A photo of its contents would be added to the feature wall and thus become part of the exhibition. I choose not to expose my messy personal effects to more shared surfaces or posterity. The empty feature wall suggests I am not the only one.
It’s personal is an exhibition that wants badly to be about fashion statements and textiles, an inspiration for modern designers, rather than talk to the usual audiences about nostalgia of the everyday of yesteryear’s. The regional museum brief of keeping the community connection must however be followed. We end up with an odd setup, mildly suggestive of a soiree of sexual encounters, yet devoid of nostalgic staging. We’re invited to peep behind curtains, only to find standard display cases with unlabeled objects lined up dryly as specimens. It only hints at, or outright forgets the interconnection between health, hygiene, industry, and beauty standards. The focus is too much on the appearance rather than identity, or what’s ‘good & proper’ rather than on the personal effects and routines that make us presentable.
Alessandra Boi is a Masters student at CHMS.