Upbeat and quirky dialogue with the past

Grab your last chance to discover Maltese alternative fashion through the ages in Curious Beauty.
Photos: Lisa Attard

Everyone has their go-to brands for clothing. But how much do you know about Malta’s own fashion history?

In Curious Beauty, artistic director duo Caroline Tonna and Francesca Balzan created 12 contemporary art installations using antique costume and vintage accessories throughout Palazzo Falson in Mdina.

Here’s what they have to say in a conversation with Sam Vassallo about the curious exhibition they curated.

So, what is alternative about this exhibition?

In a nutshell, what we have done is created 12 contemporary art installations using exclusively antique costume and vintage accessories as the components of each art installation.

All this has been displayed against the backdrop of the beautifully furnished Palazzo Falson – we set ourselves a challenge not to dismantle anything of the permanent exhibits of the museum, but instead, to weave in the art installations in a way that complemented the existing displays.

We have created a meaningful dialogue with the past that is upbeat, humorous and more than a little bit quirky.

We are both former curators of Palazzo Falson, so we were well placed to do this. We have a good knowledge of the museum spaces, its exhibits, and most importantly, we both wanted to honour the spirit of its former residents, Capt. Olof Frederick Gollcher and his wife Nella.

We channelled their outgoing spirit, their hospitality and their joie de vivre and really used that as a point of inspiration and a linking factor in the creation of the individual installations and the exhibition as a whole.

Is it specifically Maltese?

All the exhibits, counting nearly 200, come from Maltese collections. They are objects that were worn, cherished and belonged to Maltese people in the past. They are not all necessarily originally made in Malta; quite the contrary, in fact, as they are clear evidence of continental and English fashions being worn in Malta, but they were most certainly the property of the Maltese.

We loaned objects from the National Collection (Heritage Malta), the Cathedrals of Malta and Gozo, as well as from some fabulous local private collections. In most cases, these objects have never been seen in public before and will most likely never be seen again once the exhibition closes and they are returned to their owners.

The exhibition is really a one-off opportunity to see the splendour and taste of the Maltese, be it secular or ecclesiastic, in the past.

What is your favourite piece in the collection?

Caroline: This is really a hard question to answer. There are so many precious, rare and stunning exhibits that each have something special, whether it is the fabric, the intricate embellishments, the creative style and other particularities.

I just love the way we brought the objects to life, especially the group of 18th– and 19th-century bodices and waistcoats fashioned into dancing figures, completed with paper sculptures of skirts, breeches and whimsical heads. My other specials are the art installations of the ‘crowd’ of hats hovering over the staircase and the delightful handbags in conversation from different eras.

Francesca: What a difficult question! I think it probably changes every day. Every time I revisit the exhibition, my eyes tend to fall on an object I hadn’t truly looked at carefully before and I marvel afresh at it. It could be a brass pillow-shaped vintage handbag one day, an 18th-century impossibly slim-fitting blue bodice on another, or even a quirky pair of turn-of-the-century sunglasses on yet another.

Did I mention the stomachers? I go weak at the knees when I see them! It’s impossible to pick a favourite.

What do the items tell us about ourselves?

They most definitely tell us that the Maltese had taste, were knowledgeable and up to date about fashions on the continent, had a keen sense of refinement and appreciated beauty.

They sought to adorn themselves with the finest and the best. Attending, for example, a ball in the 19th century, or a family occasion in the 18th century, must have been a sight to behold.

Colourful, embroidered, adorned, splendid costumes were not only limited to the women but, as the exhibition clearly shows, so were the men and children beautifully decked out.

Has much changed in fashion?

Yes, we have become so much more utilitarian, but also so much more comfortable. We’ve exchanged heels for flats, and tight corseting for less constrictive clothing.

However, we’ve also lost a sense of elegance and occasion along the way. Having said that, you can still see echoes of 18th– and 19th-century fashions in our contemporary clothing.

Embroidery, for example, keeps coming back every few years, tailoring can be sharp, and the Louis heels that you see in 18th-century footwear (some of which are on display in our exhibition) are still in use to this day.

Do we still wear opera gloves and beautiful mittens? Sadly no, but you just never know what the designers of today are about to be inspired by. This is another good reason to preserve historic costume – it should be used as a reference collection for those seeking inspiration from the past.

Curious Beauty: An Alternative Costume Exhibition, in Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum, Villegaignon Street, Mdina, closes on June 16.

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