Thursday, February 20, 2014

Groovy Prue

Crappy TV. Synthesizers. Kids in the Kitchen. Ugly cars. Pat Cash. The 1980s have a lot to answer for.

However, one of the main reasons for my enduring personal grudge against the era is the fashion. The ruffles and bubble skirts, the stonewash denim and permed hair, the puffy sleeves and shoulder pads, the satin, taffeta and technicoloured makeup — yucko. (And to think we’ve been living through an 80s revival the last few years! Seriously, wasn’t it bad enough the first time round?)

As a disgruntled teenager at the time, I considered Melbourne designer Prue Acton to be just another tasteless purveyor of mass hideocrity. Little did I know that she was once referred to as Australia’s own Mary Quant, and almost singlehandedly made Melbourne mod. Shame on me.

A one-woman youthquake

Groovy Prue, c. 1967 (Getty Images)
Prue Acton was among the first Aussie designers to really plug into the youth-centric vibe of the 1960s. Recognising that young women and teenage girls didn’t want to dress like their mothers, Acton (who was barely 20 when she opened her own business in 1963, with support from her parents) offered them a much-needed alternative.

As Prue herself put it, “It was about looking cute and very youthful, very young, not like Mum.” (George Negus Tonight, ABC TV, 2004)
You could even sew your own Prue designs, like this adorable scallop-hemmed mini-dress
Her designs were frisky, fun and fabulous — and before long, she was designing more than 350 garments a year and selling 1000 frocks a week across Australia and New Zealand.

1969 Courrèges-inspired, Star Trek-style mini-dress (Museum Victoria collection)
Her background in art and textiles served her well: she had a real eye for colour and the possibilities of different fabrics. 

This fabulous woollen coat sold for $78 in 1968 (Museum Victoria collection)
Not only were Prue’s designs embraced by a whole generation of swinging chicks, but her talent was soon recognised at an industry level, resulting in widespread acclaim and awards. In 1967, she became the first female Australian designer to show in NYC, and she did a roaring trade in department stores across the US.

Linen and knit mini-dress, 1969 (Museum Victoria collection)
Just like Mary Quant, Prue Acton wasn’t shy of a rising hemline. Following the sensation caused by British model Jean Shrimpton in 1965 when she turned up at Melbourne’s spring racing carnival wearing a mini-dress and no stockings (much less gloves or hat), the young designer happily obliged her customers’ desire to flash some leg: 
“All the kids who I was supplying, all the 18- to 20-year-olds, said, ‘That's what I wanna look like.’ And overnight, we were cutting the skirts. We were cutting two inches off, and the next week, another two and another two. By Christmas, we were up to something quite disgusting, just covering the bum.”
Ah, fun times! 

Check out Museum Victoria's comprehensive Prue Acton collection for more photos of her designs, spanning the 60s to the, ahem, 80s.

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Bruno Benini

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