The fertility goddess meets Dolce & Gabbana in a dress to be worn by Ruth Allen in Glass Art Society's Glass Fashion Show.
Ruth Allen nearly drowned in her first glass dress. She went swimming in a lake and the weight of its 30 glass plates acted like an anchor.
"Luckily there was a dinghy nearby and I could haul myself out," she recalls in her North Coburg studio.
Her new dress design, with its teetering high hat, requires a little more poise, but has better prospects as a flotation device. Rather than discs it's made from blown glass baubles. As an added precaution, the holes that attach the glass to the bodice are stoppered. This may come in handy, should she fall off a gondola.
"You never know what can happen when people are dancing on a gondola," she says. "It's like a carnival."
Allen's dress features among 30 designs in the international Glass Art Society's Fashion Show being held in the old glass capital of Murano in Venice. The island's central canal will transform into a runway as a flotilla of glass designers wearing their handmade dresses floats along. The parade is the culmination of a glass art festival of exhibitions and demonstrations. Some 1500 conference delegates are expected to line the canal.
Allen calls her costume Goddess of Effervescence. A fizzy cocktail of inflated San Pellegrino bottles and newly blown baubles hang from a corset, bodice and asymmetrical hat. Further animating the tableau, a bubble machine will give the impression Allen has just shaken herself up.
Murano will be the 13th fashion spectacle curated by Canadian-based glass artist Laura Donefer. "Every type of glass is represented: recycled, flame-worked, blown, kiln-worked, and combinations of them all," Donefer has said of the event, describing elaborate costumes with "thousands of pieces". "We have ones that glow in the dark and ones that are lit up. There's usually at least one neon costume."
In 2016, the event paid tribute to music legends Prince and David Bowie with a Major Tom Space Oddity glass helmet among the outfits. The Burlesque Glass Fashion Show in New Orleans in 2004 was "so raunchy that it would be impossible to duplicate!".
"Fashion stretches the maker's creativity and imaginations," Donefer says.
Fashion has incorporated glass since the second millennium B.C. when Egyptians used glass beads as ornament and in burial ceremonies.
Alongside the two glass dresses, Allen also produces glass jewellery. But bowls, vases and upcycled bottles transformed into lighting dominates her studio.
The New Zealand-born artist began designing with glass in 1989 and has studied under Venetian master Lino Tagliapietra. Her biggest work to date is a 9mx3m glass installation, One World Island, based on Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion map, in the foyer of Canberra's Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. It features 1400 LED lights programmed to change colour at certain time durations and reflecting seasonal shifts.
Glass may not be a lifesaving device, but it has other intrinsic qualities. "Glass is a transmitter of light," says Allen. "It absorbs light and emits light. That's its most powerful strength as a medium."
Designed in collaboration with textile artist Victoria Rowell, Allen's dress took two months to conceive. "My brief was it had to be predominantly glass, I have to be able to move in it. It has to be light, strong, has to travel well, I have to be in it for at least four hours," Allen says.
Excited by the prospect, Allen ambitiously blew an abundance of baubles in her studio furnace, only to remove them in the process of making the outfit. "The hat looked too much like a cake," she says. "We opted for an asymmetrical line."
Diamante-studded nylon mesh forms a sparkling buffer between the 26 baubles (like Styrofoam around precious fruit) protecting them from hitting each other.
The Venice "catwalk" will be like the theatre, says Rowell, whose credits include textile designs for the Cameron Mackintosh productions of Cats and Phantom of the Opera and Opera Australia's Madame Butterfly.
"You're looking at the costume from a distance in the dark or dusk," she says. "You'll just see a glow."
Goddess of Effervescence also has an ancient lineage, albeit sculptural. The sandblasted bottles allude to the multi-breasted fertility goddess Cybele while sharing a resemblance to a Pompeian fresco of Dionysius in a cloak of giant grapes.
More personally the dress draws on two of Allen's lighting designs: the pendant light Three Shades of Green, made from wine bottles and suggesting a bunch of grapes; and the alluring, folding drape-like form of her Black Beauty chandelier, made from nine Sambucca bottles.
Says Rowell: "This is the fertility goddess meets Dolce & Gabbana."
Glass Art Society, 47th annual conference, Murano, Venice, May 16-20.
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