How kitsch became cool: Australiana exhibition celebrates Dame Edna, Ken Done and melted ice-creams

Jenny Kee worries out loud that we’ve got off on the wrong foot. I had expressed wonder at the fact that, as a teenage rebel in the late-60s, she had walked into the boutique Biba, the bullseye of London’s fashion and music scene, and got a job. When I ask if that was by accident or design, she is indignant.

“Nothing was by accident!” she says. “We were starved for action in Australia and we just wanted to get to the heart of everything, with all our Aussie persuasion. That was what Australians did, because we were out in the convict colonies, as they said in London.”

Fair point – a career as celebrated as Kee’s can hardly have been a celestial blip. Her early sense of purpose fits perfectly with the migration patterns of some of the greatest cultural influencers of the 20th century, many of whom are celebrated in Bendigo Art Gallery’s new exhibition, Australiana: Designing a Nation.

Australiana is a term that covers historic items and decorative arts with a distinctively Australian character – many of them offensively colonial – but the term was co-opted in the 1970s and 1980s to mean loud, cheerful kitsch. The exhibition includes plenty of examples from the latter, such as Suzanne Forsyth’s series of Dame Edna teapots, Kee’s famous “Blinky” koala-knit jumper – which was worn by Diana, Princess of Wales to a polo match – and Jenny Bannister’s white mini dress modelled after the then newly opened Sydney Opera House.

Related: Crikeycore: what is it and should Australians cringe at it?

Lately there’s been a resurgence of interest – from clothing companies using “rinky-dink” slogans to Harry Styles donning a Bunnings straw hat on stage. There’s the social media phenomenon of Crikeycore, which is essentially other nations rubbernecking at weird things Australians like. And in April, Tony Armstrong will host Great Australian Stuff, an ABC four-parter which will see household names – many of them non-Anglo – unpacking “the surprising, strange, and sometimes dark history behind our most iconic stuff”, including meat pies, Speedos, stubbies, the Hills hoist and the boomerang.

While cultural cringe saw many Australian creatives lured overseas to be taken seriously, Gough Whitlam’s arts funding drew them home in the heydays of Australiana. Kee brought that energy back to Sydney and in 1973 launched the Flamingo Park Frock Salon with fellow designer Linda Jackson. She reads me a Sunday Telegraph headline from 1974: “New nationalism inspires Aussie gear: our lovely Ockers go for the true blue look!”

“The shop started in 1973 and by 1993 it wasn’t so fashionable any more,” Kee says. “People were moving away from that whole feeling of Australiana – but now it’s back again. Seeing Romance Was Born makes me know it’s back again.”

Kee and Jackson’s designs run riot through the central room of Australiana, alongside blazing dresses by Bannister, Prue Acton and Romance Was Born.

The germ of the Bendigo exhibition – a mammoth collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria – came from curator Emma Busowsky thinking about two different artists: the late 19th-century cabinetmaker Robert Prenzel, who incorporated Australian flora and fauna in his carvings; and contemporary fashion house Romance Was Born, which designed a line of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie clothing, in homage to children’s author May Gibbs.

“I put these two images together in my mind, I’m thinking, there is a lineage here,” Busowky says.

Luke Sales is one half of Romance Was Born, formed in 2005 with Anna Plunkett. Over the years the pair have collaborated with Kee, Jackson and Ken Done. While their work – such as the Iced Vovo dress that now lives in the Powerhouse collection – is resolutely Australian, their fans include Miley Cyrus and Cyndi Lauper.

“Australiana is a huge interest of mine,” Sales says. “I have a pretty serious collection of Australian lustreware pottery, specifically shells and swans. I have a Ken Done painting, and we have vintage tablecloths all over our offices. The idea of sustainability is super important. For people to be interested in second-hand furniture and fabrics – rather than trying to obtain whatever’s shiny and new – is a really cool shift in consumer thinking.”

While Sales and Plunkett have a passion for the 1980s, a time that celebrated Australian nationalism, Romance Was Born was conceived the same year as the Cronulla riots.

“The way we deal with nationalism is to be sensitive to it,” Sales says. “We understand that there are many problems with our country and so we’re giving it our spin to make Australia seem otherworldly. We focus on our natural environment, and then cultural things that are to do with nostalgia and childhood memories. We want our customers to have an emotional response to a garment.”

Melbourne artist Kenny Pittock also plays with nostalgia in his work, such as Melted Bubble’O: a liquified Bubble O’Bill made of ceramic. Pittock, who grew up in the Dandenongs, made it in response to global warming anxiety: “Bushfires were very front of mind,” he says.

The gallery commissioned Pittock to make a new sculptural installation, 100 Australian Ice-Creams, which is guaranteed to spark memories and conversations.

“It’s hand-sculpted, glazed ice creams spread across several decades that you’d find in the milk bar and petrol station,” says Pittock, whose grandparents ran a milk bar. “Even while installing it people were gravitating towards certain ones. Everybody has these deep connections that are unique to them.”

As the curator, nostalgia resonates for Busowsky too, but she feels it the most in the 1930s room of the exhibition.

“You’ve got the Great Depression going on but also this art deco style that’s taking over the world,” she says. “So you have this sentimental style of painting, of yearning for a quiet time and life on the land.”

A few steps away is what might be called the pub room, including works by Russell Drysdale, John Brack and Sidney Nolan. “It’s the idea of the pub as the centre of a secular Australian society,” Busowsky says. (Unsurprisingly, there’s a Rennie Ellis room a mere stagger away.)

Related: How Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson invented Australiana high fashion – in pictures

Any exhibition on Australiana comes with ethical challenges; of late, museums have been facing a reckoning when it comes to colonialism. But here, visitors are greeted by Fay Carter’s Emu Feather Cloak and Rodney Carter’s Kangaroo Skin Cloak both used in ceremonies today. Elsewhere are the stunning ball gowns of Marrithiyel artist Paul McCann, which he calls “bling bling faboriginal”. And Girramay/Yidinji/Kuku Yalanji artist Tony Albert’s 30-year collection of “Aborginalia” – souvenirs and bric-a-brac, such as decorative ashtrays, featuring depictions of First Nations people – is also on display. It is a new take on something old – and makes Australiana well worth (re)visiting.

  • Australiana: Designing a Nation runs till 25 June at Bendigo Art Gallery