Two of a kind
Five decades after they met, JENNY KEE AO and LINDA JACKSON AO — the instantly recognisable creative queens of Australian fashion whose couture outfits feature in the Know My Name exhibition — are enjoying renewed interest in their lives, including a new documentary, writes Georgina Safe.
Jenny Kee was at home one morning in 1973 when a friend called her to tell her there was a fashion designer visiting from Melbourne whom she must meet. Her name was Linda Jackson and she was showing her clothes at the Winter Antique Fair at the Bonython Gallery in Sydney.
“The antique dealer Robert Tucker insisted I meet this talented girl, so I got off the couch and went down,” remembers Kee.
The attraction was instant.
“I walked in and saw all these amazing 50s and Hawaiian-print playsuits, gored skirts and bra tops,” says Kee. “ I knew this girl and I were on the same wavelength. Then I saw her. She had Titian red hair and looked like a 1940s film star. I was completely entranced and felt I’d found my creative soulmate.”
The pair talked about Jackson’s recent travels through Asia and the boutique called Flamingo Park that Kee was about to open in Sydney that would celebrate 1950s retro designs. It may have been a social conversation, but there was something deeper at work.
“I fell in love,” says Jackson. “If a person is special, you know straightaway, and we saw the world in the same light and loved talking about the same things.”
Kee placed her first clothing order with Jackson, ready for the opening of Flamingo Park. It was the beginning of an extraordinary collaboration that would last nearly a decade, capturing the character, colour and variety of Australia’s natural and cultural landscape. From the vibrant excesses of the Flamingo Park Frock Salon and its Flamingo Follies fashion parades to Kee’s iconic koala knit—famously worn by Princess Diana—and Jackson’s couture-esque odes to the outback, the pair honed a distinctly Australian vocabulary unfettered by convention, taste or fashion.
“We did our own thing and the single criterion was that everything had to make us feel really good. And if somebody else loved it too, then that would be even better.”
“It’s hilarious if you have a look at what other people were doing at the time because what we were doing was something quite different,” says Jackson. “Jenny and I never copied anything that was happening overseas and we never bought anything from anyone else. We did our own thing and the single criterion was that everything had to make us feel really good. And if somebody else loved it too, then that would be even better.”
That they did, and continued to do, as was evidenced by the publication in 2019 of the book Step Into Paradise, the first definitive survey of more than four decades of their creative practice. An ABC documentary of the same name will air later this year, exploring the compelling stories and energy around their creative partnership and separate careers after they parted ways in 1981.
Completing a trifecta of renewed interest in the duo, their work is also included in the National Gallery’s Know My Name exhibition, which Kee and Jackson visited in early December 2020, much to the delight of fellow arts patrons.
“It’s a huge moment in Australia’s art history to have such a serious exhibition devoted to women artists and all of us in this show would feel very strong and honoured that it’s happening now,” says Kee.
While women have long played second fiddle to men when it comes to the visual arts, Kee and Jackson have celebrated and worked with women since the inception of their creative partnership, and the documentary — commissioned by ABC Arts and made possible through the supporters of the Know My Name initiative—is no exception.
Co-produced by Fran Moore and Darren Dale, the team includes a predominantly female crew including director Amanda Blue, cinematographer Bonnie Elliott, editor Jane Usher, and associate producer Charlotte Mars.
“As a general statement I trust women more than I trust men so it’s great that the team is all-female,” says Kee with a laugh. “Amanda is very inquisitive and easy to talk to—she gets into your skin and then she gets under it.”
“We were grounded in nature: that was our magic”
Kee and Jackson spent much of the 1970s and early 1980s immersing themselves in nature, going on long bushwalks in the Blue Mountains where Jackson photographed Kee modelling her designs, which she also captured with her camera around Sydney’s beaches. “We were grounded in nature: that was our magic,” says Kee. “When we were out walking together doing our meditative shoots it was nature that was guiding us and her beauty has never left us.”
The documentary picks up where those shoots left off, using the medium of film to give the pair’s connection to the natural world a new and more dynamic dimension. Kee and her garments have been filmed in the Blue Mountains, where she lives, and Jackson around her part-time home in bushland near Rylstone, west of Sydney.
“Filming is so different to photography, and to witness the experimentation that was possible was spectacular,” says Jackson. “There was a lot of experimenting with colour and movement and really doing something quite radical as an art form. That’s something that will be amazing with this documentary because that’s how Jenny and I always worked together and how we continued on afterwards with our individual ways of creating.”
The vibrancy and dynamism of that practice is on display in Know My Name parts 1 and 2, which include outfits from Jackson’s 1976 creation Wildflowers, featuring intricate wildflower and gumleaf appliqués on a Chinese-style top and 1950s drindl skirt, and her quilted and hand-stitched ochre and sky blue Uluru look inspired by her travels to central Australia in early 1980.
Kee’s goddess-inspired pieces—“The goddess is the divine feminine principle incarnate and the mother of all life”—are particularly relevant to the theme of the exhibition, and include her euphorically colourful Universal Tribal Opal Oz and Opal Oz outfits, both of which were acquired in the 1980s by the National Gallery along with Jackson’s works for the national collection.
“We have a long connection with the National Gallery, but for many years the costume collection was not really being used to its optimum,” says Jackson. “It’s fantastic to see that [National Gallery Director] Nick Mitzevich has had the creative vision to bring it to life.”
Kee’s connection to the National Gallery is particularly strong: she was asked to create a silk scarf to commemorate its official opening in 1982. The design was “a visual essay on Oz” and the limited edition of 1000 scarves printed by Fabio Bellotti in Italy sold out almost immediately.
“I think the Queen even received one because she opened the Gallery,” recalls Kee.
Almost 40 years on, it is fitting that these two creative queens are returning to the National Gallery for the next phase of their vivid and unmistakably original careers.
Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson are featured in the Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now exhibition. This article is from the March 2021 issue of Artonview, the National Gallery’s magazine for Members. Become a Member today.
— The ABC is a partner of Know My Name.