You make many things – garments, accessories, dolls, soft-sculpture, quilts, zines – but the act of cutting or sewing seems to run through all that you turn your hands to. What is it about this process that is important to you?
Yes, it’s because I’m at ease working in fabric. If you get up real close and listen quietly you will hear cloth speak stories of craft, poetry, comfort, style, warmth, honour, aesthetics, and of course, history. It’s bewitching.
I can relate to Louise Bourgeois who called the act of sewing “a claim to forgiveness”. In September I exhibited three quilts, made for my past boyfriends. The quilt tops were made from englarged digital prints of paper collages, then I hand stitched the layers of fabric and wadding together. When the quilts were finished I took them to the boys’ bedrooms, and had a photo taken, with us in the bed and the quilt on top. The photographer, Ann-Louise Buck, usually shoots weddings.
I used my honours project Making Dolls and Heart Connections, as a way to work through the death of my dad, Tim, in 2008. I researched the significant role that dolls have played in 20th century Japanese and African cultures in matters of life and death. Then I made lots of things, including rag dolls, a doll suit for me, and hybrid teddies/dolls out of my father’s business shirts and ties.
I’ve found that through the act of cutting and sewing I can alter materials and create objects that make the world feel more comfortable for me to live in. As Michael Carter says, “such objects are vehicles by which we try and impart a significance to the stuff of the world.”
In addition to your own design & art practice, you have worked for many years making costumes for ballet and theatre. How do the worlds of fashion and costume differ…
Well the outcomes differ considerably, and perhaps therein lies the rub. Fashion is a commodity, made to be consumed, and the act of going to the theatre is an experience. From my limited experience working in the fashion industry, and from what I learnt whilst studying it… a lot of fashion has very prosaic questions at its core: What hem length is in fashion? What is the cost of the material? How much time will it take to embellish? Will this sell? For me, the short time frames, focus on appearances, and on things always being New were very stressful.
In costuming, (which also has short-time frames, and is stressful!) the garments are used to help tell the story. That is the main focus.
Which is not to say that fashion doesn’t tell stories too, and in the wardrobe fitting room the questions are equally practical- Is the dancer going to trip with the hem this long? Will this fabric last the season? How will this colour sit within the palette of the rest of the costumes and set? Can we afford the hours it will take to construct the garment in this way? It’s very interesting.
…or is dress a form of theatre for you?
Yes dress can be a fabulous performance! I also use clothing to lift myself out of moods, and into new ones, to be playful, to titillate…
Tell us how you came to be interested in fashion…
As a young teenager I became interested in fashion via a desire to use the way I dressed as a means of self-expression. Around this time I also began falling in love with textiles, their materiality and decorative beauty, and the practical art and craft of making things out of cloth.
Where do you look for inspiration on matters of style?
I have a book at home I’ve been using for collages called Leading Ladies, which documents actresses from around 1910- 1970. There is an essay in the book on Theda Bara, a silent film star. She haunts me and I’m doing my best to look like her (on occasion) via thickening my eye brows, wearing dark, heavy eye make up, and ornate, vintage garments.
The only fashion magazine I consistently read is Another Magazine, which has captivating photo shoots. But often an idea for dressing will just pop into my head, sometimes from a combination of the fabrics/designs that I am in contact with at work. For example I love folk elements like front corset lacing, with little puff sleeve blouses underneath.
Also, I live in West End, where every week is considered kerbside collection week, so ideas for garments/outfits are triggered by what I glean. I cut out the woven lattice wicker of a chair base and made it into a wide waist belt which laces up at the front and back; I wear it with a 50s floral dress. I also recently made a pair of large mens’ jeans into a little strapless denim dress for a party, and my sister’s “I heart NY” t-shirt into an “I heart heart heart heart heart heart” t-shirt, via patches of lace, tulle and polkadot cotton jersey.
What is your most treasured dress-related object or memory?
! I love clothes and remembering stories of my past, this is one:
When we moved to Australia in 1993 my grandma Peggy moved into a granny-flat attached to our Qld’er home. My younger sisters’ and my favourite game was the Fashion Parade. Peggy would let us put together outfits from her wardrobe, and wear her jewellery. Sometimes other neighbourhood kids would also be involved. Then my parents and other neighbours would sit in my grandmother’s living room whilst she “announced” us, which went something like: “and here’s Penelope wearing the latest look from Paris…” Sometimes Peggy would sew us things to wear. There’s a photo somewhere of me as an eight year old in swirly print black and white print cotton flares, a white t-shirt with a matching black and white chest pocket, which contains a red handkerchief, and strands of black and clear glass beads.
When I was young Peggy taught me to sew on her Singer sewing machine, it only went forwards and backwards. She wasn’t particularly passionate about sewing, but rather saw its economic imperative- having lived in rural Victoria through the depression she picked up the mantle of thrift and never took it off.
Give us three words, people or places you associate with Queensland fashion…
Here are three bodacious blonde-ish Brisbanites: Thea Basiliou, Scraps AKA Laura Hill, and the woman who walks around Queen Street Mall dressed as Marilyn Monroe.
Is there such a thing as a distinct Queensland style?
I used to think Queensland style was connected to use of vibrant colour. When I first visited Melbourne, seven years ago, a friend who’d moved there picked me out from 100m away. Everyone around me was wearing black, and I had on a large brightly coloured print of a map, wrapped over a red and white check bias cut long skirt. But now, through street style blogs and social media everyone can find out about trends at the same time which perhaps to some degree, nips in the bud the development of local styles.
That said, due to our climate, I think Queenslanders are particularly well versed in a fashionable sort of “dagginess”. Think jumpers round the waist, prints on prints, clunky sandals, loose layers and (good) bad hair. It’s fun!
Published in Issue 7, on November 19, 2013.