You’ve written a bit about contemporary Australian fashion, including the work of iconic ‘Oz’ designers, Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson. Do you think there’s a coherent sensibility in Australian fashion?
I think at certain points in Australian fashion history designers have captured the zeitgeist, where as a nation we are questioning our image and national identity and that this has been reproduced in a particular aesthetic that celebrates the kitsch, the quirky, the irreverent and the larrikin elements of our culture. In the 80s this was epitomised by Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson and has been taken up more recently by Romance was Born. Something that I have been particularly interested in of late is how typical examples of what might be considered as recognisably ‘Australian dress’ are historically drawn from masculine heroic identities, that is the bushman, the lifesaver, the larrikin and how these images might be translated in women’s fashion design and in the representation of fashion.
Fashion is a relatively new field of scholarship, and you teach and research in both art and design. What have you noticed changing in fashion studies in the time you’ve been working in this field?
Thankfully, I think fashion studies is becoming more widely recognised as a serious academic discourse. In Australia we have been fortunate to have a number of highly influential fashion studies pioneers, such as Margaret Maynard, Jennifer Craik and Michael Carter who have led the way and made it easier for early-career academics to find recognition for their work. There are many more peer review journals and conferences that deal with fashion studies subject matter now, and while for some there might be the view that such concerns are superficial and insignificant you can’t deny that fashion is a very visible aspect of contemporary culture. For the students that I teach, fashion studies continues to be an immensely popular subject. It has the potential to intersect with so many academic discourses; anthropology, sociology, psychology, cultural studies, material culture, art history, popular culture, gender studies…the list goes on…who wouldn’t be interested in fashion.
Tell us how you came to be interested in fashion…
From an academic perspective my interest started as an art student when I began to make sculptures and installations from textiles and haberdashery items. From here I became interested in fashion history and was incredibly lucky to have a wonderful mentor, teacher and supervisor in Associate Professor Bonnie English. She inspired me to continue my studies and writing in the field and sparked a passion for all the nuances that fashion and dress studies entails.
On a more personal level I have always been inspired by the women around me who use dress as a powerful form of communication, I am interested in why people might dress in a particular way to convey something about themselves or make a statement. Dressing for someone can be a very beautiful gift and dressing for one’s self can have a completely transformative quality on mood and attitude.
Where do you look for inspiration on matters of style?
Art, fashion magazines, street fashion, blogs, fashion photography, film, music, travel. More specifically, in terms of art history I take guilty aesthetic pleasure in the beautiful romantic images of the pre-Raphaelite painters and their sumptuous drapery and also the incredible, striking women in the paintings of John Singer Sargent. At the moment I have also been particularly inspired by Diana Vreeland’s imagination, wit and creative vision in the beautiful book and film The Eye Has to Travel as well as the iconic fashion photographs of Edward Steichen that have been on display at the NGV international. His image of four modern women On George Baher’s Yacht (1928) has always been one of my fashion favourites.
What is your most treasured dress-related object or memory?
My mother’s fruity hat cocktail parties when I was young, all of her friends dressed in vintage, Carmen Miranda meets Zelda Scott-Fitzgerald coupled with some fabulous 80s hairstyles. Of course I always had to go to bed but I was always terribly excited to see everyone dressed up.
Give us three words, people or places you associate with Queensland fashion…
Margaret Maynard, Jennifer Craik and Bonnie English. Three fabulous fashion historians who have all been associated with Queensland Universities and teaching and have inspired many students with their passion and scholarship.
Is there such a thing as a distinct Queensland style?
The casual and relaxed nature of Queensland style is a cliché but certainly if I look out my window where I work at South Bank everyone is wearing flipflops, shorts and singlets. That, and fluorescent safety gear. Not typically Queensland perhaps but certainly highly visible.
Published in Issue 10, on March 11, 2014.