You are one of Australia’s most respected dress historians and have been doing pioneering work in this field for decades. How did you begin in this area, particularly in a time when it was a relatively new field of enquiry? How do you think the field has changed?
I have had an abiding interest in dress since I was a teenager. I taught for a year at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, after getting an MA degree there specialising in dress. I began to find the UK approach at that time rather conservative and constricting. I had an urge to be wider in my thinking, mixing surviving dress with representation, but less fixed on the minutia of dress, especially fashion in paintings. I came to Australia and tutored at the University of Queensland in the 1970s in the Fine Art Department. Although I did some radio broadcasting for the ABC on dress, it was only later in the 1980s I was asked to teach dress history as well as art history and started to write about Australian dress. I was encouraged to do this by a then lecturer at UQ who was interested in Queensland vernacular architecture. I think that the only people who had done serious dress/fashion research on Australian material before me were Cedric Flower and Marion Fletcher of the National Gallery in Melbourne – neither academics. Their work seemed limited to me. I took rather a bold step and decided to do a PhD on Australian colonial dress at Griffith University. Michael Carter at Sydney University started to teach fashion from a theoretical point of view shortly after me. My approach was more pragmatic than Michael’s as I had considerable experience with surviving dress, and between the two of us a more serious tone was added to the topic. Bonnie English at the College of Art, now Griffith University, was teaching the history of couture about the same time. She was catering to art school students rather than research oriented ones.
The study of dress has changed dramatically. My courses were immediately popular at UQ but picked up more strongly after 2000. I tempered my lectures to become more fashion oriented, in line with the increasing interest in training fashion designers at places like RMIT and QUT. The fast growing importance of Cultural Studies, Gender and Popular Culture Studies also fed into its popularity. Growing interest by publishers pushed the field further. Fashion studies generally bloomed with the interest in post modernism and other theoretical interests. In Australia the material culture aspect of the study has languished as we have limited collections, especially in Brisbane. Aside from this the study is now extremely strong, although it is not currently taught at UQ.
The study and collection of dress and fashion has often been overlooked as a less significant aspect of cultural and historical studies. Why do you think this is?
There is no doubt that early on dress and fashion studies were considered to be an ideal match for the interests of women. Male historians in Australia saw the topic as lightweight and unable to offer any opportunity to tackle larger historical issues. This is not correct, but it was a perception that to study dress meant the study of sewing machines and needlework. This was something an extremely eminent historian once said to my face. The use of the term Costume Studies seems to have linked the study with dressing up. Clearly this attitude was derived from 19th century ideas that women were superficial, fascinated with their appearances and decorative adjuncts to their more soberly dressed partners. This misconception has changed substantially over the last decade or so. Some of this has to do with the advent of the major journal Fashion Theory and the expansion of the Berg/Bloomsbury publishing group. Some has to do with the increasing awareness that Cultural, Gender and Media studies etc. can offer interesting interjections into familiar debates and shed new light on social interactions.
Tell us how you came to be interested in fashion…
I was always interested in ‘art’ as my mother was an artist. As a small child I was fascinated with paper dolls and dressing up. I worked as a costume designer at the State Theatre in Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa, after I graduated from a Fine Arts Degree. I happened to find a Diploma course on ‘costume’ history that had just started at the Courtauld Institute in London (in the 1960s). They only took 4 students a year and I was lucky to get a place – no one was doing this kind of thing at the time. I think that because I was from Africa, they thought it would bring some kind of exoticism to the group. It was started by Stella Newton (wife of well known art historian Eric Newton), a remarkable woman. She had taught herself to date historic paintings, especially the dress depicted in Renaissance paintings, and had worked for the National Gallery in London. I followed the two year Diploma with a Courtauld MA. My thesis was on dress depicted in 15th century Netherlandish art. Dress/ fashion have been a lifelong passion for me and I have a wonderful collection of ephemera collected over 50 years.
Where do you look for inspiration on matters of style?
I am a visually oriented person and I spend a lot of my time looking at what people of all walks of life are wearing. I am a kind of Sartorialist with no camera. I am totally fascinated with people and their clothes – I muse about why they wear what they do, where they shop, how much attention they pay to their personal style and what they are trying to communicate with their dress. Whilst clothing is mass produced today and there is an ostensible sameness about what people wear, I believe unconditionally that we are individuals and that everyone makes a choice each day about what they will wear and why. So while there is something in my nature that finds high-end style quite gorgeous, I am almost as interested in those who can’t afford top price clothes, or for whatever reason wear secondhand clothing, and those who are on the lower rungs of the social hierarchy.
Aside from this I was trained to use paintings, drawing and prints as important sources to study past dress. I have always loved 15th, 16th and 17th century Netherlandish and Spanish paintings because of their detailed depictions of clothing and fabric. Some of these paintings show stitchery, sewing pins, every detail of jewelry, brocade patterns, and tooled and embellished glove designs. Sometimes painters of lesser importance give the most information about clothing, so studying dress in art doesn’t confine one to working with the great ‘masters’. I have another abiding interest and that is in the ancient origins of dress and textiles, when ‘style’, if it was even considered, probably had an entirely different rationale.
What is your most treasured dress-related object or memory?
It must be standing up to introduce the Making an Appearance Conference, at UQ, in 2003 in front of delegates that included Elizabeth Wilson, Valerie Steele and Christopher Breward. This was Australia’s first international conference on dress and fashion.
I was also pretty astounded when I visited the British Museum, before I started my London course in the 1960s, and was allowed to see and handle their collection of African body ornaments collected by David Livingstone, with labels in his handwriting.
Give us three words, people or places you associate with Queensland fashion…
Paula Stafford, Gold Coast
Easton Pearson – Queensland gone international
Mercedes-Benz Fashion Festival – Brisbane
Is there such a thing as a distinct Queensland style?
This is a very complex question. I don’t think you can pick certain outfits and say there goes an identifiable Queenslander, man or woman. Perhaps it is an ethos rather than anything more definite. Sometimes descriptions, impressions even criticisms (historic as well as contemporary) convey it more precisely than actual garments. Yet there can be something ostentatious about certain Queensland dress – Bob Katter’s hat, for instance or the ‘white shoe brigade’. And one can’t forget the ‘Sunshine State’ is the place to wear bright beach clothing or surf wear designs like Billabong. But one must remember that a Queensland motif on a garment doesn’t make it Queensland style per se.
There are of course continuing regional, climatic and cultural differences that affect attire. People who live in small rural towns or properties may wear clothes that are quite different from those in tropical areas like Cairns. Aborigines have their own preferences, if funds permit, and parts of Brisbane are enlivened by multicultural dressing which takes many forms. Naturally income level plays its part in dress choices. There is a small moneyed elite, especially in Brisbane, and the women in particular do stand out but in terms of pricey boutique clothing rather than identifiable character. There are other Queenslanders who choose an informal casualness of dress and etiquette for some occasions but not others. In the case of women their outfits and headwear can be quite startling, even brazen, when going to events like the races, for instance. Yet one can also find this dichotomy in Australian attire more generally.
In the 19th century, subtle differences of taste, subject to available products, and sporadic fashion changes in the bush, not necessarily in step with clothing in large towns, marked out Queensland’s character in dress. But in more recent times, this style can perhaps be best identified by what it is not. Examples one could cite are colors, choice of garment or even mannerisms that don’t fit in when travelling interstate or in Europe. In general though, globalization and on-line shopping have to a large degree broken down barriers of region. In fact the social freedom now given to individuals to choose their own clothes (within certain parameters), militates against classifying any dress in this State as categorically local.
Published in Issue 1, on August 27, 2013.