In your Fashion Smarts essay, you’ve written about a culture of prostitution and fashion in Queensland… usually when examining broad things like Australian/Queensland identity, historians tend to go for mainstream culture. What can marginal figures and subcultures tell us about Queensland’s past and present?
If you focus on marginal women, as we do, you are forced to confront just how male-dominated ‘mainstream’ Queensland culture has been historically—and to a large extent still is today. Certainly the Contagious Diseases Act mentioned in our essay made Queensland by far the most repressive colony in Australia for marginal women. What interests us, though, is the defiant street style that developed among women targeted by the Act in the late 1800s. That hard-edged defiance in the face of repression is part of Queensland’s history and culture too.
How is fashion and dress looked at from the perspective of cultural history? Do you think your angle is the same as that of a costume historian, for example?
Cultural historians are interested in dress for what it says about identities, practices and broader questions of power in a certain historical era—not just the details of the clothing per se.
Tell us how you came to be interested in fashion…
Melissa: For me, it was inspired by my love of history. As a kid I was obsessed with the ‘olden days’, especially late-Victorian and Edwardian high collars and lace—although there were lots of neo-medieval dresses in the pictures I drew then too!
Alana: On a personal level, I think I became interested in fashion when I was five years old and my mother made me a Superwoman costume. I wore it absolutely everywhere. The idea that someone could become infinitely more powerful through a simple change of clothing was very appealing to me.
Where do you look for inspiration on matters of style?
Melissa: Right now, it’s to the ‘flash’ aesthetic we describe in our essay. Historical street style.
Alana: I’m actually a huge fan of rockabilly, and love that Brisbane holds an annual Greazefest where fans of various aspects of ‘kustom kulture’ can get together.
What is your most treasured dress-related object or memory?
Melissa: One of my first-ever clothing purchases was a blue velvet cloak with a train that I paid off over months from a Glebe vintage shop in the 1990s. Totally impractical, and way more than I could afford—but straight out of my medievalist childhood fantasies. I ended up wearing it to my wedding and still have it in my wardrobe.
Alana: I’m into recycled fashion, so most of my most treasured items are charity shop finds. My current favourite is a navy suit jacket I bought at the Asthma Foundation store in Annerley for eight dollars. I customised it with red and white polka dot buttons and red ribbon on the pockets and lapels.
Give us three words, people or places you associate with Queensland fashion…
Melissa: Spray-tan, shorts, jewelled sandals.
Alana: Jason Chetcuti, Legionnaire hats and Atomic Cherry.
Is there such a thing as a distinct Queensland style?
Melissa: Yes. Queensland style is a mix of the Gold Coast bling factor and informality. Men definitely dress more informally in Queensland—and it’s not a good thing. Time to lift your game, boys!
Alana: Yes. Thongs, tank tops and short shorts in August? I see people all the time who make me think ‘only in Queensland’. But there is also a lot of diversity, which I love.
Published in Issue 5, on October 22, 2013.