Paula Dunlop

Paula Dunlop is a dressmaker who runs the Stafford Street Studio in Brisbane.  Her work alternates between garment design, beading, embroidery, soft sculpture and works-on-paper, with much of her work produced through the re-making and re-purposing of existing garments and other salvaged materials. Paula’s work often sits outside the context of fashion, but nearly always speaks to the history of fashion design practice: the dominance of the traditional design ‘plan’, as well as alternative histories of design practice such as domestic dress making and improvised design.  Paula holds a PhD in fashion, where she researched design ethos.

You trained as a fashion designer (studying at QUT and completing a PhD in this area) but consider yourself more aligned with the title ‘dressmaker.’ What is the significance of this shift in relation to your own practice?

I guess the simple answer is because I enjoy making garments in their entirety. Design, especially in the context of fashion, tends to connote a form of sketching or planning that happens before (and quite distinct from) the making or production. The way I work is a bit different to this, in that the design and making are not separate activities but take place simultaneously. I tend to think through hands-on making. The title ‘dressmaker’ therefore seems a good fit for me because traditionally, a dressmaker is one who is able to devise and create a garment from start to finish.

While we increasingly celebrate our local fashion designers, Queensland dressmakers remain largely unknown. Why do you think this is?

I think that a big part of why design and fashion histories tend to overlook dressmaking is because traditionally it has been an everyday women’s activity that takes place in domestic spaces. Fashion histories tend to be dominated by glamorous stories of the (male) fashion designer who creates visionary garments that transcend the ‘everyday’. Although there are plenty of female fashion designers around nowadays, a lot of the old connotations still carry, and separate ‘extraordinary’ commercial fashion design from the ‘mundane’ practice of dressmaking.

Tell us how you came to be interested in fashion…

Growing up, it was normal in our house to make and maintain things—Mum was a keen dressmaker (more an avid knitter nowadays), and Dad was (and still is) a skilled woodworker and handyman.

Mum taught me to use a sewing machine when I was in primary school but it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started to make simple clothes for myself. It was always partly for enjoyment and partly out of necessity, since I couldn’t really find clothes I liked (or that suited me) in the stores. I guess my interest in making clothes grew from there.

Where do you look for inspiration on matters of style?

The idea of having ‘inspiration’ is kind of strange to me. It conjures an image of ourselves as free agents, and of clothes-making (and wearing) as free play, which, of course, it isn’t! What we desire to make and do is always tempered by conditions—whether it be availability of materials, or availability of clothes that suit our body type, or the size of our expendable income! We might also have self-imposed conditions that we won’t compromise on, like an ethical standard. So style, like design, is always going to be a negotiation of conditions or constraints—in a way, like an improvisation.

As a vegan I am sensitive to the processes and ‘behind the scenes’ stories of what we consume, so foremost in my mind is always an ethics of production where animals are concerned. I am also mindful of the amount of existing ‘stuff’ already available in the world, and try to re-make existing, second-hand clothes as much as possible. Buying second hand also gives me a bit more flexibility when it comes to finding clothes that flatter my body shape!

The glut of clothes in the marketplace is another reason why I like to work as a dressmaker. Instead of making runs of new ‘stuff’, I make one-off garments that have been specially commissioned by my clients. Hopefully, this means that what I make is treasured and held on to a little longer than other types of fashion!

What is your most treasured dress-related object or memory?

I am enamoured of shiny, glass-headed pins. As a child I used to sit under my mum’s work-table as she sewed, and arrange and re-arrange the pins in her pin-cushion. It was always dark, safe and quiet under the sewing table—a place to look at, touch and enjoy the colourful pins.

I recently bought some Japanese glass-headed pins. They are super-sharp and absolutely beautiful to behold!

Give us three words, people or places you associate with Queensland fashion…

EP, Expo ’88 cashier uniforms, sweat!

Is there such a thing as a distinct Queensland style?

No, but that doesn’t stop me fantasising about one! Wouldn’t it be wonderful (and comfortable) if we all dressed for our subtropical climate and wore lovely loose and colourful muumuus, kaftans and sarongs! Men can look so wonderful in skirts.

Paula Dunlop, A neckpiece for Hannah, 2010
Paula Dunlop, A neckpiece for Hannah, 2010Damian Dunlop
Paula Dunlop, A boa for Marion, 2010
Paula Dunlop, A boa for Marion, 2010Damian Dunlop
Paula Dunlop, Beaded Assemblage 2, 2013
Paula Dunlop, Beaded Assemblage 2, 2013Paula Dunlop

Published in , on September 10, 2013.