Readers who follow my blog or my feeds might have gathered that I have an addiction to frocks, shoes and handbags. I know it’s an irresponsible addiction for a writer to have, and I’ve lost track of the times I’ve told friends that I’m going to stop buying frocks because I’m so broke. Somehow, I always find the money for it, even if it means I have nothing to eat by the end of the fortnight. On the other hand, I don’t really have any other vices: I don’t eat much, I don’t drink much, I don’t smoke, I don’t have a car, and I don’t have a mortgage (though I should be saving for one). Obviously I can’t be a writer without any vices, so it’s imperative that I buy a frock now and then.
Last year I stumbled upon The Fashion Archives when I was stuck at procrastination station. This is an online publication created by Madeleine King and Nadia Buick that looks at the history of Queensland fashion. In 2013-14 they released a 12-issue online publication, The Fashion Archives, which was followed in 2014-15 by High Street Histories, for which they received a fellowship to do research at the John Oxley Library.
Then I discovered they were putting together a book with crowd funding and that, if one threw in some money, one could get a copy of said book and go to a party at its launch. I could get frocked up! I drew out my overused plastic from my wallet.
Last week, Remotely Fashionable: A Story of Subtropical Style arrived, and what a beauty it is. The book, nestled in a box stamped with blue, is crammed with wonderful photographs and readable essays. I went to the party (at the charming Avid Reader, no less) wearing a Review frock patterned with pink hibiscus and pale green palms. I took my fashionable neighbour along too, and looked at all the other people wearing their interesting clothes. It was yet another gorgeous Brisbane evening of books, balmy weather and lovely people.
Why a book on Queensland fashion? Well, no one’s written one before. Queensland, as the authors write, ‘is typically dismissed by its savvier southern counterparts as betraying a gauche, derivative, superficial, or provincial approach to culture and taste. While its natural beauty, tropical climate, and relaxed attitude are seen as major assets for tourism and lifestyle, these same qualities are often considered anathema to the high-minded pursuits of culture and aesthetics, including style’ (13). And then there’s fashion itself which, being associated with women, has traditionally been devalued, ‘the close relationship between women and their clothing … [has] often been perceived in terms of frivolity and indulgence’ (14).
This book fills this gap in Queensland’s history in an interesting and accessible way, beginning with apt foreword by Easton & Pearson. When they started their label, these designers didn’t mention that they were from Brisbane until they started showing in Paris.
There follows an essay by Associate Professor Margaret Maynard, a dress historian, who discusses how Queensland’s climate and class impacted on the state’s fashion. Although the fashionable upper classes looked to Paris for style, they modified the fabrics to suit the climate, using muslin and light silk in summer, while men wore light-coloured jackets or trousers.
I was impressed with Amanda Hayman’s ‘A Brief Redress of Indigenous Fashion in Australia’. Amanda, who is an Indigenous artist and Digital Exhibitions Program Officer at kuril dhagan at the State Library, describes how ‘clothing and body adornment have a close relationship to Indigenous identity and can be viewed as a reflection of country’ (41) and are made from natural materials such as wood, bark, fur, feathers, grass, twine and seeds. Following colonisation however, Aboriginal cultural identity and expression was suppressed, and it wasn’t until after the 1967 referendum that Indigenous people’s wardrobes began to reflect their increasing opportunities. I thought her closing line neat and apt: ‘Just as fashion often resembles trends from the past, with certain cuts and styles from eras gone by reinvigorated by the designer’s personal touch, contemporary Indigenous fashion is able to connect with social and political events in recent history as well as ancient cultural knowledge’ (46).
I also loved Melissa Bellanta and Alana Piper’s essay on the ‘flashy’ dressing of late 19th and early 20th century prostitutes, especially the description of their finery (including fur, kimonos and smoking caps), tattoos and sass. Under the Contagious Diseases Act of 1868, they were required to undergo fortnightly examinations (Tasmania was the only other state to pass this kind of law – go Queensland! Still conservative 150 years later and still outlawing abortion). The women stuck two fingers up at the law and ‘ordered hansom cabs to take them to the doctor’s and entered them dressed in the showiest of styles’ (51).
The collection of essays closes with one by Nadia Buick, who discusses the huge popularity of exhibitions on fashion, both in Australia and internationally. These shows indicate that there is widespread interest in fashion and that it shouldn’t be dismissed as a trivial topic.
The rest of the book has images of vintage Queensland fashion, and entries on people and places that are significant in Queensland’s fashion history. This is a book that’s interesting to read and lovely to look at – and a great Xmas pressie for all the fashionistas out there.
This is my 7th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.