Our own version of a gritty city, Melbourne is the self-proclaimed creative capital of Australia. A network of revitalised inner city laneways hop with tourists taking street art selfies. Alleyways host milk-crate cafes below minimally sign-posted roof-top bars. Art institutions draw large crowds with international exhibitions while smaller artist run initiatives inhabit re-purposed commercial sites in inner city suburbs.
FOMO is short-lived in a city which has a festival schedule that never seems to let up.
Melbourne’s creative hustle is both a source of local inspiration and a marketable commodity. It also informs and is reinforced on an individual level by the clothing we wear. Borrowing from semiotics, we can see that just as a symbol in isolation carries no meaning, so too does clothing rely on shared cultural references for significance. In this sense, fashion provides a conduit between the personal and the collective; allowing the individual to define themselves in relation to their social environment.
This capacity which clothing has to communicate is teased out by Patrizia Calefto (1997) who proposes that dress is ‘a form of projection, or simulation, of the world, valid both for society and for the individual, expressing itself in signs and objects through which the body is placed, temporally and spatially, in its surroundings.’ In other words, our clothing provides a public means of celebrating and interrogating our cultural identities.
The restless nature of fashion cannot solely be attributed to commercialism run rampant. Rather, changing trends represent an ever-shifting reimagining of how we situate ourselves within cultural, national and global contexts. In providing a snapshot of Melbourne style tribes today, we are asking ourselves: ‘How does what we wear reflect who we are and where we want to be?
As the least sunny Australian capital city (2,200 hours annually at last count), it is perhaps unsurprising that one stereotype in the Melburnian pantheon is a coffee-fueled creative dressed head to toe in bohemian black. While the cliché of a monochromatic intellectual does ring somewhat true, the label does little to convey the variety with which the guise is adopted. This is a sartorial look in which small details have great effect.
Wearers of the Melbourne uniform revel in the postmodern deconstructionist legacy of Japanese designers Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme Des Garcons. Bursting onto the fashion scene in 1981, Yamamoto has described ‘a kind of democracy about black clothing,’ while Kawakubo has ‘always been interested in the concept of the uniform: because it’s worn over and over… then the way you wear it becomes your own statement’ (quoted in English, 2011).
This summer, we see these ideas merged with pinafores and overalls in black and indigo reimagined as fluid work-wear for a cosmopolitan crew. Shapes are loose and flexible, allowing the wearer to tailor their own garment to suit their mood (or the size of their lunch). On the street, black is given a sophisticated insouciance through subtle texture contrasts in natural fabrics such as linen. Current trends continue to take inspiration from Japanese garb; high-waisted, voluminous trousers and sock/sandal combinations dominate. Heat pleated and crushed garments give outfits an organic quality.
Crisp white accents and sheer fabrics emphasise clever layering while acknowledging the hot summer sun. Local accessories brand Witu riffs on the Australian wetsuit with bags and shoes constructed from luxurious neoprene. Also seen paired with this look: bike pants!
This summer the black Melburnian uniform takes advantage of the 90’s minimalist revival to re-evaluate what we consider essential to our lives. Our unstructured uniforms allow our humanity and individuality to rise to the surface. By returning to basics we can stay true to ourselves.
In seeming sharp relief to the black-clad cohort, the pattern parade array themselves in naïve prints and bold colourways. If the gallery black set are exhibition attendees then this crowd are the art adorning the walls. The vivid patterns worn by this group are a loud celebration of identity and look at home in our intense antipodean light.
A round-up of brands worn by Melburnians illustrates our current obsession with pattern.
Local label Gorman leads this voluble pack in terms of sheer street visibility. Frequent collaborations with local and international artists provide an ever-changing set of dynamic prints for the consumer. Digital prints are eschewed for designs which evince the hand-crafted while an Australian vernacular is reflected in patterns featuring local flora. The dazzling work of Jimmy Pike (c.1940 – 2002), a Walmajarri artist who painted the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia, inspires the glowing hallucinatory prints used by Jedda Daisy-Culley and Caroline Sundt-Wels of Desert Designs. Here the Australian landscape hums with a magic and vital energy.
Vibrant patterns also reclaim the plurality of Melbourne culture. Local initiative The Social Studio works with young Australians from migrant or refugee backgrounds to design digitally printed clothing ranges which are then showcased at neighbourhood-based fashion and music events. Interstate import Yevu periodically launches busy pop-up shops to sell clothing which is sewn in Ghana from bold geometric kente fabric.
The pattern parade confidently revisits the golden years of Jenny Kee, Ken Done and Linda Jackson under whose helm bold Australiana was elevated to an exuberant fine art. Collaborating than clashing, the plethora of patterns seen on the streets of Melbourne indicate an Australia keen to celebrate and broadcast cultural identities.
A trend originating in America in the 70’s has diffused its way to Melbourne and is a classic categorised trend; hip hop has had a continuous and widespread acceptance period in Melbourne. In the late 70s, African Americans and Latinos in New York originated hip hop fashion. It became increasingly popular throughout the late 1980s and 2000s due to the commercialisation by major fashion companies, such as Nike, Reebok, Tommy Hilfiger, Polo Ralph Lauren, and Timberland. In addition, hip hop fashion influenced and diffused through high-fashion designers; Isaac Mizrahi and Chanel showed hip-hop-inspired fashion in their shows in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, respectively, finally landing in Melbourne.
In the 2000’s the influence of Hip hop fashion reached many subcultures, and specific styles, such as hoodies and sweat pants, were accepted by mainstream consumers. In addition, many hip hop artists started their own fashion lines; Sean John by Diddy, Apple Bottom Jeans by Nelly, Rocawear by Jay-Z and Shady Limited by Eminem. The hip hop trend has become extremely prevalent within Melbourne and has become a form of identification and uniform among Melbourne residents.
The thrift trend was introduced to the market primarily in America when homeless and disadvantaged young adults in America were purchasing their clothing for thrift and second hand stores for the benefit of their cost. The style diffused through the market levels and appeared in Melbourne, not only as a style of clothing but as a trend. Granny cardigans, pinafores, pantsuits and trousers can be seen all over the city of Melbourne but are more frequent around the Degraves Street and Brunswick areas naturally . In 2012, the number of thrift stores was up 12 percent from the previous two years within Australia however they have become even more prevalent in 2015 with the largest thrift trend occurring now.
“We’re not talking about those “snobby” high-end resale businesses — we’re talking about the dusty, fluorescent-lit, loosely organized aisles displaying the fruits of people’s past spring cleanings. Thrifting is a unique experience — digging through cluttered racks and shelves, the musty smell of who-knows-what permeating the air, and of course the possibility of finding something really awesome. It’s the ultimate example of one person’s trash being another person’s treasure.” (McDonald 2014)
It could be said that Australians adopted the trend due to its affordability, the thought that you might find something valuable for next to nothing, because the help the community or maybe even just because they reduce landfill. When interviewed, followers of this trends recalled that the reason they adopted the trend of shopping in thrift stores was because you can totally create you own style whilst being considered trendy.
The production of a Melburnian identity cannot ignore the after-shocks of our colonial past. As Mathew Linde, the founder of the experimental fashion practice Centre for Style explains – ‘If you’re born in Australia and have artistic desires, 99% will leave their hometown to move to Melbourne. So, you have this smaller metropolis filled to the brim with galleries, music venues, studios, and so on. We have a horrible, disgusting white colonial genocidal past but in terms of cultural shifts, colonial Australia is quite young. Burdened by this history, we now have to try and change things for the better.’ (quoted by Thaddeus-Johns 2014)
Following Linde’s précis, fashion is reimagined as an art practice which, through reflecting back our lived reality, can dismantle our assumptions and unravel the political discourse constructing Australian identity. Cult local brands such as P.A.M (Perks & Mini), Verner, and the stable of labels that make up Centre for Style, interrogate the theoretical implications of our dress through an intentional blurring of the semiotics of clothing.
For P.A.M, this slippage can be seen in prints seemingly collaged from images chewed up and spat out by the internet. Embracing Walter Benjamin’s ‘the culture of the copy,’ these designs both parody and aestheticize the centerlessness of our culture, playfully describing a ‘soft reality.’ Such moves can be situated within a post-colonial critique as defined by eminent theorist Edward Said (1978) as ‘in the fullest sense being against the grain, deconstructive, utopian.’
In a similar mode, Verner declares itself to be ‘celebrating the fake, and the cult of form over function,’ asking ‘why do we lust for timelessness when we can be of the moment and hedonistic in our desire right now’? (Verner 2016) It is difficult to not see such concerns as a dialectical response to the so called hipster movement which worked so hard to privilege the authentic over the artificial. In an influential article titled ‘The IRL Fetish,’ Nathan Jurgenson (2012) advocates for a more contemporary conception of our online/offline lives, arguing against a dichotomy between the digital and physical: ‘we live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online.’
The variety of styles worn by Melburnians is indicative of the multiplicity of ways of being in this city. The delineation of style tribes speaks not of the blind adoption of fashion fads but moreover of the ways in which we choose to define ourselves. Our understanding of the local within the context of an increasingly connected world is undergoing a state of diversification.
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English, B 2011, ‘Sartorial Deconstruction: The Nature of Conceptualism in Postmodernist Japanese Fashion Design’, International Journal of the Humanities, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 81-86
Jurgensen, N 2012, ‘The IRL Fetish’. 28 June 2012. The New Inquiry. Available from: <http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-irl-fetish/>. [3 January 2016]
Living in Australia 2016, Sunshine Hours for Australian Cities. Available from: <http://www.livingin-australia.com/sunshine-hours-australia/>. [7 January 2016]
Said, E 1978, ‘Orientalism Reconsidered,’ Reflections On Exile: And Other Literary And Cultural Essays, Pantheon, New York.
Thaddeus-Jones, J 2014, ‘”The Pamsters” and other Melbourne tribes,’ Sleek: The Visual Contemporary 29 October.
Verner, 2016, This is Verner. Available from: < http://verner.co/#about>
Zhexi Zhang, G 2015, Post-Internet Art: You’ll Know It When You See It‘, Elephant, Issue 23, available from: http://www.elephantmag.com/youll-know-it-when-you-see-it/. [5 January 2016]
Kim,E., Fiore,A.M. and Kim, H. (2011) Fashion Trends- Analysis and forecasting. Oxford: Berg Publishers
McDonald, A. (2014) Here’s why you should definitely Be SHopping At A Thrift Store. Veiwed 31 of December, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2014/04/29/thrift-store-shopping_n_5175646.html?ir=Australia