Staged at the Museum of Brisbane, the exhibition Dress Code circumnavigates the fashion industry to deliver a series of broadsides from the periphery. There’s little that resembles a frock in the conventional sense, nor does it address sartorial codes and their relationship with etiquette – the various do’s and don’ts of what to wear. Rather, Dress Code deals with the contexts surrounding dress and attendant agendas of culture, politics, identity, postcolonial history, labour, consumerism, economics and ageing – issues that tend to be occluded from the centre of the fashion’s industry’s long and ongoing self-promotional agenda.
Indeed, as if taking aim from Naomi Klein’s No Logos, Emily McGuire’s Fashion Unlearned (2017) gets down to work at erasure, obliterating a selection of recognisable fashion logos and garments – including a pair of Calvin Klein undies – through the practised art of fine stitching. Utterly transformed, as to be unrecognisable without the aid of the room notes, McGuire’s hand-sewn samplers resemble museum pieces of couture. Her delicate overstitching brings back the dignity of the human hand, in contrast to the inequitable systems in which overpriced fashion goods, those with famous brand names, are mass-produced by underpaid workers in the sweatshops of the world.
McGuire’s samplers recall economic injustice towards garment industry workers, but further trigger awareness that the corporate rebranding of the great fashion houses, which once prided themselves on couture – a term that embraces stitching and cutting within the broader rubric of style – has debased the value of the craft. She reminds that, within contemporary consumerist culture, little more than the brand name separates the price points of comparable pairs of undergarments. In contrast, McGuire’s overstitching of brand products, including Chanel #2, Marc Jacobs, Chanel, Zac Posen and Nike, reasserts and celebrates artisanship, suggesting that for the plumped up price of a logo article, more meaningfully crafted items could be consumed, and a greater portion of profits returned to the worker.
In Value Systems (2018), the artist Lisa Hilli from Papua New Guinea likewise works at the interface of labour, economics and culture, but from a postcolonial perspective. Working with replicas of the trade beads that were to transform the material culture of Papua New Guinea’s Tolai people in the 1800s, the core of the installation consists of long strands of uniformly sized ruby red beads, hung floor to ceiling to take up a large block of space, suggestive of the stockpiles of gold that once filled the chambers of Fort Knox. Small items, symbolic of cultural exchange – a tiny red cross and various coins – are threaded into the strands to indicate that these beads not only functioned as a currency, but also signified shifts in accrued aesthetic, spiritual and cultural value.
Hung in multiples, as overlong strands of equal measure, the currency role of the beads is as evident as the standard measures of paper-wrapped rolls of coins in use in banks today. Yet, also resembling necklaces, the installation replicates nineteenth century European modes of dress and that century’s taste for faceted beads in strands of monochrome jet and crystal. The hang of the installation, dimly lit to suggest evening soirees, therefore retains a sense of pervasive European-ness, instead of more directly documenting the incorporation of the beads into traditional Tolai garments. (This use is noted on the wall text.) As a result, the installation achieves something subtler, a resonant fascination with the European, which, in part, expresses the underlying aesthetic and material desires of the Tolai people within the broader trade exchange.
Yet, if the installation is for the most part in shadows, suggestive of treasure in a vault, or a glittering night party, the accompanying video, Material Histories #3 (2015) is prosaically set in the bright light of day. One of its functions seems to be to cast light of variable luminosity over the beads – the better to encourage their sparkle – the other to provide the historical context for the labour through which they are exchanged. The majority of the video follows the harvesting of coconuts and their de-husking in close-up. There are no portrait views, no faces to humanise this footage of labour as a good of commodity value. At the end of the cycle, somewhat comically, a pair of brown hands is held out to receive recompense from a female form in nineteenth-century European dress. No more than a glimpse is accorded of her torso, pale hand and the small thimble from which she pours a couple of literal thimblefuls of multi-coloured variegated small beads – nothing like the elegant splendour of the beads in the installation.
Certainly, a message of economic exploitation is suggested in those thimblefuls of recompense, but, given that two different currency and culture systems are rubbing up against each other in the exchange, it doesn’t necessarily follow that what is next to worthless in one system (cheap and factory-manufactured to the Europeans) won’t be held in high value and esteem by the Tolai, for whom the trade beads are an exotic novelty. The appeal of Hilli’s installation is that the focus on trade doesn’t go to the obvious places. No workers are brutally beaten or enchained, nor are living conditions of dire poverty exposed as in more predictable colonialist narratives. Instead we see a working set of brown hands, possibly willing and possibly happy, participating in cross-cultural trade.
Exhibited together, Value Systems and Material Histories #3 shift the focus of colonialist narratives to highlight trade as a form of material language through which cultures are adapted and exchanged. It is interesting to read this work in conjunction with Tutana (man, largest shell money rings), by Gunantuna (Tolai people) currently on exhibition across the river at the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial. Tutana are the highest value of Diwarra (shell money), and consist of multiple rows of shells, arranged according to factors of 100 to 1,000 around the circumference of large wheels. Carefully wrapped in pandanus leaves and sealed with cane, they constitute individual wheel banks of considerable value that can only be opened in public ceremony. Hence, prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the traditional existence of these shell wheel banks is proof enough of a deep understanding of monetary systems and the symbolic function of currency among the Tolai.
The benefit of this additional insight into Tolai banking affirms Value Systems in its address of nineteenth century cross-cultural adaptation. In this sense it resets the colonial narrative that usually would place the Tolai in the role of the exploited, and is, instead, restorative of Tolai agency through their embrace of new material cultures entering their systems through trade.
In Weave of Reflection (2018), Torres Strait artist Grace Lillian Lee subverts the tropes of fashion, and its history of appropriation of cultures from the margins, by exhibiting a series of “body armours.” These mimic the elaborate fashion pieces displayed in a fashion museum as trophies of style and craft. But once activated by models in what masquerades as a promotional video, the full impact of the title, Body Armours, kicks in as a complex reading of power, gender, cultural identity and fashion. With a wry touch, the montage of highly styled fashion stills of beautiful black women modelling the pieces gives way to a power line-up of all five models improvising from the tropes of cinema. Striking a defiant pose across the horizon, ankle deep in surf, they assume the attitude of the fighters from the iconic Western, The Magnificent Seven, taking on all comers.
Already the bespoke pieces of body armour have exceeded the lexicon of fashion’s codes – armour routinely belonging to the vocabulary of war. Strung out in a line at the beach, Lee’s models inhabit traditional warrior culture to call out and mock the competitiveness inherent in fashion, and also demonstrate the need for a face-off with the Western fashion behemoth if First Nations cultural identity is to survive in contemporary modes of dress. This flexing of cultural muscle is a form of affirmative action – an imaginary stand-off of Pacific style against global hegemonies of style.
The only male artist in the exhibition, performance artist, costume maker, stylist and photographer Gerwyn Davies, has created a series of performance-photographs that address issues of politics and Queensland state identity through an oblique strand of humour. He memorably works with iconic subjects, including the state’s Big Things, like the Giant Prawn with which he engages in a standoff by donning a similar carapace (Prawn, 2016). His outfits include an ensemble seemingly composed of sausage balloons or inflatable canoes and could have been inspired by a famous snippet of dialogue from The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert: “my God, look at what that woman’s wearing. It's a piece of corrugated iron.”
In QLD (2013), his face and torso obliterated by golden glitter, Davies cradles a pair of pineapples close to his heart to personify the Sunshine State. Here, the unmistakable outline of the sharp peak of a policeman’s cap, also glitter encrusted, recalls an equally iconic image of Queensland as the Police State. In playful oscillation the two views of Queensland, bundled together, represent the tensions inherent in the image of Queensland. Nonetheless, the state, once reputed for its conservative values and police oppression, has been queered under a slather of glitter.
With deadpan humour Plane (2016) draws attention to the serious issue of Australia’s treatment of refugees. Wrapped in a deep blue ensemble of inflatables Davies could represent a half-drowned person dredged from the ocean. Nonetheless, he stands on a milk crate, binoculars in hand, to take a better look at something over a razor-wire fence. It’s not clear whether he’s on the outside looking in, or on the inside looking out. In the right-hand corner a plane is taking off. As with the refugees in detention, any future action and prospects seems mired by uncertainty. Outrageously costumed in what appears to be two inflatable canoes wrapped around his body, Davies draws attention to the crippling aporia of the refugee situation.
In Spilt Milk (2017) Davies takes on the waste of the plastics industry and the unfair contracts forced upon farmers in the dairy industry. Dressed as a giant spiky entity, he resembles a bad microbe. In one hand, he holds a plastic shopping bag with an ironic Smiley face – given the current environmental disaster caused by plastics there is nothing to be happy about. On the ground a plastic carton of spilt milk is emblematic not only of the pervasive use of plastic packaging in the food industry but is metaphoric of the plight of dairy farmers – the split milk or collateral damage in their struggle to remain economically viable. As to the identity of the Big Germ, or Ugliness incarnate, attention is drawn to the role of the Australian consumer.
Lastly, the sole exhibitor not to have a Queensland or Pacific Islander cultural identity, English artist Hannah Gartside uses second-hand garments to “express facets of the human condition” (cited from room notes). For Fall/Winter 1986 (2018), which could be read as a tender address of ageing, a bank of fans gently fills out the drooping forms of three button-to-the-neck blouses sewn into a patchwork wall hanging of semi-transparent leopard spot fabrics. A matching set of silver accessories, shoes and handbag from no discernable era anchors the piece. Ever so slightly abject, the high buttoned blouses reflects the tendency for older women to cover aging necks whilst defiantly refusing to surrender their leopard spots – a universal signifier for glamour – and hang onto their personal style.
Overall, Dress Code is a very worthy exhibition that more than holds its own with many of the sartorially inflected works on display in APT9. Where many of the APT works struggle to elucidate their contexts and, in spite of the room notes, come across as decorative, each of the works in Dress Code engages with issues of genuine political and cultural depth.