AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - BERG ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD DRESS AND FASHION - REVIEW
Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion
by Margaret Maynard
No one can be expert in all the societies covered by this volume. Vanuatu alone has 113 languages. Editor Margaret Maynard has had to confine herself to introducing and marshaling 360,000 words from 77 authors for a geographical sprawl beyond her unrivalled expertise on Australia.
The entries are intended for ‘general and curious readers as well as for students in the humanities and social sciences’. As much as contributors have to learn from those disciplines, several of their essays deserve to be on reading lists in courses ranging from sports history and race relations to religious studies. Despite the title’s giving equal billing to dress and to fashion, the everyday remains a poor relation. Authors were allowed to introduce ‘post-modernism, psychoanalysis, semiotics and queer theory’, a listing which shows how academic fashions change since thirty years ago Marxism and feminism would have headed that parade.
Indigenous dress in Australia is explored through case studies of the Western Desert, the Kimberley, Arnhem Land, Torres Strait and North Queensland. That there is no Wallace line for adornment is shown by the transmission of van Dyke beards from the Dutch to the Indonesians and onto the Yolnu, while both male and female Aborigines around Darwin adopted the sarong in the 1870s and 1880s. The authors shy away from settler stories about the Aborigines’ being attracted to bright colours, their putting on new garments as soon as they get them, often one frock on top of another. The snap of Kathy Freeman’s wrapping herself in the land rights flag and the Australian flag after winning Gold at the 1994 Commonwealth Games raises whether this performance set the stage for Pauline Hanson’s flag patriotism, itself a further instance of US clothing imperialism.
More than for the other zones, the chapters on settler Australia often either lack the telling instance or seize on a single example to advance a generalisation which patches over a more complicated story. Several writers sweep across the influence of pop music without touches such as Billy Thorpe’s getting seamen on the luxury liner Maracosa to smuggle in made-to-measure Levis and Spanish boots.
Juliet Peers is among the best informed, making stabs at everyday dress yet fascinated with fashion, as she shows in her entry on the Melbourne Cup, which overlooks jockey colours. Much more is in print about the dress of male artists than is suggested by her howler that William Longstaff sported a white suit in the 1880s when he had not been born until Christmas Day, 1879.
Post-war surf culture leads several contributors to project its importance back over the whole of settlement. Jennifer Craik discusses nude swimming in the ocean without noticing its prevalence in rivers and creeks, referring to Arthur Streeton’s clothed ‘Beach Scene’ but not his paintings of skinny-dippers around Heidelberg. Her account of beach culture gets off to a lively start with the bikini before slipping into a catalogue of brands, an attempt at comprehensiveness which clogs other entries.
That so few early items of male clothing survive is no reason to marginalise that experience, a tendency which further diverts attention from working-class dress: does no one wear Ugg boots? Authors associate work gear with ‘singlet bands’ to the neglect of safety-helmets. Hence, there is no trace of sewing machines as money-earners for widows, no early outworkers, and no 1882-3 strike by Melbourne tailoresses. Work-processes are limited to a sentence about R M Williams boots so that students will learn more about the rag-trade from novels such as Dorothy Hewitt’s Bobbin’ Up, Alan Marshall’s How Beautiful Are They Feet and Mena Calthorpe’s The Dyehouse. Despite accounts of high-end retailing, disposal stores, street markets, second-hand, pawn and op- shops are by-passed.
The Wool Board’s success in 1961 at reducing waste by standardising the colour range for men’s suits is the sole mention of the producer sovereignty that had regimented women’s fashion from the 1930s under the aegis of the British Colour Council. Scholars are yet to appreciate why Marx treated consumption as the final stage of production.
The peripheral States fare poorly. Where is Claudio Alcorso in Hobart, or Perth’s Alex Vintila who sold fabric designs into New York in the 1990s, though Robyn Healy does mention West Australian menswear brand: ericaamerica. Peter McNeil focuses his piece about gay and lesbian dress on Sydney and Melbourne, relieved by the Newcastle yarn about yellow socks as a none too secret signal.
Australian contributors dip into women’s magazines, the fashion pages of the daily press and the house journals of department stores, but overlook the trade publications, except for a scatter of issues of the Australian Leather Trades Review. Two notable ones were the Draper of Australasia and Commonwealth Jeweler and Watchmaker, with the latter’s production values rivaling The Home’s, and illustrating a taste, before the 1960s, for Australiana in diamanté broaches.
Connected to this avoidance of production is an uncertain grip on economic questions, a weakness which derives partly from the Post-Post-isms that disparage research as empiricism and partly because the academics who teach fashion come from visual arts departments, which are even more detached from political economy than are mainstream historians. Researchers need to peruse Tariff Board Reports and to understand that the exchange rate is as disruptive as swings in the level of protection. To write that ‘due to the pressures of global marketing’, Blundstone ‘was forced to move its operations offshore’, makes sense only if marketing includes manufacturing.
Authors use the visual arts for some details but not the street scenes behind the main action of feature films. To cut costs on permissions, there is barely one illustration for every two pages and none is in colour while many come from the contributors. Although the account of fashion photography is more thoroughly researched than some topics, it follows the pack by slipping away from the techniques and business practices into potted biographies. Similarly, no writer uses press photography as a primary resource, for instance, Wolfgang Sievers’ shot of a CWA luncheon in Brisbane in 1965. The essay mentions the arrival of colour after the 1950s but passes over the problems that printeries had with registration. The Draper could not afford full colour even for its advertisements so that wholesalers distributed tear-sheets from the Australian Women’s Weekly.
The eighty pages on New Zealand begin with a survey of the resources that inform accounts of the impression made by Roman liturgical robes on Maori converts; Antarctic wear; the late adoption of Paua shell jewelry; how black became the colour of choice, which goes some way to explain why New Zealanders are praised their ‘darker, intellectual’ designs. An account of institutional dress becomes a case study in immiserisation.
Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia are covered by twenty-one authors who examine photographic evidence from several sources and draw on ethnographic collections for the impact of Christianity on nakedness and tatou. For example, missionaries encouraged the natives to wear white garments because keeping them clean induced an industriousness next to godliness, though not for the Rev. Walker who had sold his soul to a British textile manufacturer. Fanny Wonu Veys presents Tongan tatou and bark-cloth wrappings - ta’ovala and kiekie - as means for warding off evil spirits but is too polite to ask whether obesity has any spiritual significance. Contests between Paris and Tahitian independence activists to invent traditions have launched a globe-trotting dance troupe which looks like La Cage aux Folles.
The under-representation of six million New Guineans with only four essays is countered by the quality of their theoretical underpinnings which left me wanting a Micronesian scholar to apply the concept of dress as a social activity (bilas) to a department of fashion studies in an Australian university.
A scholarly work without an index is an abomination. The half-hearted effort here is the volume’s gravest failing as a reference tome. The single entry of ‘colour’ is for ‘military color patches’; ‘Gay and lesbian’ is confined to McNeil’s article. Loopiness reaches its zenith with the five sub-entries under ‘goths’, all to the same page. James Cook, however, has an appropriate spread as does tattoo/tatou. Many of the entries, such as for Blundstone boots, give only a single page number despite multiple mentions in the text. The on-line version might offer a chance to create one’s own index.
If Encyclopedia promises the all-encompassing then this volume should have been entitled Companion. Its achievements lay a foundation for dictionaries of dress about the three zones, while never neglecting their cross-currents. The quirks of multiculturalism appear in the burquini as a mis-match of bikini and burqa; of the Chinese-Australian Jenny Kee’s promotion of Australiana; or the Polynesianisation of Auckland street-wear. The outdoor woolen jacket branded Swanndri in New Zealand parallels the Tasmanian ‘Bluey’ as Jandals do thongs. Surprise and delight await those who venture beyond their special interest.