First Nations readers are advised that this article contains the name of a First Nations person who has passed.
The previous decade has seen a phenomenal rise of First Nations fashion. Showcasing diverse designers and artists from across so-called Australia, First Nations fashion is shining a spotlight on the strong connection First Nations people have to culture, country and kin.
What many don’t realise is that First Nations peoples’ relationship to fashion and wearable art has a long history. While the commercialisation of First Nations fashion is relatively new, our culture and beliefs has been expressed through adornments and regalia since time immemorial. For at least 60,000 years, my Ancestors have woven coil basketry, ceremonial wear, possum skin cloaks and adornments, displaying our unique and sacred art styles.
The invasion and colonisation of my people and lands, has meant that we have been denied the right to express ourselves in ways that reflect our cultural identity. Governments implemented racist policies and legislation with the aim of separating us from our blackness, our culture, and, effectively, brought about cultural genocide. My family was forced from our Country. We were moved to the fringes of towns and denied access to basic human rights. To dress in a way other than the coloniser was not possible, nor was it safe. Even in my experience in the early 2000s growing up in regional and rural NSW, I saw and experienced the racist targeting of mob. I remember how unsafe it was as a young visibly Blak woman, and had adapted the way I express myself and how I dressed outside of my family and community. After many years of progress in this country, my situation back then reminds me of the similar experiences of women in my family over generations. It is in this country’s colonial legacy that I use fashion as a means of protest, and a way to reinforce my unceded sovereignty that belongs to me, my family, and my community.
Through First Nations fashion designers and artists, we are seeing a cultural resurgence through fashion and self-expression. The synergy of contemporary fashion and the oldest living cultures in the world, has created a market for exclusive wearable art and has seen an explosion in celebrated First Nations fashion designers. However, the industry’s rapid growth has proved challenging for some First Nations fashion designers and artists, with select few thriving in the commercial space due to many roadblocks (see article). For example, minimal access to formal fashion design training outside of major cities, as well as the high cost associated with studying fashion design. Not to mention, large costs in establishing a fashion label itself, which is far from the reality of First Nations communities who often live in low socio-economic conditions. Fashion design is a rich kid’s playground, but our communities are some of the poorest and most disadvantaged in Australia. Without greater investment in regional, rural and remote First Nations communities, the status quo will continue, and consequently, the growth of the First Nations fashion and arts sector will be impeded.
In my own experience both as a practising textiles artist and designer, who has dedicated years of training through both formal education and with my Wiradjuri grandmother, one thing has underpinned my practice: honouring my grandmother’s teachings and her values that she passed on to me almost 25 years ago.
Nanny Bessie Johnson was the eldest daughter of 16 (contested in my family due to the times). She was born in the 1920s on Warangesda Mission, near Darlington Point, NSW. Nanny Bessie was birthed along the Marrambidya River by her grandmother. It was this place that she held a strong connection to for her entire life. Soon after our family settled 50kms away in the small town of Narrungdera, where our family still resides today. Nanny Bessie went on to study fashion at TAFE, along with other Wiradjuri women from our community. Once Nan finished her studies, she passed on knowledge to her family, and Nan with a few other women contributed to the passing on of knowledge at the local community-run organisation. For me, this was an early example of self-determination in our community where fashion design was used as an opportunity for growth.
Nanny Bessie was born during the early mission days, where sewing, cooking, and cleaning were all required skills that she needed to survive during the assimilation era. Well before her formal training, one thing that remained constant was Nan’s love of fashion design. To this day, people from our community share the experiences they had with Nan making garments. Some of these stories stretch back many decades.
Scattered across the walls of Nan and Pop’s house was images of every single family member. These were the cherished memories of their lifetime. The images that stood out to me were of my aunties and uncles dressed in Nan’s handmade creations. The family often talk about how Nan could look at a garment and know exactly how it was made. She would then proceed to whip up an outfit without blinking an eyelid. Today she would be considered what we call in the fashion industry, a master pattern maker, who had a knack for drafting patterns that would fit the body perfectly.
My earliest memory of pattern drafting was from when I was around 10 years old. I had just been placed in her care in Narrungdera. She folded out the extending dining room table and propped me up beside her to draft out a dress. There was no fancy pattern paper but instead, she used old newspapers that she taped together to form large pattern paper. I watched on, captivated as she meticulously mapped out body measurements back and forth across the old newspaper to form a beautiful pattern. With little effort, she created a blueprint for a garment that lives inside me to this day. Her fabric collection was not bolts of fabric or materials picked up from the textiles store, but rather old curtains and sheets she would gather from the St Vincent De Paul charity shop in town. She was not only a First Nations matriarch with a natural ability for sustainability and resourcefulness, but a pensioner in her 70s looking after her two grandchildren struggling to make ends meet.
Her culture, sustainability and resourcefulness set fundamental values in me that I maintain today – it informs my cultural integrity and identity. Being conscious of my footprint and responsibility to Country as a custodian, and the materials and processes I use, are deeply embedded in my practice. It is imperative that everything I do is always informed by Nan’s values, by kin, and is embedded in Country.
I still think of that moment with Nan to this day. It was the catalyst that changed my life without knowing just how significant it would be. A Wiradjuri woman – born and raised in the servitude era of the 1920s, learning to read and write later in life, calculating all these difficult measurements and equations in her mind while perfectly drafting patterns with a young hyperactive grandchild on hip learning – she was quite something. This experience showed me that she was exactly that: a Wiradjuri matriarch passing on knowledge she learnt throughout her life to her grandbaby in what is a continuation of culture. Little did she know I would go on to follow in her footsteps, creating garments that display our connections to Country through a pathway that she created for me as a young child.
Nanny Bessie practised self-determination through fashion design that began in the 1980s in Narrungdera. Fashion design was supported by tertiary pathways at TAFE, which was the same tertiary pathways I followed 40 years later. Unfortunately, Nanny Bessie passed away before she could see my success in fashion, and, by success, I mean establishing a First Nations fashion label on rural Wiradjuri Country with little support while maintaining the values and integrity my Nan upheld. To me, that is my biggest success so far in my journey in fashion.
The values and lessons of my grandmother are remembered in every hand-drafted pattern, every seam stitched, and every embellishment of culture intertwined with my designs. My work not only represents me but also my grandmother who was born into an era that did not allow us to practice our culture, let alone fashion design. Today I embed the memory of Nanny Bessie and our culture into everything I do with respect, honour, politeness, and gentleness. This is captured by one Wiradjuri word – Yindyamarra. Yindyamarra is a multidimensional concept that is deeply rooted in respect and describes our way of being and doing which is fundamental to Wiradjuri Law.
When we look at First Nations fashion and textiles today, we need to recognise that the present is always shaped by our past, and future obligations for the next generations. We need to remember the historical connections our communities hold, not only in the context of contemporary fashion design, but in the context of fashion being used as a tool for self-determination and as a means to overcome the disadvantages my people face.
Fashion is a catalyst for change. First Nations fashion designers and artists not only promote practices of cultural sustainability and self-determination for our mob, but importantly, our ways of knowing, our cultural practices and knowledge provide an opportunity to revolutionise the mainstream fashion industry and bring about much-needed change in sustainability and ethical practices.