Damsels Down Under

6 February 2008

Ask the average person what the first thing is that comes to mind when you mention Australia, and you will most likely receive a predictable response along the lines of “kangaroos”, “rugby”, the outback”, or for those with more cultural interests, “Sydney Opera House”. It is highly doubtful whether anyone would equate this distant land of eternal sunshine, friendly people and leisurely beachwear with anything remotely related to fashion (apart from the obligatory mention of supermodel Gemma Ward). Yet even here, in a country where one would expect catwalks to be marginalized by boardwalks, the fashion industry is thriving.

The everyday style of the damsels of down under can be generally described as casual and free. This sense of sartorial abandon is in stark contrast to the European preference for exact tailoring, heavier fabrics and more constricting styles. Modern Australian fashion designers are still influenced by their nation’s multicultural history and society, taking inspiration from traditional garments, textiles and modes of thought from the most exotic locales. Silk saris from India, kimonos from Japan, and softly embroidered fabrics from Egypt all feature. Due to this refreshingly unique quality, the garments created are without question both distinct and desirable. Designers such as Colette Dinnigan (who became the first Australian designer to show a full prêt-a-porter collection at Paris Fashion week in 1995), Akira Isogawa and Nicola Finetti have achieved worldwide acclaim, and their garments have become part of the international fashion vernacular.

Yet there is one event in the Australian fashion calendar that seems to throw this penchant for casual chic to the wind, defying any preconceptions of beige safari suits and palm hats: the Fashions on the Field at Fremington competition. Established by the Victoria Racing Club in 1962 to promote the Centenary Cup and attract the fairer sex to the traditionally male domain of horse racing, this fashion face-off, covered extensively by the media, has become the highlight of the Melbourne Cup. Open to and embraced by the public, thanks in no small part to a prize pool offering such gems as a luxury trip to Dubai, this extravaganza features two main categories: “Classic Racewear” and the “Milliners’ Award”. Both are designed to not only find the most stylish woman in Australia, but to demonstrate the fashion possibilities offered by a traditionally Australian event. And a mere glance at the dizzying array of feathered, jeweled and towering hats and the endless sea of frilly, classic, bright, and floral frocks is enough to give the most cynical of fashion lovers hope for the endurance of originality.

So as Fashions on the Field exposes the potential of dressing for a day at the races, it should be kept in mind that such enthusiasm for ostensibly large hats and quasi-bridal attire offers a fashion lesson for us all. Rather than pigeonholing that which we perceive as “fashion” in attempt to conform with the status quo, we would do much better to remember the eternal words of William Hazlitt: “Fashion is an odd jumble of contradictions… It exists only by its being participated among a certain number of persons, and its essence is destroyed by being communicated to a greater number. Fashion constantly begins and ends in the two things it abhors most—singularity and vulgarity.”