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Fashion: Economies of dress and bodily display


Kalissa Alexeyeff, Geir Henning Presterudstuen, John Taylor

Session presentation

In this panel we ask what we might gain from examining social change, distinction and value in Oceania through fashion as an analytical category. Fashion is a process of recurrent change. Perhaps more than any other social practice, being fashionable is an ephemeral state of being that is context-specific–acutely sensitive to temporal and spatial shifts. An outfit bought on holiday in the tropical Pacific rarely translates into fashion at home for example. Concurrently, Pacific design motifs clearly serve as inspiration for global fashion conglomerates, crossing contexts and fuelling particular desires. Fashion spans the physical production and design of garments and objects, as well as the desire to be ‘in fashion’ and the consumption of aesthetic objects that are considered popular. From the vantage point of an Oceanic perspective, fashion experiments with boundaries between local and capitalist economics, cultures and aesthetics and ultimately, designations of tradition and modern. In considering fashion as situated bodily practice, this panel focuses on economic, aesthetic and experiential dimensions of fashion, dress and bodily display. We invite papers across a range of topics that may include: the production and consumption of fashion, experimentations with material culture, design and design culture, the meanings and relationships that make objects desirable, the role clothing plays in identity construction, dress and social difference, the unfashionable, the social and historical life of fashion objects, cultural appropriation, fashion as resistance, fashion and morality, and the accrual of aesthetic value across a variety of markets.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

The unfashioned body in Oceania?

Kalissa Alexeyeff (University of Melbourne)

The opening pages of Joanne Entwistle’s book The Fashioned Body asks an intriguing question: does fashion refer only to dress and adornment found in capitalist modernity? If fashion is equated with regular and systemic change, is it only uniquely connected to the emergence of mercantile capitalism, the rise of bourgeois class culture and the emergence of cities in which to display clothing to an audience of other consumers? Does this mean that before capitalism people were unfashionable? This paper suggests an alternative fashion trajectory from the perspective of Pacific modernities and in doing so, calls into question binaries such as stasis/creativity, modern/tradition, gifts/commodities, past/future. It begins with the popularity of T-shirts and sarongs decorated with family and island names and events and continues backwards to 1896, to a white shirt with a village name “Omaka” sewn onto it. This early object helps in apprehending fashion as experiential practice and the importance of design and innovation across time, place and economies.

From Feathers & Film Tape - The Pacific Sisters

Jacqueline Charles-Rault (Université Le Havre Normandie)

Rosanna Raymond was one of the first Pacific models who became well known in fashion circles in the 1980s. She later went on to join a collective of women artists in the early 1990s, who called themselves The Pacific Sisters. The Sisters celebrated Pacific Island culture, as it existed in the beginning as an aggregation of numerous influences that were fluid and continuously evolving. In doing so they dispelled the stereotype of exotic or primitive. They created costumes in a contemporary light that drew upon tradition and oral story telling, while continuing to honour their Pacific heritage. Their unique and creative use of recycled and natural materials in their garments and costumes paved the wave for their individual voices in fashion. The Sisters moved on to build successful careers individually and in 2010 Rosanna Raymond founded The SaVAge K’lub, an open collective group of artists who come together to activate installations and objects. Performance and costume was an integral part of The Pacific Sisters that Raymond has continued throughout her own art practice and continues today with The SaVAge K’lub. The influence and impact that The Pacific Sisters have had on the contemporary Pacific art scene was given prominence this year when the Te Papa National Museum in Wellington held the first ever retrospective of The Pacific Sisters’ creations.

What women want: the politics of personal choice and fashion in urban PNG

Olivia Barnett - Naghshineh (University of Auckland)

Despite having colonial roots, the meriblouse is an indigenous form of women’s fashion in PNG that has come to signify respect and humility whilst allowing women to create unique designs, patterns and styles for themselves and others. However, when women choose not to wear the meriblouse and other clothes are chosen instead, how these clothes are put together can lead to heated tensions between women of both different and similar social standing. What women wear, and the aesthetics of how they present themselves in highlands PNG is, like many other parts of the world, intricately connected to how they are expected to behave as socially gendered, moral persons. However, in Goroka, there are some practices that may have echoes of a colonial past where laws installed by the British and Australian administration controlled what Papua New Guineans should wear in urban contexts; items that kept them looking authentically “native” but not too revealing or offensive to missionary outsiders (c.f. R. Stella). Policing of what women wear continues today in urban contexts. This paper will explore how those who fail to conform to gendered dress codes in the highlands bring a politics of appearance to the surface.

Sex, self, and fashion in urban Fiji

Geir Henning Presterudstuen (University of Bergen)

In this paper I analyse how sexuality and sexual relations in Fiji is mediated by fashion. Here I consider fashion a key modality through which young Fiji citizens experience modernity and construct contemporary self-identities in dialogue with global popular culture. A multi-dimensional tool, fashion is effectively used as self-performance; a way of carrying the body in public spaces, including dress and style as well as mannerisms, demeanour, body shape and comportment. It follows that fashion also intersects with other social categories such as gender, sexual identity and race in order to inform local social scripts in which people judge their own and others’ appearance and define the nature of a desirable, modern body. Using these insights as a starting point for my analysis, I am particularly interested how my interlocutors use fashion in order to explore the sexualised body, create their own sexual self-identities and negotiate sex and desire in context of the multi-cultural night-time economy of urban Fiji.

Modernity, Dress, and Gender in the Sepik River

Eric Silverman (Brandeis University)

In many ways, to be a modern person in Papua New Guinea today - at least among the Eastern Iatmul of the middle Sepik River - is to be seen and heard in ways not possible in an earlier era. Today, the traditional and gender-specific rules of public decorum have largely faded. No longer does the male cult hold the same sway as it once did. As a result, modernity is loud. It is also flashy and colorful. In this paper, I explore the relationships between gender, modern personhood, and aesthetics, focusing on clothing worn by Iatmul men and women. I am especially keen to analyze how colors, slogans, styles, cleanliness, and the contrast between used and new clothing - and other colorful commodities - communicate messages about new freedoms and aspirations as well as feelings of hopelessness.

Kanaky Style: Outfitting Identity in Uncertain Times

Tate LeFevre (Franklin and Marshall College)

Though it hangs from only a handful of city edifices, the Kanak flag flies over all of Nouméa—on the fronts of t-shirts and the backs of “Rasta hoodies”; on the sides of tote bags and the soles of claquettes (thong sandals). These items are almost exclusively made in China, but they communicate a wearer’s “Kanak-ness” as clearly as a robe mission (“Mother Hubbard” dress) or traditional dance skirt. White New Caledonians hardly ever wear such items. To do so would be--generally speaking--interpreted as an overt political gesture communicating support for Kanak independence (which the overwhelming majority of white French New Caledonians oppose). Interestingly, however, when worn by Kanak—especially younger Kanak—the politics of “Kanaky style” are actually harder to pin down. Based on brand new fieldwork conducted in Summer 2018, this paper focuses on the material and symbolic production of “Kanaky Style”--alongside associated practices of “consumption"--in the period immediately preceding a long-awaited referendum vote on independence from France (in November 2018). I am especially interested in “Kanaky style” as a materialization of ongoing generational shifts in the imagined articulation between political and cultural dimensions of Kanak-ness.

Urohs Fashion

Emelihter Kihleng

Urohs en Pohnpei, colorful and elaborately designed applique and machine-embroidered skirts made by women from Pohnpei Island, are a fashion industry throughout Micronesia and in diasporic Micronesian communities in Guam, Hawaiʻi and throughout the U.S. continent. In this presentation, I will discuss and display (through photographs) the evolution of menginpehn lih (women’s handiwork) that includes urohs production, contemporary urohs fashion and hierarchies of taste, as well as the significance of certain mwahi (designs) on these stunning textiles and the contexts in which these skirts are worn in Pohnpei and away. I will also read some of my ethnographic poetry about urohs and the lien Pohnpei (Pohnpeian women) who make, wear, sell and love our precious skirts. Lastly, I will explore the ways in which urohs have become ritually significant textiles as the sakau (Pohnpeian kava) of women in place of or in addition to sehu (sugarcane) that was strictly associated with women in the past.

Flasem basket: Making fashionable baskets in Vanuatu

Lucie Hazelgrove Planel (University of St Andrews)

Plaited pandanus baskets are ubiquitous in Vanuatu. Each island produces baskets for local consumption, however the islands of Futuna, Ambae, Pentecost and Malekula export their baskets to the capital, Port Vila, where they reveal new basket styles and instigate new fashions. This paper considers the production of basketry, exploring the motivations and interests of the women who work pandanus.
On Futuna, where I did my fieldwork with pandanus basket makers, there is a long history of basketry and a long history of creativity in the form, style and decoration of this work. Contemporary pandanus workers continue this tradition and drive changes in the market, creating pandanus baskets to suit the needs of current generations and their new technologies through changes to the form of baskets and to their decoration. In this paper, I follow the trajectories of new pandanus creations and analyse how basket makers think about their work. I explore the tensions between kastom and fashion, which I argue are not so dissimilar on Futuna.

Clothing the Nation: Contested Materialities of Belonging in Solomon Islands

Stephanie Hobbis (Wageningen University)

Cloth featuring the imprint “Solomon Islands” is ubiquitous in the country one that many have characterized as void of a strong national consciousness. Solomon Islands-themed T-shirts are popular choices for outings, in particular on the way to, and during walks through, town. Similarly, Solomon Islands-themed lavalava are displayed frequently as a type of flag during public events. This said, Solomon Islands-themed flags are also flown alongside many others, from the Scottish national flag to lavalavas featuring international hotel chains. In addition, T-shirts imprinted with “Solomon Islands” compete with alternatives, in particular, T-shirts that reveal church and, to a lesser degree, village affiliations. This paper takes a material culture approach to discuss how Solomon Islanders imagine and express competing senses of local, national and global belonging through the consumption as well as the production of themed cloth and clothing as efficacious materials. It shows how the proliferation of “Solomon Islands” themes, at least among rural visitors to town, does not reflect a burgeoning national consciousness. On the contrary, it suggests a continued alienation from Solomon Islands as a nation and reveals strong preferences for alternative local-global (religious) affiliations.