An Era that Changed Us

Paul Craft, who is one of the stars of Sally Gray’s 'Friends, Fashion and Fabulousness', wondered to me why Gray’s account of the effervescent 1970s Australian cocktail of change wasn’t better known. It is a question. With applause from senior figures in the Fine and the Applied Arts, one might have expected it to be shortlisted for prizes.

Published in 2017, subtitled The Making of an Australian Style, it’s a paperback, the cover a soft mauvey-pink: maybe it needed a visual to be noticed by fashion magazines and editors of the style sections in daily papers. The pink, the paperback, and the subject suggest it will carry like an airport novel, but its mass is surprising. And as the recommendations from Dr Ted Gott, Senior Curator of International Art at the NGV, Professor Peter McNeil from Design History at UTS, and Roger Leong, the Senior Curator of Fashion at the Sydney Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences indicate, the book is also surprising.

This is not simply another chatty account of the period, which has been revisited and celebrated by those who lived in it, and researched and examined in exhibitions and on film. It is a story of intelligent creative friends, encouraging one another energetically to live daily life, and of how the personal and political became profitable. Gray offers the fun of gossip, of an intimate account of funny and ironic gestures; the excitement of the gay and feminist politics of the time, the interest of connections between figures in fashion, art and entertainment in Australia and overseas. She also reminds the reader of the confidence of creative Australians at the time; and that there had always been constant international interchange in the arts and design.

Here Peter Tully heaps the living room fireplace with Australiana to welcome Paul’s Japanese language tutor, there is artist and gay activist David McDiarmid among the audience at the 1975 Flamingo Follies fashion parade, in a black satin chemise on which he’d painted a tube of KY lubricant graphically squirting over his shoulder onto the outline of an artist’s palette. David had painted some of Linda Jackson’s pieces in that collection; her collaboration with Jenny Kee is detailed, and their intersections with British art and fashion.  William Yang documents the times, many an international entertainer or designer crosses the stage.

All of this could be expected from a biography or a memoir. Friends, Fashion and Fabulousness incorporates all these entertaining elements, but they are woven into a very serious account of the period and they make that account enjoyable. Sally Gray’s extensively researched book arose from a Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded by the Australian Research Council; it will become a reference for the period. The bibliography consists of nineteen pages in fairly small print, each chapter is thoroughly referenced. It should be in every municipal library, because it has appeal for not only for fashionistas, ‘seniors’ who lived through the times, anyone interested in gay and feminist politics, and students of history.

There is the scholarly seriousness, the rigour of the account itself, and her capacity to incorporate theory, for those who enjoy it, without deadening the text. But a further latent gravity permeates the book, and Gray handles this solemnity with objectivity and sadness. Her preface reminds that the exuberance and freedom of the sexual revolution, especially the courage of gay men coming out, was paralleled by the AIDS epidemic. David McDiarmid and Peter Tully, and many others in the book and in the creative lively crowd, died before their time. Gray manages the accounts of their relationships and their loves, often by quoting the protagonists or simply noting the relationships in a practical narrative, without emphasis.

Her reader enjoys the trip through the period, accompanying the lively participants to London, New York, from Melbourne to Sydney and through Asia and the middle East. Friends, Fashion and Fabulousness shows how, for all their apparent frivolousness; dropping out of courses, doing drugs, spending their money on booze and ephemera, venturing into business without business plans or capital – not a house deposit in the text – Gray’s friends had success. She details the triumphs of Jackson and Kee; the many fashion awards won by their colourful clothes and knits, how McDiarmid’s painted fabrics, and Tully’s use of plastic and tat in his jewellery added to the anti-class mood shrugging off conformist tradition and cultural norms. But Gray makes the point that they and others of the time learned by observation of the cut of old clothes, the imagery of kitsch, by consulting texts and records, and from other cultures. They were scholarly and thorough, and they had a whale of a time while they dissected ideas and the patterns of garments.

Linda Jackson and Jenny Kee took different paths from the 1980s, Linda gravitating towards the stillness of the Australian bush, eventually focussing on painting; Jenny Kee developing the design side of her business and becoming involved in multicultural and environmental politics. There is a post-lude describing the recognition of all of the main protagonists in text and exhibitions and other media. Gray describes how wakes and memorial events for those who died of AIDS came to fill the social round in the 1980s and 90s. Peter’s, and then David’s, were glamorous and affectionate. Up to their deaths those two young men worked as they’d always worked; because they were serious about that work.

Australian Scholarly Publishing will reissue the book in late 2019 in a new edition: an appropriate recognition of its importance. When Paul Craft handed me a copy, I almost dropped it. It appears to be pink and slight and frivolous. Its weight is real and metaphoric, Friends, Fashion and Fabulousness has grace and gravitas.

Sally Gray
Friends, Fashion and Fabulousness: The Making of an Australian Style
Australian Scholarly Publishing 2017

 

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