Modern Fashion Traditions Cover Image

Modern Fashion Traditions

Negotiating Tradition and Modernity through Fashion


M. Angela Jansen and Jennifer Craik (eds)

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Exotic Narratives in Fashion: The Impact of Motifs of Exotica on Fashion Design and Fashionable Identities

Jennifer Craik

Book chapter

DOI: 10.5040/
Pages: 97–118


In the context of exploring the prevalence of exotica in fashion, Jennifer Craik investigates the use of Indigenous Aboriginal motifs in Australian fashion and textiles. Furthermore, she argues that this occurs in a cyclical process of acclamation followed by renunciation coinciding with periodic displays of, and debates about, national identity. Increasingly, nationalism is being defined through the sophisticated blending of indigenous and ‘Australiana’ inspirations in colourful textiles, fashion and artwork which, in turn, has created a new sense of national culture. But while this suggests that Australian Indigenous culture is attaining greater recognition and legitimacy within mainstream Australian culture, it has simultaneously become politicized in the context of debates about the sovereignty of Aboriginal people. Inevitably, contemporary uses of Indigenous motifs in fashion have become ensnared in the tension between the politics of inspiration versus appropriation.


The idea of the exotic has been central to the history of fashion design and its reception as innovative, unique, or outstanding. But while there are many references to the exotic and exotica, it is rarely defined, especially in relation to how the term is used in relation to fashion and design. The idea of the exotic implies a sense of magic, something that is recognized but intangible—something out of the ordinary. Despite that, an element of the exotic is a central part of how cultural identity is formed and defined. The exotic is also shorthand for the divide between the persistent distinction made between inspiration in Western “fashion” and non-Western symbolism in “dress,” since non-Western exotica is the recurring and deeply embedded basis of Western fashion. Above all, an examination of the use of the exotic in fashion reveals the mutual dependency and synergies between fashion sensibilities in all cultures and historical moments. In other words, there is a convergence between Western and non-Western fashion, as contemporaneously illustrated in the case of China and India, which have demonstrated their success at engaging with Western (or Eurocentric) fashion, while retaining their distinctive symbolism and stylistic registers as producers, consumers and increasingly as cutting edge designers. This chapter explores the case of the incorporation of the exotic in Australia indigenous fashion design.

Elsewhere, I have explored the ways in which three distinctive types of exotica have constructed narratives of national identity in Australian fashion, namely, outback or rural dress, swimwear, and Australiana-themed fashion (Craik 2009). More recently, a fourth type of national identity has recurred as a form of fashion inspiration, namely, motifs of Australian indigenous culture. Since European settlement, the place of indigenous culture has been contested with the consequence of ambivalent references in discourses of national identity. This has been reflected in different cultural narratives including tourism, film, photography, art and craft, sport, and music. But it has also featured in fashion and, as the assertion of indigenous identity has become more prominent in recent years, so, too, has the visibility of indigenous themes in the design of textiles and garments. Increasingly, references to indigeneity are becoming the leitmotif of discourses about national identity and culture and thus, too, in national dress codes and fashion. The exotic in Australian fashion is, therefore, increasingly indigenous. This chapter explores specific indigenous fashion narratives, and contrasts surface (2-D) references to the exotic—for example, in textiles—with structural (3-D) manipulations of the exotic in the design process—for example, in the shape, form, and construction of garments.

Defining exotica

To begin, it is necessary to define the term “exotica”. A range of definitions can be found in dictionaries and glossaries, including phenomena that are: curiously unusual or excitingly strange; foreign, unfamiliar, strange, or rare; a fusion of something foreign with local or indigenous culture; something introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized; and something having a strange or bizarre allure, beauty, or quality. To summarize, exotica refers to something or a quality that is not embedded in a particular culture, but to which the culture relates or responds, or with which it resonates.

In relation to fashion inspiration, I have argued that exotica is integral to what is regarded as cutting-edge design. In other words, exoticism and fashion go hand in hand such that references to cultural motifs are a foremost inspiration in fashion. So, what is it that exotic motifs add or contribute to design? Here, I argue that exotic references create narratives of difference and distinctiveness both for the designer and the wearer. This includes allusions to motifs, objects, customs, and aesthetics from other cultures in fashion, as well as well-known cultural tropes from the art, history, and popular culture of one’s own culture.

In an earlier publication (Craik 1994), I proposed that there were three forms of exoticism in fashion:

  1. Techniques of dress and decoration in non-Western cultures. Examples include: saris in the subcontinent; kimonos in Japan; hanbok in Korea; tunics, robes, and pigtails in China; veiling in Islamic cultures; and tattooing as a symbol of status or role.

  2. Adaptations of traditional (customary) dress within Western fashion. Examples include: the salwar-kameez in diasporic Indian cultures, saris with cardigans or coats in cold climates, and leggings under dresses and skirts with headscarf for Muslim schoolgirls in Western societies.

  3. Appropriation of “exotic” elements in Western fashion. Examples include: the inclusion of North American Indian fringing or feathers in mainstream fashion; the reproduction of Aboriginal paintings as textiles for use on T-shirts, or other fashion; and the periodic appearance of the “cheongsam” in Western fashion.

To this I have added a fourth form, namely, the appropriation of Western fashion in non-Western fashion. Examples include: the combination of denim jeans with customary dress; the global proliferation of baseball caps as sporting and leisure wear; and the normative status of sneakers as the default footwear of choice when they were originally designed as sports shoes. While we recognize inspirations and references like these, almost without thinking, we are also conscious of a set of tensions and oppositions that are embedded in such cultural borrowings and adaptations. There are three sets of oppositions:

  1. Indigenous versus exotic motifs and references;

  2. Contrived versus appropriated motifs and references; and

  3. Authentic versus inspirational motifs and references.

While these overlap, and sometimes may be synonymous, an indigenous motif refers to something that is specifically and uniquely embedded in a particular culture (e.g. the myth of the rainbow serpent, or representation of a turtle totem), as opposed to a generic, but design-imbued representation of something commonly associated with exotica (e.g. a boomerang, handprint, or kangaroo). Often the difficulty is establishing whether a certain motif has a specific “ownership,” or belongs in the sacred, rather than the profane domain—and who has the authority to designate it in one domain or another.

The second tension relates to the act of using motifs. In a contrived use of exotica, a motif, image, or theme is deliberately used and manipulated to achieve a particular design outcome while appropriation refers to the deliberate borrowing or reusing of a motif or image, often in a different context, and with little regard for the ethics of use (e.g. permission, licensing, collaboration).

The third tension is to some degree a judgment as to whether a motif appears as an authentic design usage versus the creation of a design that has been inspired by, but is not a direct translation (rip-off) of a motif or an image.

These tensions and oppositions run through the discussion and reception of exotic imagery in textiles and fashion with scant regard to the issues raised by such practices, in particular, that Western cultures draw on the exotica of non-Western cultures and past cultures (e.g. folk cultures, traditions, historical cultures) to add an element of frisson to everyday culture and imbue the everyday with a special—almost magical—quality. Non-Western cultures, by contrast, tend to have grounded connotations and relationships with exotic motifs in their cultures that convey quite specific social meanings and implications. Mixing these two registers lies at the heart of fashion for exotica, but in so doing raises many questions about the links between Western and non-Western as codified symbolic and communicative realms.

The following discussion looks specifically at how the idea of the exotic has been used in and shaped by the development of a distinctively Australian sense of fashion.

How has Australian fashion design been shaped by exotica?

Exotica has long been a motif in Australian fashion, as traced by Margaret Maynard (2001). Throughout the twentieth century, exotic motifs, including Aboriginal, Polynesian, Indonesian, Hawaiian, and Indian inspirations, have “been plundered for women’s leisure clothing (although not exclusively) to stimulate and titillate the jaded tastes of consumers” (Maynard 2001: 153). As well as using exotic motifs in Australian fashion design, garments and fashions from non-Western cultures have also been incorporated into what has become termed “ethnic chic.”

Maynard outlines the use of exotica in Australian swimwear in the 1920s (such as oriental designs, and garments such as the kimono, as well as references to the cultures of antiquity), Polynesian and Hawaiian influences in the interwar years (especially in textile designs, such as hibiscus, palm trees, and pandanus), and Islander and Indonesian influences from the 1940s (with sarongs and batik fabric), while Indian garments, fabrics, and accessories dominated the youth fashions of the 1970s, and have recurred in subsequent fashions. Alongside these diverse forms of exotica, the use of Aboriginal motifs has also occurred, for example, in the textiles of Olive Ashworth, from the 1950s, in her efforts to counter the craze for what she called “mock Hawaiian, pseudo Spanish and phoney Polynesian” motifs circulating in fashion (Maynard 2001: 154; Williamson 2010: 117). This was the start of an ongoing fascination with Aboriginal motifs in fashion and textiles, in a cyclical process of acclamation, followed by renunciation, coinciding with periods of nationalistic fervor (Craik, forthcoming).

Since Ashworth, many other designers have continued to make explicit links between Aboriginal culture and leisure wear, emphasizing the problematic links between women at home and as objects of fantasy. At times the exotic is stressed through generalized Australiana motifs, not simply Aboriginal designs (Maynard 2001: 154). Prominent among these motifs are: Australian flora and fauna (such as waratahs, gum blossoms, Sturt Desert Peas, koalas, kangaroos, cockatoos, and reef life); landscape and the colors of the outback, especially the desert (the mythical heart of Australia); images and symbols derived from well-known examples of Australian art (for example, the textile designs of Florence Broadhurst’s wallpaper, “pop” artist Ken Done’s colorful depictions of Australiana, and artist Del Kathryn Barton’s popular culture symbols); icons and clothing typifying rural Australia (such as R. M. Williams’ moleskins and boots, Akubra hats, Drizabone coats, and ug/ugg boots); images that allude to Australia’s climate and surfing-cum-swimming lifestyle and culture (such as images of elements of beach culture, sunsets, sharks, and thongs); and motifs associated with indigenous identity and national identity (x-ray artworks depicted on T-shirts, “dot” painting style designs, ochre palette colorways representing the soil of the outback).

The heyday of the uptake of Australiana in fashion was the 1980s. Australiana references have been prominent in the design of successive uniforms for Australian sporting teams at international events. For example, in 1984, prominent fashion designer Prue Acton designed the opening parade uniforms for the Australian team in the Olympic Games, choosing wattle yellow wool dresses (for women) and shirts (for men) depicting koalas, emus, and wombats. While ridiculed by the Australian media and public, the team won the best-dressed award for the opening ceremony (Williamson 2010: 107; Berry 2012: 91). In 1988, athletes wore yellow Drizabone-style coats and Akubra hats; in 1992, khaki shorts with Australiana patterned shirts; and, in 2000, Mambo-designed colorful ironic Australiana shirts and jackets (which subsequently became collectors’ items). In avant-garde fashion, designers such as Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson popularized the sophisticated blending of indigenous and Australiana inspirations in colorful textiles, fashion, and artwork, epitomized by their Flamingo Park boutique and catwalk parades, as well as collections with names such as Bush Couture and Opal (Maynard 1999, 2000, 2001; Craik 2009; in press). Other notable designers included Jenny Bannister, Bronwyn Bancroft, and the fashion label Balarinji. A number of indigenous collectives also emerged during this period, including Tiwi Designs, Desert Designs, Ernabella, Utopia, and Bima Wear (Williamson 2010: 115–19).

Fashions inspired by Australiana became mainstream during this period as Australians proudly wore colorful, nationalistic clothes that reflected a newfound sense of national pride. As Berry observes:

In simplifying Australian landmarks and animals as symbols of national identity, designers simultaneously created garments that appealed to tourists as souvenirs and conveyed postmodern irony in the local context. (Berry 2012: 54)

The underpinning of this period was the desire to create a new sense of national culture in order to reconcile the traditional myth of Australian identity as the bush and the outback with the recognition of a modern urban culture fanned by the energy of youth and popular culture. While an earnest pursuit at one level, this quest also embraced an irreverent and rebellious “larrikin” sensibility with irony, juxtaposition, critique, and spoof central to the emergence of a contemporary design language and discourse (Gray 2010: 152).

As well as achieving popularity as mainstream fashion, the work of these designers also resonated with developments in the art world and galleries and museums acquired examples for their collections. An increasing number of galleries have held fashion exhibitions drawn from their own collections or touring shows. This demonstrates that the incorporation of Australiana and indigenous motifs in fashion has resonated with a new sensibility and homegrown aesthetic in Australian art. Indeed, with no gallery dedicated solely to fashion or costume in Australia, examples of fashion from this period are almost exclusively found as “artefacts” and examples of “material culture” in art galleries and museums (such as the Powerhouse in Sydney, National Gallery of Australia, and National Gallery of Victoria) rather than in other collections. But are they there because they are fashion, art, craft or design? Berry (2013) has traced the fraught and ambiguous uptake of Australiana fashion as the craft versus art embodiment of national cultural identity.

Another development during this period was the politicization of indigenous culture and recognition of the sovereignty of Aboriginal people. As a result, the use of Australiana motifs—especially indigenous ones—has become increasingly tinged by the overt and implicit politics of inspiration and appropriation. Aboriginal activists used Australiana clothes such as T-shirts as effective forms for advertising and promoting their causes, alongside the more benign proliferation of indigenous-themed fashions of the day. Such concerns have become even more prominent in recent years.

One of the underpinnings of the classification of Australiana motifs in textiles and fashion is the form these take, in particular, whether exotic references and inspirations take the form of surface (2-D or two-dimensional) representations and translations of depictions of Australian-ness, for example, in textiles or as surface decoration on T-shirts or jumpers; as opposed to molded forms (3-D or three-dimensional) which involve the manipulation of shape, contours, and construction, for example, in creating silhouettes and embellishing the body–clothes relationship through how a garment fits on the human form. While 2-D examples of Australiana fashion have been treated as artwork—akin to paintings—3-D Australiana fashion tends to be classified as craft, decorative art, or high-end design creations. Equally, 2-D Australiana is generally more suited to the mainstream fashion (mid to low) as well as the tourist market. This is what fashion designer Roopa Pemmaraju describes as the “cliché of Aboriginal art being limited to ‘dot paintings or cheap $2 merchandise’” (quoted by Sutton 2013).

Australian fashion designers using exotic inspirations

In the contemporary fashion context, a number of designers have been playing with exotic inspirations in their designs. However, there are a number of different sources of exotica and different cultural identifications of designers incorporating exotic motifs. In particular, indigenous-inspired fashion is developing a sophisticated visual language and interplay between 2-D and 3-D forms.

Table 1. Typology of exotic inspirations for Australian fashion designers

Ethnicity of designer

Source of inspiration

Mode of production


Culture of origin

Australian design icons

Customized niche clientele

High-end artisans

Couture market

Australian non-indigenous

Global cultural exotica

Collaborations with non-Australian textile artisans

High-end market


Australian indigenous artworks

Collaborations with Australian indigenous communities and artists

Textile and garment production by non-Australian artisans


Australian non-indigenous and indigenous

Australian indigenous exotica and culture

Collaborative “fusion” design

Australian business model

Collaborations between indigenous and non-indigenous production

Niche “eco” market

Australian non-indigenous

Global cultural exotica, Australiana, and popular culture references


Niche fashion-forward clientele

Fashion-art fusion

Drawing on the above typology, examples of these designers can be distinguished and contrasted as follows.

Non-Australian inspired by another culture and iconic Australian design inspirations

In many ways, it has been easier for non-Australian designers to find a voice to articulate the spirit of national culture than Australian-born designers. This may be because they remain observers looking on from the fringes at the national obsession with claiming a unique identity. A prominent recent example is Japanese-born, Sydney-based fashion designer Akira Isogawa who has achieved recognition of excellence both in Australia and abroad. Migrating to Australia in his 20s, Akira’s’ grounding in Japanese culture created an interesting fusion with the prevailing Australian cultural zeitgeist of the 1980s. According to Parkes:

His design is informed by a multicultural background and a respectful interaction with other cultures; he seeks the approval of Europe, but is conscious of nurturing the local market; he remains obsessed with the quality of craftsmanship and materials used in his work; he is not constrained by the limits of his field (designing rugs, homewares, costumes for dance etc), and is a committed collaborator; and he has embraced iconic elements of Australian identity within his work. (Parkes 2006: 21)

Akira’s design inspiration has been shaped by his nuanced understanding of traditional Japanese costume and textiles, adapted for a relaxed Australian aesthetic in order to produce exquisitely crafted clothes that are also wearable. The designer’s long-standing success rests on his ability to subtly combine his Japanese cultural heritage and symbolism with a deep understanding of Australian aesthetics and cultural heritage, which, as a migrant, he sees with new eyes. However, his cultural references are not confined to merely Japan and Australia, instead drawing widely on other cultural references and motifs from the arts and crafts of Asia, and elsewhere. He seeks out handcrafted textiles, and employs specialist craft artisans to produce textiles, as well as to embellish surfaces through beading, embroidery, and smocking. The results are stunning combinations of exquisitely chosen textiles and embellishments from different cultural traditions and forms (from commissioned silks to home furnishing fabrics) to create garments that embody a blend of multicultural references in sophisticated and elaborate yet wearable garments (

Collaborations and close working relationships are central to the designer’s production process. His aim is to make garments that are “timeless,” yet individual. The result is complex constructions (often incorporating origami-folding techniques) that make innovative use of textiles, and feature detailed finishes in natural fabrics. According to Akira: “The designs are quite specific, but in that way they are timeless and quite individual” (quoted by Oakley Smith 2010a: 18). His work has featured in a number of exhibitions, notably solo shows at the National Gallery of Victoria, in 2005, and Object Gallery, in Sydney, in 2001.

Collaborations with global artisans

In contrast to Australian designers who rely on Australia-specific inspirations or alternatively eschew that for an “international” or global source of inspiration, the label Easton Pearson draws on multiple exotic references that are interpreted in a specifically Australian design context. Like Akira, Easton Pearson shows in Paris, as well as in Australia.

Friends Pamela Easton and Lydia Pearson established the label in Brisbane, in 1989, capitalizing on their close proximity to Asia to draw on “a melange of Asia Pacific cultures through a manifestation of techniques and fabrics and the relationships built through commerce” (Oakley Smith 2010b: 111). By extensive travel and collaboration with artisans, Easton Pearson focuses on custom-designed textiles as the source of inspiration exhibiting color and embellishment. As the designers explain:

There is a very artisanal feel to the clothes we make. It’s about decoration, color and interesting construction. And we design with a lot of different “someones” in mind […] It seems that the people attracted [to the clothing] are those that can make it their own (Oakley Smith 2010b: 113).

Through the combination of commissioned textiles and collaborative hand-craft finishes via long-standing partnerships with Indian craftspeople, Easton Pearson has achieved acclaim in the fashion industry and recognition. Tony Ellwood, director of the Queensland Art Gallery, says that their 2009 exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane (Wallace, McNeil and Teliga 2009) highlighted:

their sourcing and production of ideas and sources, from the history of art and dress, literature, film, books and music, that distinguishes much of their work. Art museums world-wide [now] consider fashion design a part of a contemporary visual culture. (Tony Ellwood, director, Queensland Art Gallery, quoted in GOMA 2009)

Indigenous inspirations in Western fashion design

Another non-Australian designer who has had an impact is Roopa Pemmaraju, who came to Australia from India in 2007 with her engineer husband. Trained in fine arts, and with considerable experience as a fashion designer in her native Bengalaru (Bangalore), as well as having a mother who owns an apparel production factory, Pemmaraju was well placed to take advantage of her skills and connections when she entered the Australian fashion industry. Captivated by the vibrancy of Aboriginal art, she sought to collaborate with an Aboriginal art collective to work on creating textiles based on Aboriginal designs that could then be styled as ready-to-wear fashion for the mainstream market. After receiving a number of rejections, the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation in Yuendumu (in central Australia) agreed to cooperate with the designer. The first collection was launched to acclaim in 2012, and was bought by department store David Jones.

Pemmaraju selects the designs for textiles that are manufactured using a variety of traditional craft-based processes utilized by her mother’s factory. Skilled artisans produce the silk garments and embellish the clothes with delicate hand finishes. Pemmaraju’s collections are now a staple of fashion shows, and also stocked by Australian department store Myer, as well as sold through various stockists and online.

The hallmark of Pemmaraju’s label is the recognition of synergies between the traditions of Indian artisans and Aboriginal artists, while ensuring fair trade and sustainable protocols in her dealings with indigenous people. Royalties of 10 percent are paid to the Aboriginal community, and Indian workers are paid considerably higher than in other peer apparel factories (Sutton 2013). Pemmaraju separates the inspirational aspect of her exotic inspiration from the political issues, saying:

I love Aboriginal art because it’s pure, it’s natural, it’s ethical. I don”t care about the politics. I care about the artists, what’s their inspiration, what they see around them, what’s their tradition. It is the same way I see my artists in India. (Quoted by Breen Burns 2012.)

Creatively, the designer’s aim is that: “Dreaming narratives are imbued with themes of cultural memory, voyage and ancestry and challenge traditional perspectives on Aboriginal art” (quoted by Sutton 2013). Each garment has a tag attached to it that tells the concept and story associated with it:

The connection with Aboriginal art seems to have been a tactic of assimilation. Fashion has allowed her to weave two cultures into one; the intricate patterns of Aboriginal artists manufactured with the careful skill of Indian craftsmen. (Brient 2013)

According to Pemmaraju, the artists and artisans in both communities are pleased with the collaboration because it enables them “to engage with the wider world” via “a positive interaction with the rest of the world” (Cecilia Alfonso, Warlukurlangu manager, quoted by Brient 2013). Despite her success and high profile, Pemmaraju has had difficulty establishing a viable business model. Although stocked by major department stores as high-end fashion, sales of her designs have flagged, and the costs of maintaining collaborations, and of design, manufacturing, and distribution have not proved viable. Pemmaraju has sought partnerships with start-up creative entities to develop the concept behind the brand.

Figure 5.1. AKIN Collection 2012 collaborative fashion project:

AKIN Collection 2012 collaborative fashion project:

Top designed by Shea Cameron; pants designed by Georgia Grainger; textiles designed by Napoleon Oui; photography by Michael Greves. Courtesy of QUT Creative Enterprise Australia.

Australian indigenous and non-indigenous collaboration in design, production, promotion, and distribution

The AKIN collaboration is, in some ways, a continuation of the collaborations of Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson with Aboriginal communities and artists. In this case, the Creative Enterprise initiative of the Queensland University of Technology paired five indigenous artists[2] with five emerging fashion designers[3] through KickArts in Cairns (McBrierty 2013). The aim was to produce a catwalk collection from which to develop business models to take the collaborations further and ignite “an ongoing platform for indigenous artists and the Australian design community to work together” (Arts Queensland and Brisbane City Council 2013). The project grew out of concerns about previous use of Aboriginal motifs in fashion:

There is a history of indigenous artists in Australia being treated unethically; by misappropriation and misrepresentation of their work, inequity of payment for their creativity and little acknowledgement of their cultural contribution to collaborative fashion products sold globally. This has created an atmosphere of bad press for fashion, as well as a fear for emerging designers to include/collaborate with indigenous artists for textile prints. (McMahon, Morley, and Macnee 2012)

The result has been that many designers have looked outside Australia for sources of inspiration such that collaborations with indigenous designers and communities outside Australia have been easier and more successful. Not only does this undermine the potential for Australian indigenous fashion to “brand a truly unique Australian label in the international marketplace,” where fashion labels have engaged in collaborations, this has generally involved adapting “indigenous prints, for collections that have little acknowledgement of the artist’s contribution and strong branding for the label and/or fashion designer.” (McMahon, Morley, and Macnee 2012)

In order to redress this situation, the AKIN project sought to create an overarching brand that presented the collective work of the designers and in which each received equal payment and recognition. As part of the process of designing a collection, participants were trained in supply chain logistics, costing, time management, collection “ranging,” and textile-printing processes. The outcomes were well received by the media and public, and have produced “an ethical template for other indigenous artists and emerging designers to create fashion collections that offer a unique aesthetic that could position and brand Australian fashion in the international marketplace” (McMahon, Morley, and Macnee 2012).

Figure 5.2. AKIN Collection 2012 collaborative fashion project:

AKIN Collection 2012 collaborative fashion project:

Top and pants designed by Shea Cameron, and textiles by Tommy Pau; coat and visor designed by Monique White, and textiles by Arone Meeks; photography by Michael Greves. Courtesy of QUT Creative Enterprise Australia.

The result was a collection of distinctive fabrics featuring indigenous-inspired prints which could mix and match in outfits that combined “classic tailoring techniques and loose form silhouettes” with the resulting collection being “wearable, functional and full of modern Australian heritage” (McBrierty 2013). The AKIN collection became a centerpiece of the inaugural Australian indigenous Fashion Week, in 2014, and it was subsequently invited to show in a fashion event in Indonesia. The result has been judged as successful and as “an equal exchange between indigenous artists and Non-indigenous designers” (Arts Queensland and Brisbane City Council 2013).

Figure 5.3. AKIN Collection 2012 collaborative fashion project:

AKIN Collection 2012 collaborative fashion project:

Shirt, shorts, and scarf designed by Hayley Elsaesser; textiles designed by Sharon Phineasa; photography by Michael Greves. Courtesy of QUT Creative Enterprise Australia.

Australian non-indigenous designers inspired by global exotic and popular culture references using diverse collaborations with artists, designers, and cultural workers

The final example is the label Romance Was Born, a collaboration between Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales. In some ways, this is both a return to the heady Australiana days of the 1980s and also a new level of combining indigenous with a kaleidoscope of other cultural exotica and inspirations (English and Pomazan 2010; Romance Was Born 2014). Launched in 2005, the designers have been inspired to push the boundaries of fashion by creating vivid and outlandish theatrical pieces for collections, which have been launched in spectacular promotional shows and installations.

These non-indigenous Australian designers are inspired by a myriad of cultural references, motifs, images, and icons including a strong connection with kitsch Australiana. By the use of craft techniques ranging from the simple to the complex, and intrigued by the theatricality of costume, Romance Was Born collaborates with artists, singers, designers, and celebrities to produce distinctive one-off pieces that are outlandish yet wearable:

We like to think Romance Was Born has its own style or signature, with its own prints and cuts and shapes, and sometimes people find it hard to translate this when buying in a shop. (Quoted by M. Oakley Smith 2010: 274)

Although a niche label, by aligning themselves with the art world and performance events, the label has attracted national and international acclaim being included in diverse exhibitions, winning awards and being stocked in Australian and overseas fashion outlets. In 2014, they were commissioned to produce the children’s program to accompany the Jean-Paul Gaultier Exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (Story and Harvey 2014). In an earlier collaboration with fashion guru Jenny Kee and textile maverick Linda Jackson, the cultural currents of the 1980s fused with the spirit of the 2010s to create an invigorated revival of cultural Australiana and a projection of yet another phase of national cultural identity.

Australian indigenous Fashion Week 2014

Recognition that Australian indigenous fashion design has reached a new plateau came with the staging of the first Australian indigenous Fashion Week (AIFW), in Sydney, in April 2014. Although there had been indigenous designs and designers represented in previous fashion weeks and events, this was the first dedicated fashion event specifically to showcase an emerging generation of indigenous Aboriginal textile and fashion designers as well as models. The event was a signal that the fashion world was acknowledging the rich cultural and creative potential as inspiration for fashion design. As one commentator reflected:

Australia’s indigenous people are synonymous with a rich cultural palette that is both elusive and enchanting. Their intensely spiritual stories of the Dreamtime, vibrant music and eclectic artistry, pay homage to the world’s oldest enduring culture […] However, when it comes to that small, cultural signature we call fashion, far less is known about the native flare of Aboriginal Australians. But that is about to change. (Willis 2012)

This was a new chapter in indigenous design. Indigenous motifs have recurred in Australian design historically and contemporaneously, most notably in the Balarinji-designs painted on Qantas planes in the 2000s, and the recent reinvention of the craft of making possum skin cloaks, which have become a feature of Aboriginal elders during the openings of sporting and parliamentary opening ceremonies. However, these have been exceptions and symbols of indigenous identity rather than as part of the grammar of Australian design more generically: “What is more difficult is determining the nature of the relationship between contemporary indigenous designers and the design world at large” (Cook 2014). Russell Cook argues that the Bauhaus heritage in design practice marginalized Aboriginal design to the point where it “is hardly ever referred to as such, and is often dismissed as craft or art” (Cook 2014).

The advent of AIFW has been welcomed as an important step in the recognition of the legitimacy of contemporary Aboriginal design as a legitimate art form and creative practice alongside its inclusion in the “art world” as paintings, ceramics, and textiles:

The recent shift in the fashion world towards supporting contemporary Aboriginal designers is a powerful step in the right direction. AIFW will further raise the profile of Aboriginal designers and Aboriginal fashion models—not as a cultural curio but as engaged with design and fashion as anyone else working in the industry.

What was until now seen as a customary creative practice can today be accepted as a dynamic modern fashion movement. (Cook 2014)

Under the tagline, “It’s not just dots,” AIFW showcase the designs of established and recent designers and labels including Desert Designs (and Jimmy Pike), Grace Lee (sophisticated silhouettes with indigenous-inspired fabrics), Mia Brennan (Mimi Designs featuring silk and leather dresses in indigenous-inspired fabrics), Lucy Simpson (Gaawaa Miyay Designs creating textiles and fashion), Shaun Edwards (Wild Barra swimwear, shorts and T-shirts), Letticia Shaw (Ticia label), Lyn-Al Young (silk sheaths and leather harnesses), and the AKIN collection (Behrendt 2014). The resulting show presented a:

smorgasbord of styles reflect[ing] the diversity of indigenous cultures across Australia. Indigenous design and handicrafts inspired bold prints, chunky knotted and woven fabrics, carved and painted soft leathers and references to the dhari, the striking ceremonial headdresses of the Torres Strait Islands. (Behrendt 2014)

The best known of the designers was Desert Designs, a collaboration between non-indigenous design teachers Steve Culley and David Wroth, and Aboriginal prisoner and artist Jimmy Pike (Wells 2011). Established in the 1980s, it has become a fixture in embodying the mainstream fashion and interior design possibilities of indigenous inspiration by translating artworks into textiles for fashion, accessories, and interior design (such as carpets and rugs). The inspiration has been the interpretation of the culture and visuals of landscape in vibrant colors which have been commercialized to provide economic return to Pike and other collaborators.

The brand has recently been revitalized by a new generation of directors (notably Jedda-Daisy Culley and Caroline Sundt-Wells) and a group of Aboriginal artists with new licensing agreements (Chandra 2013). The success of the label has stemmed from the strength of the artwork: “Jimmy Pike’s designs were vivid, dynamic and ground-breaking in their use of non-traditional colors” (quoted in Wells 2011). The collection shown at AIFW was perhaps the most outstanding show revealing the depth of inspiration that this label had achieved. Overall, the event was judged a success.

The aim of the AIFW was to take indigenous fashion from a “cottage” industry to the “next phase” of mainstream fashion by mentoring emerging indigenous fashion designers and introducing them to the mainstream industry and its business practices with the aim of taking “one step closer to a moment when indigenous fashion is a central element of Australian style” (Behrendt 2014). It is now expected to become an annual fixture depending on sponsorship.

Reactions to AIFW were generally positive, although fashion retail experts cautioned that indigenous artworks as the basis of design was not sufficient to create marketable fashion garments. Rather, designs also had to offer consumers something distinctively different in terms of fashion language. As David Bush, former GM of David Jones, commented: “There’s plenty of lovely art, but art doesn’t necessarily translate into fashion” (quoted by Lobban 2014). Spelling out what this meant, fashion cognoscenti Nancy Pilcher, former VP at Condé Nast (Asia Pacific), reflected:

“From my perspective, I think the print is one thing but the design is vital [...] There’s no doubt the prints are amazing, but if it’s done in a way that doesn”t suit the fashion trends, no one is going to buy it […] There is a future here. There is a story and the Indigenous know how to tell a story through their art […] There has to be a plan to take it forward. These Indigenous designers have to be guided. It has to be fashionable. It needs to have the edge that makes it interesting for the global fashion world.” (Quoted by Lobban 2014)

Nonetheless, the consensus was that the event succeeded in creating a new and distinctive design language for indigenous fashion. As founder of AIFW Krystal Perkins put it, the catwalk collections combined traditional story telling with indigenous skills to create fashion garments with a strong emphasis on sustainability of culture and fashion. Although the event was deemed a success, the AIFW subsequently went into liquidation with significant debts and a repeat fashion week seems unlikely in the near future.

The cultural politics of exotic fashion and inspiration

This chapter has demonstrated that Australian indigenous fashion design has a strong creative potential that challenges dichotomous and linear assumptions about the domain of fashion as exclusively Eurocentric versus “dress” practices in other cultures, times, and places. Instead fashion sensibilities are global as well as being nuanced to simultaneously incorporate global trends while incorporating specific themes, symbols and cultural references that are unique to each locality. Understanding global fashion, therefore, involves unpacking the interplay between the global and the local in the production of multiple and competing fashion systems that exhibit hybridity, cultural borrowing, invention and reinvention.

To begin that process, future researchers need to investigate some key questions that dog the rich state of indigenous fashion design. These include: How should we define innovation in fashion design as compared with revivals and reworkings of previous designs? Where is the dividing line between inspiration and appropriation with regard to the use of indigenous motifs, designs and themes? Why are some indigenous designs regarded as generic symbolism and thus “available” for use as inspiration and manipulation while other motifs and designs are deemed to have specific owners with rights over intellectual property and thus the use of these images? While these issues are specifically related to design protocols and cultural integrity, they are embedded in wider issues of sustainability and ethics. These involve a myriad of complex pressing concerns about the politics of fair trade, ethical and environmentally friendly sourcing and supply chains, strategies of licensing, collaborations, codes of conduct, codes of authenticity, and the outsourcing of specialist skills to subcontracted artisans in developing countries.


This chapter has traced the narratives of Australian culture and national identity through the changing references to, and uses of, exotic motifs and themes in fashion design. It has shown that fashion design is now structured by narratives of relational and transnational fusions that reflect new cultural alignments and assertions. These stem from new cultural politics that underpin deeper issues than just body-clothes relationships in the global fashion wardrobe and, in the case of Australia, have changed the conceptual basis of national identity to place indigenous culture at the heart rather than on the periphery.


[1] A version of this chapter was presented at the 3rd Fashion in Fiction Conference, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, June 12–14, 2014.

[1] A version of this chapter was presented at the 3rd Fashion in Fiction Conference, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, June 12–14, 2014.

[2] Arone Meeks, Napoleon Oui, Sharon Phineasa, Tommy Pau and Margaret Mara.

[3] Monique White, Georgia Grainger, Hayley Elsaesser, Shea Cameron and Samantha Delgos.


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