Rewind: Image Codes, Art about Fashion: The FDC and the ‘Precocious Polemics of Fashion’

Image Codes, installation view, ACCA, 1985. Courtesy ACCA Archive

By Julia Powles

Emerging out of the anarchic energy of late 70’s punk, the Melbourne fashion scene in the early 80’s was raw, inventive and disrespectful. This was a period of great fluidity with blurred boundaries between fashion, craft, art and music. People defined their own styles by combining clothes from various periods; op-shop dressing was de rigueur, androgyny was in, and guys wouldn’t leave home without their eyeliner. Many fashion designers had originally trained as artists, and artists often worked as designers. This period saw the emergence of Martin Grant, Nick Cave and The Boys Next Door (The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds), and the arrival of New-Wave music. At times clothing looked more like art than anything else.

Revolt into Style (video still). Courtesy SBS

Out of this very street-based culture the Fashion Design Council of Australia (FDC) was formed, an organisation dedicated to promoting and supporting new and innovative Australian fashion. Established in 1983 with a grant from the Victorian Ministry for the Arts, the FDC was co-founded by designers Robert Pearce and Robert Buckingham. In a recent SBS documentary, Revolt into Style, Pearce recalls that the FDC was formed out of a frustration; “I was just so sick of tracksuits… and two-tone polyester suits”. In the same documentary Buckingham summed up the organisation’s impetus: “to show those smug old bastards what can happen!”

Revolt into Style (video still). Courtesy SBS

For ten years the FDC’s annual fashion parades, held at St Kilda venues such as the now lost Earl’s Court, Seaview Ballroom and The Venue, were the alternative fashion industry events of the year. Young designers vied to be included with well-known fashion radicals such as Jenny Bannister and Kate Durham. FDC also produced the ground-breaking FASHION 84 HEROIC FASHION. This catwalk parade melded fashion, painting, sculpture and music. Spectacle, pastiche and voyeurism, it enveloped audiences in an experience that was part ‘happening’ and part exhibition.

In 1984 I was a 16 year old undertaking my Year 10 work experience with Kate Durham. I helped fill orders for her extraordinary jewellery made from an amalgam of non-precious materials that included (if I remember correctly) Pal Meaty Bites. I also worked as a ‘dresser’ backstage on the FASHION 84 parade. It was an exotic, chaotic, brightly coloured, smoke haze world filled with beautiful naked women, make up artists and enormous teased hairdos. Every now and again someone ‘famous’ would wander through. As I zippered people into shimmering dresses with exaggerated shoulder pads and lace up ankle boots, I remember thinking that Malcolm McLaren’s video clip Buffalo Gals had nothing on this.

Christopher Makos, Altered Image 6/35 1989. Courtesy the artist

In this context, ACCA’s 1985 exhibition Image Codes, curated by Robert Pearce of the Fashion Design Council, was entirely apposite. It sought to capture the mutability of the time and featured works by Polly Borland, Jon Cattapan, Sarah Curtis, Peter Ellis, Ashley Evans, Flamingo Terry, Maria Kozic, Phillip le Masurier, John Matthews, Shane McGowan, Kathy McKinnon, Robert Pearce, Rosslynd Piggott, Randelli (Robert Randall and Frank Bendinelli), Vivienne Shark LeWitt, Bruce Slorach, Robyn Stacey, Tra Fashion Video, Peter Tully, Ania Walwicz and Jenny Watson, amongst others.

Pearce’s brief to the participating artists was that the exhibition should “be as volatile and diverse as possible… a comment about Fashion, Fashions, Fashionability and the Concept of Fashion”. The exhibition was opened by Monash University lecturer, Memory Holloway, followed by ‘guest’ speaker, UK artist Duggie Fields who appeared via video. Fields’ blend of pop painting and fashion had recently featured in various works with contemporary cult figures such as Roxy Music and Zandra Rhodes. For Image Codes in Melbourne he presented a ‘special Duggie Fields art-scratching video’. Other international artists in the exhibition included Katsu Yoshida who exhibited charcoal drawings of rap dancers and Christopher Makos who exhibited five photographs of Andy Warhol in drag. All in all Image Codes captured Melbourne’s frenzied creative zeitgeist and championed FDC’s desire to keep fashion front and centre.

Bookending years working as an artist, curator and teacher, Julia Powles is currently interning on ACCA’s online archive project as part of ACCA’s First 30 Years Program.


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