Visual Arts

Sydney Street Style

Sydney Street Style
By Vicki Karaminas, Justine Taylor and Toni-Johnson Woods
Photography by Kate Disher Quill

Is there such a thing as a Sydney street style, or a fashionable style that is distinctly Australian? Jennifer Craik believes that “fashion is seen as belonging to far flung cosmopolitan sites elsewhere” equally she says that “Australia has long been regarded as being cut off from the ‘finer things’ of civility, fashion and good taste” (Craik 2009). Why is it that mention of an Australian style conjures images of wide-brimmed Akubra hats, T-shirts, blue jeans and practical footwear such as thongs, sneakers and riding boots? Margaret Maynard notes the paradox in Australian fashion: we love to dress up and to dress down (Maynard 2001). And yet, contrary to widely held assumptions, there has been an interest in fashion and a thriving fashion industry since European colonization and settlement in Sydney Harbour.

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History as well as social and political movements have affected the development of the Australian way of life and nowhere is this best expressed than through the colourful, casual and comfortable approach to what is worn on the streets. Subcultural styles such as grunge and vintage teamed up with ready-to-wear labels by Australian designers Lisa Ho and Toni Maticevski to the more avant-garde fashion labels Romance was Born and OPUS 9 by Justine Taylor. What is considered to be a Sydney street style is eclectic and is evidenced in the various suburbs, quarters and districts that make up the locale of this thriving metropolis.

Early Settlement

Located on a coastal basin and nestled in a protective harbour, the city of Sydney is bordered by the Pacific Ocean in the East and by the Tasman Sea in the south. Colonized by the British in 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Port Jackson with the First Fleet consisting of 11 ships filled with convicts, sailors and free settlers with enough provisions to survive until they could grow their own food and raise livestock. Phillips’ orders were not to construct a great city, but to establish a penal settlement for British convicts to relieve the overcrowded prison conditions back in Britain. At the time of colonization, Sydney was home to the Eora and Gadigal peoples who had been the traditional owners of the lands for thousands of years. The effects of their dispossession and deaths brought about by unknown European diseases, battles and large-scale massacres were devastating.

In the years to come, the indigenous populations would dramatically decrease and those who survived were placed on reserves and missions. Young children were removed from their indigenous families and placed in institutions or as domestic servants in “white” communities. The aim of the Australian government was to create a single, uniform white Australian culture by “erasing” aboriginality that was founded on the assumption of black inferiority and white superiority. Assimilation policies proposed that eventually the indigenous communities would “die out” through natural selection. Known as the Stolen Generation, they would become part of the dark side of Australia’s history.

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For a period of time after the arrival of the First Fleet, civilian clothing and footwear were imported from Britain and consisted of ready-made items, fabrics and sewing accessories. Shortages in apparel were common in the early days of settlement as goods would often arrive by ships saturated in water, or their arrival would often be delayed by bad weather. Some supply vessels came from other British colonies, such as India and China, because of trade routes. Garments could also be purchased at government stores, but they were often of poor quality and ill fitting. It was not until 1813 that private enterprises began producing quality fabrics, and by 1820, small businesses were firmly established selling ready-made garments, hats, stockings and shoes. The majority of clothing was still made by tailors and dressmakers either from locally produced cotton or from imported fabrics.

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