If you have not yet read it, let me be the first to tell you. Caroline Overrington’s article in The Australian dated 29 January 2018 is a perplexing read. One which might even leave you wondering what has got her knickers in a knot and her trousers in such a twist?
In the article, ‘DFAT exhibition showcasing ‘modest Australian fashion’ does not represent us’ she describes how the Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), has marketed Australia’s face to the world to both Malaysia and Indonesia, showcasing “modest Australian fashion” to appeal to the diverse cultures of the Asia Pacific region.
This, she claims is not representative of the vast majority of Australia. However, her anger seems to be diluted by an insensitive eye for cultural diversity. Moreover, her argument shows little regards for the intermingling of global culture and fashion.
The East has long influenced Western culture, a recent example of this can be seen by Zara’s lungi or sarong lookalike which has been worn by parts of South East Asian, East Africa and the Arab world for generations.
Having personally visited the Malaysian exhibition, I cannot fathom how Overrington could come to such a conclusion.
Being the first exhibitions of its kind, titled ‘‘Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia’ at the Malaysia’s Islamic Arts Museum displays an elegant collection of diverse well-regarded women.
Some examples include Aheda Zanetti creator of the ‘burqini’ swimsuit, Dr Susan Carland an academic and media commentator, and Mecca Laalaa Australia’s first Muslim surf lifesaver.
The exhibition showcases diversity styles displaying the vast array of multicultural backgrounds within Australia.
So when Overrington exclusively says, ‘modest Australian fashion does not represent us’, who exactly does she consider to be Australian to begin with?
Modest fashion does not simply constitute Islamic tradition but also represents local conservative dress around the world. In actuality, conservative dress once regarded as ”less than cool” is now en vogue.
According to Forbes, modest fashion made an estimated 243 billion dollars in purchases in 2015. Mass-market retailers and designers have taken notice too, adding modest fashion wear to their collections of hijabs and clothing apparel.
Consequently, major designers such as DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta, Uniglo, Zara, H&M and Dolce & Gabbana have recognised the global appetite for modest fashion.
This appetite can best be explained by the fashion designer Coco Chanel that ‘In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different’ and that is exactly what modest fashion truly is. It is different.
What seems most strange about Overrington’s article, however that she comes to the conclusion that modest fashion somehow constitutes an offensive language to those that do not espouse to such a wardrobe?
When in fact, no one said that. Accusations of immodesty have little to do with regional engagement, if at all.
A more important question to ask would be, if not fashion, how else should we seek to engage with our region?
Unlike other tools of diplomacy, cultural diplomacy can have a powerful influence on the globe as seen by Bollywood and Asian Pop.
Yet, if Overrington thinks that money is the only thing which speaks to our region, well than, think again.
In fact, the most visible signs I noted while in Malaysia was the branding of ‘Australian beef’ in Malaysian charcoal buns, watching Australian Masterchef on television and the influence of our strong cafe culture; but not much else.
Is there a more effective and efficient way of conducting cultural diplomacy to appeal to millions of Muslims, Christians, Buddhist and Hindus in our region that ascribe and adopt diverse traditional dress styles?
Setting aside preconceived notions of what fashion looks like, the question remains in Australia, in the pageant of ‘Who wore it better?’; can anyone truly represent the diverse multicultural face of Australia at all?