When you’re up to your tiara in frockerama, it’s easy to forget VAMFF‘s Arts programme is its own vast calender of scintillating off-sites, exhibitions and sundry pop-ups sprinkled across Melbourne. For Voxfrock, the programme’s pinnacle is the Melbourne Museum‘s You Can’t Do That exhibition which tonight – special treat – will open for free/nix/nyetcost from 5 until 8pm. with drinks at bar prices. It’s the museum’s Fashion After Dark kneezup and, considering the proximity of VAMFF’s Plaza just a short spit and stiletto-wobble away, is destined to go off among punters up for a bubble and a squiz. For the curious, here is Janice Breen Burns’ feature on the exhibition and mavericks behind it, first published by Fairfax and in The Saturday Age Spectrum arts and culture magazine (longform: allow 10 minutes read time)

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Just once, supermodel Andreja Pejic flirted fleetingly with the idea of vanishing into the suburban ether. Eight years ago, on the lip of a modelling career that could still go either way; fly or flop, she mused about transitioning to full womanhood then marrying a nice bloke, maybe a tradie.

Quiet wife, quiet life.

But – and this is the rhetorical question fizzing behind an off-beat exhibition opened at Melbourne Museum this week – what if she had disappeared? What then for the warrior-queen-changing-the-world-one-catwalk-at-a-time character that she’d slipped on like a second skin since being “discovered” flipping Big Macs part time in her final year at University High?

The rebel role had dropped heavily around the young gender-fluid beauty’s shoulders. She hadn’t sought or asked for it, but her peculiar birthright: a girl born into the body of a gobsmackingly pretty boy, foisted it on her anyway.

In 2010, Pejic, the fashion career fledgeling, was already cracking moulds in London, Paris and Tokyo, including modelling both menswear and womenswear in the same season. Then in 2011, Jean Paul Gaultier cast her to slither along his haute couture runway in the show’s bridal pinnacle, a banded white goddess gown and towering mohawked feather headdress. It was an amazing moment. Ostensibly, she was still a boy (Pejic didn’t undergo transition surgery for another two years) but – boy oh boy – was she almost-every-inch a woman too.

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Fashion’s axis tilted. “Diversity” and “reality” were its buzzwords du jour and no one was more perfectly poised than Pejic to exploit that precise, ripe moment in history when global outrage about fashion’s narrow definitions of “normal” and “aspirational” were at such a tipping point.

Needless to say, Pejic shelved the easy life idea and squared up for both a glamourous career and its inevitable battles: “I’m living in a time where the paradigm is shifting,’ says the soft-spoken, fully transitioned young woman now, “And I’m lucky to be at the forefront. We need people to push boundaries, to push culture forward.”

Pejic is now signed to the legendary Ford Model agency in New York (“But I’m a Melbourne gal..”), regularly criss-crosses the planet to walk elite brand runways, has been photographed and profiled by fashion’s glossiest media, and battles on, without fuss, for every kind of human being to be reflected by her industry; gender, age, weight, race, ability, whatever, notwithstanding.

“I’ve been told “you can’t do that” many times throughout my career,” she says, “‘You can’t (model) both menswear and womenswear, you can’t transition to womanhood because that will ruin your career, you shouldn’t hope to have a long-lasting career, you’re too tall, too skinny, not skinny enough, you’re too weird, you’re not weird enough, you’re too masculine, not masculine enough, too feminine, not feminine enough…..”


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Pejic pushed through it all and now personifies every inspirational notion that curator Michael Reason could possibly have hoped to mesh into You Can’t Do That, the Melbourne Museum’s ground-breaking exhibition opened on the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival’s arts programme calendar.

“Rebels like Andreja are part of the natural process of cultural evolution,” Reason says, “Without them, we’d just stop; we’d all be Amish. We need disruptors; people brave enough to stand up and get past our eye-rolling, to inspire us to break with the past and move forward to more fairness, to more freedom of expression, to better human rights, a better world, basically…”

Reason’s You Can’t Do That rebels are all from fashion, a realm he admits is already the butt of much eye-rolling for its apparent triviality. But he has a rebuttal ready for any nit-pickers who would question fashion’s legitimacy in a museum. “There’s a lot of prejudice against (fashion) for whatever reasons but for me, it’s the number one material object you go to if you want to study a particular time and place,” he says. “(Art) Galleries have already accepted that (fashion’s) a legitimate form of art and design and worthy to be studied and exhibited in that context. But we go to its social context, its social history; the “who wore that?”, “why did they wear that?”, “where did they wear that…?””

Reason and his team cherry-picked rebels exclusively from Melbourne fashion’s timeline whose push-pull lives of disruption and rebellion distilled easily into the exhibition’s title, You Can’t Do That! and its intrinsic message; “Yes you can”. Eight key installations tracked the stories of those who did.

Prue Acton in action

Prue Acton in action

Designers Prue Acton, Jenny Bannister and Christopher Graf, for example, triggered radically altered states of fashion in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and 90s still resonating today. Australia’s first indigenous fashion model, Lois Peeler, played a cultural bridging role in the 1960s that was largely lost in the mists until now. Fashion maven Stella Dare, also little known today but whose story and oeuvre is also being researched and teased out by local historian Tom McEvoy, was a powerful interpreter of global fashion trends for Australian women’s tastes in the 1950s. And, a brace of contemporary local ateliers and small manufacturers – Tiffany Treloar, Lois Hazel, and Nobody Denim among them – were included to plot the swelling counter-revolution known as “slow fashion” still actively evolving against unethical, non-sustainable and exclusively profit-driven fashion business practices.

Lois Peeler (nee Briggs)

Lois Peeler (nee Briggs)

“All rebels have had to find that magic point between what’s maybe a nutty idea at first, and the mainstream,” Reason says. “That’s part of the process too. If something’s just too wild or shocking, it’s going to fizzle, it won’t find its following and it won’t change anything.”

The trick creatives learn, is to smother criticism, or grow a thick enough skin to deflect it, or to simply battle on in anger, as some do, clashing with critics until their genius is recognised and a shift begins. It takes all types, in other words, to effect a seismic socio-cultural shift.

Designer Jenny Bannister for example, remembers her earliest critic, the one who unwittingly taught her her first trick of dealing with disapproval, was her mother. “She wanted me to be all “pearls and twinsets”,” Bannister laughs, “All I wanted to be was cool and fabulous.”

You Can’t Do That includes a glorious little example of one creative clash on the Bannisters’ Mildura farm, a tiny mini skirt Bannister made when she was 14. “Mum said “you’re not wearing that!” and threw it in the incinerator,” Bannister says, “Then, when she died, we found it in all these cases she’d stored away; she hadn’t burnt it after all.”

From childhood and into her teens, Bannister whipped up fashions that shocked her mother’s comparatively delicate sensibilities. And some, unlike the mini, were actually consigned to the family farm’s incinerator; “I learnt from that,” says a forgiving daughter now. “I learnt; don’t tell mum anything!”

Later, in a career spanning 30 years, Bannister applied the lesson; to avoid criticism wherever possible. “Mum asked me when I started my business if I wanted some money to help,” she recalls. “And I just said, “No thanks Mum” because I knew she’d be in there telling me what to do and that was; “No Way!”.”

Jenny Bannister, second from right

Jenny Bannister, second from right

Instead, Bannister learnt to improvise, a creative alternative to compromise, even refusing to sell to Myer and David Jones unless it was on her terms. Once, she continued merrily churning out more of a signature line of plastic, paint-spattered ballerina dresses despite being cautioned by one industry doyenne that she’d starve if she did.

Bannister surrounded herself with supportive, like-minded creatives and veered away from people and business models that could assert control and compromise her artistic freedom. A near-unshakeable self-belief didn’t hurt either: “Some of the (creative) journeys I’ve been on, I’ve taken because I had to improvise, to get around being criticised,” she says. “That’s what’s made me one in a billion!”

Two years ago, Bannister donated the bulk of her archive including 250 items, to the Melbourne Museum and Reason was grateful for the gift. Fashion legend Prue Acton’s archive of 350 items, anchored in the revolutionary 1960s when she had slammed through a tsunami of obstacles to become Australia’s first wildly successful international fashion brand, was already a pillar of the museum’s social history collections. Now, the oeuvre of a woman who leveraged Melbourne’s seminal era of free-wheeling creativity in the 1970s, who was also a pioneer of upcycling (re-purposing used garments into new designs) and wearable artworks, many meticulously constructed in counter-intuitive materials and found objects, was the next natural link.

After Bannister, designer Christopher Graf’s battle with Melbourne’s fashion establishment straddles the 1980s and 90s and is one of the exhibition’s more intriguing stories. It begins with Graf as a precocious 15 year old, seething with creative ideas, storming out of high school, disgusted that his plan to “revolutionise the funeral industry” was scoffed at by a careers councillor. “No one got it,” laments Graf now. “It was a defiant thing, a branding thing; to give people a creative (funeral) instead of a boring, corporate one. They’ve never got it. ”

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Too young to revolutionise anything, Graf walked up Toorak Road, South Yarra and into his first job. It was a high-end fashion atelier. Maybe the dream could spring from there. Within six months he had condensed the couture lessons learnt into his own tiny one-man (or rather, one-teen) brand. “I became a child of the Fashion Design Council,” he says of the cut-snake counter-cultural body set up in Melbourne in the 1980s to nurture the wildest concepts floating around fashion. “It was a time full of energy and rebellion and they supported me unquestionably.”

Beyond the FDC’s helicopter parenting however, Graf was as alone as any creative. “When you’re a control freak, you don’t get time off, you don’t have a life,” he laughs, “And I was; I was up at six, working till four am., being a jack of all trades, teaching myself everything I didn’t know, living on popcorn. Everything was exquisitely hand made.”

Graf’s fastidiously tailored, joyously candy-colored dresses and separates were also a revolution inside a revolution, making it triply difficult to lure wider industry support. “I wasn’t following the latest trend so I didn’t get the media attention,” he says. “It was all big black baggy clothes then, and my (aesthetic) was for women who wanted an escape into feminine fantasy.”

In fact it was a unique moment in fashion time, dominated by Japanese-inspired layers of black and charcoal, cut and draped around the body in complex ways that masked the silhouette. It was also the first time women could concentrate on their “cool” quotient and revel away from the so-called “male gaze” that had accentuated a revolving menu of their body parts – busts, waists, hips and legs – in womenswear for decades. They saw it as freedom.

Graf however, and a robust, growing niche market, didn’t. “Chapel Street was all about angry young women in cargo pants, muffin tops and bum cracks,” he jokes, “And these minimalist baggy Japanese clothes they had set out in concrete shops like bunkers.”

In an ironic nod to that early teen dream to revolutionise the funeral industry, he railed against the funereal fashions by building a temple to his counter-revolution, an extraordinary flagship shop on Chapel Street that is remembered almost as keenly as his designs. “A beautiful, calming, unique place,” he recalls. “A happy place, reeking femininity.”

In fact, the Christopher Graf store was wondrously wonky as a Hanna-Barbara cartoon, all lollypink and mango stripes, curlicued mirrors, chandelier and racks of his perfectly perfect clothes.

Women flocked, media fawned, and Graf, as many a creative does who has been marginalised for longer than they ever thought was fair enough, basked part smug, part angry, in the glory. “It was the jewel in the crown of Melbourne retail,” he says, “And it was a “F—- You!” to all the editors who’d not given me the recognition for so long…”

There are many ways, in other words, to say, “Yes I can”.

YOU CAN’T DO THAT, until July 15, Melbourne Museum, 11 Nicholson Street, Carlton.Admission with museum entry: $0-$15,