A Thread Runs Through It: The wearable art movement

Wearable art is an exciting art form – fibre artists unleash their creativity and imagination using the human body as the canvas to make garments fantastical in form and concept.

Attracting entrants from all over the world, the annual World of WearableArt (WOW) started in New Zealand in 1987, and has grown to become what finalist, Grace DuVal describes as the “Olympics of Wearable Art”. Finalists’ costumes are presented in a spectacular theatrical show with music, dance, lighting, and special effects, involving a team of 350 cast and crew, with audiences of 60,000 people over three weeks.

In 2017 there were 104 finalist garments by 122 designers competing for 37 awards in 15 categories, with a prize pool totalling $160,200 (NZD). Prizes included professional development opportunities – an artist’s residency at Cirque du Soleil in Montreal, Canada, and an internship with Weta Workshop in Wellington, which made special effects, models and costumes for The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia and Avatar.

Artists draw upon an amazing variety of materials, including fabrics, bus tickets, bicycle spokes, inner tubes, light bulbs, balloons, and high tech materials such as LEDs and ultraviolet lights.

Amongst five Australian winning artists, R. R. Pascoe (NSW) won the International Award for Australia and Pacific with her costume, Mollusca, made from 300 metres of hemp braid, stitched, hand-pleated and sculpted into a shell-like garment. Svenja (QLD), a wearable art artist and 11-time finalist, won second place in the Weta Workshop: Science Fiction Section with Cordycephila, made of heat-distorted satin and acrylic paint. The costume represents an imaginary hybrid insect/fungi creature, evolving as the planet warms, the thriving cordyceps fungus growing spines that pierce through an insect’s iridescent shell.

Svenja, Cordycephila, (Image courtesy: World of WearableArt 2017)

In Tasmania, Burnie Arts Council and Burnie Regional Art Gallery hold an annual Paper on Skin, Wearable Paper Art Competition, building on the town’s papermaking history. Entries include forms sculpted from white paper, vividly coloured and patterned origami papers and paper napkins. Entrants of all ages include teens and tweens taking their first steps into the world of wearable art.

The creative flare of young and emerging artists is the WAVE (Wearable Arts Vision in Education) event at Shearwater Steiner School in Mullumbimby, NSW. Open to artists from across Australia, wearable art is presented in a musical/fashion show, with strong involvements by students in all aspects, including costume design, stage design, lighting, music, choreography, dancing and modelling, a wonderful example of cross-curricular studies. Seventeen-year-old student Oceana Piccone has submitted winning entries five years and entered the 2018 Wearable Art Mandurah competition in WA winning first prize for under-18s with Morphette, made from hundreds of plastic bags.

Oceana Piccone, Morphette. (Photo: Stephen Heath)

In 2016, Wearable Art Mandurah (WA) introduced Wearable Art Whispers, conceived by Anzara Clark. A collaborative, progressive garment was created by six textile artists from across Australia inspired by the mythical figure of La Mariposa, The Butterfly Woman. Each was asked to deliberately intervene in the work previously created by the other artists so that each element would be “distinct from, connected to, flow from and build upon what has already been created”.

For 2018, the theme was Skrydstrup Woman, referring to the remains of a Bronze Age woman, found in 1935 in a well-preserved, oak-coffin grave in a burial mound near Skrydstrup, Denmark. The remains of her clothing were badly-discoloured, but research by archaeologists suggests she was a member of the elite in her community. She wore a short-sleeved woven wool blouse with embroidered sleeves and neckline, and a piece of ankle-length fabric gathered by a belt at the waist. A pair of spiral gold earrings lay beside her head and a horn comb was attached to her belt. With no further information about her, the artists used imagination and textile skills to create a costume inspired by her Bronze Age origins.

Various artists, Skydstrup Woman

Jodie Davidson (WA) made a cloak from hand-dyed fabrics and stitched yarns. Carmel Ryan (NT) added lining and a skirt, recycling bronze green fabric from her daughter’s formal gown. She made a ceremonial belt hung with a reindeer, representing its importance as a traditional resource for food and clothing. Adelaide artist Cheryl Bridgart used free machine embroidery to produce a collar embellished with a deer head, and applied 110 handmade cords. Bronwyn Packwood (NT) created a headdress to symbolise the high status of Skrydstrup Woman, using wrapped and stitched up-cycled fabrics and found objects. Stephanie Reynolds (Tas) considered that Skrydstrup Woman was a bartered bride who had travelled far from her homeland. She created a bodice woven from two fibres with contrasting qualities to represent the effects of the woman’s journey on her increasingly worn clothing: soft silk suggesting fine clothing worn at the start of her journey and coarse flax used to patch the clothing with whatever plant fibre could be found. The final contribution to Skrydstrup Woman was by Sue Girak (WA) using stitching to connect with the components made earlier. As she worked, she reflected on those who knew the young woman, cherished her in life, and mourned her departure and death.

Wearable Art Whispers brings new dimensions to wearable art competitions, tying together work by artists across the country and linking them back in time, a reminder of the long history of textiles and their embellishment as clothing.

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