RMIT: Researchers step back in time in search of a more sustainable fashion future

Researchers from RMIT have turned their attention to one of Victoria’s best-known tourist attractions — the Sovereign Hill Living Museum in Ballarat — to explore how local and historic dress practices could be applied today to make the fashion industry more sustainable.

‘Wearing Out Sovereign’ is a research project led by Associate Professor Ricarda Bigolin with project collaborator PhD student researcher Chantal Kirby from the School of Fashion and Textiles and questions our relationships to local and overlooked histories and dress practices in Australia.

Bigolin said the aim of the project, which was selected to be part of the ‘Ways of Caring – Practicing Solidarity’ program at the international State of Fashion Festival, is to “discover what we can learn from dress practices of the past that can be applied now.”
“We’re really looking at the practices of the Sovereign Hill Living Museum and also the dress practices of 1850s colonial Australia in thinking through colonisation and about what we can learn from those dress practices that might contribute to different ways of thinking about garments and dressing in a contemporary context,” she said.

Bigolin said it is an important period to explore more deeply because it is also “related to Australia being a colonised country still unreconciled with indigenous sovereignty.”

“This complicated period is adjacent to the systematic dispossession of land endured by the traditional land owners and is symbolic with colonisation. It’s an important time to address in our discipline moving towards decolonisation in fashion,” she said.

As part of the project and in preparation for their presentation at the State of Fashion Festival on July 1, Bigolin and Kirby have been working closely with the Sovereign Hill Living Museum, which depicts the prosperous Gold rush period of the 1850s.
The research has been supported by Sovereign Hill by the advisor to the research Erin Santamaria, an RMIT Fashion Design alumni, who is currently Head of Rare Trades and Programming at the museum.

The museum is well-known for its historically recreated buildings and staff who reenact the life and trades of the period, in full reproduction historical costumes.

The Sovereign Hill costume department specialises in the rare trades associated with producing and caring for the costumes, that are worn, mended, repaired and adapted over decades and offer a palpable example of a more circular material economy.
“Some of the garments have been there from the 1970s and staff are still wearing them as part of the living museum, so they’re a real example in action of practising circularity and sustainability and as these costumes have such extended life cycles,” Bigolin said.
Bigolin added the research project is unique in that it uses “creative practice and ethnographic methods” to investigate the material circularity, values and performance of colonial costume housed in the Sovereign Hill dress and costume archive.
The ‘Wearing out Sovereign’ project also includes working with RMIT participants from the Performing Dress Lab, a PhD study group the School of Fashion and Textiles leads with the University of the Arts London (UAL) and Aalto University, Finland.
The pair’s two-hour presentation will be livestreamed from the RMIT city campus from 10.30am on July 1, alongside a select group of eight international researchers, fashion scholars, industry change makers, critical practitioners and advocates for systemic change.
It will feature a short film, which documents the costumes in performance at Sovereign Hill, some readings, live performances and several provocations designed to engage both local and international audiences.
The State of Fashion Festival takes place in the city of Arnhem, in the Netherlands, and is an exciting blueprint for a purpose driven fashion festival that seeks to focus on presentations and projects that target change and progress in the industry.
The ‘Ways of Caring’ program is part of the festival’s commitment to looking for ways to make the fashion industry more sustainable and caring.

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