On August 18, 2016, Australian Feminist Studies will celebrate the publication of their recent Special Issue: Germaine Greer at the University of Technology Sydney. Petra Mosmann’s article about Greer’s paisley coat features in this edition.
You may well remember Germaine Greer’s controversial comment about Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s jacket. Or, perhaps you only remember half of it. It was memorable because Greer went on to say that Gillard had a ‘big arse’. On March 19, 2012, Greer was discussing Gillard’s political performance on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Q&A. Quite suddenly she stated: ‘What I want her [Gillard] to do is get rid of those bloody jackets!’ The audience laughed and Tony Jones quipped: ‘She should go to him [Rudd] for political advice and you for fashion advice?’ Greer replied:
No, it’s not even fashion. They don’t fit. Every time she turns around, you’ve got that strange horizontal crease, which means they’re cut too narrow in the hips. You’ve got a big arse, Julia, just get on with it [audience laughs and applauds].
Many feminists responded to Greer’s comment with a mixture of bewilderment and outrage. Even though several years have passed, repeating these words in this blog post still makes me feel slightly uneasy. The comment was predictably used to ridicule and attack Gillard. So, what was Greer thinking?
Anthea Taylor argues that Greer plays ‘the unruly woman’ when appearing on television; Greer often uses humorous acts of disobedience to circulate and practice a particular feminism. When discussing Gillard, Greer was making a particularly risky joke, but her assessment of Gillard’s jacket as fitting poorly reflects something not widely known: Greer is actually a skilled dressmaker and collects textiles. Greer’s comment on Gillard needs also to be thought of in this context.
While Julia Gillard’s jacket is only mentioned briefly in my recent article in Australian Feminist Studies, Gillard’s jacket has come up in several of my conversations about Greer’s coat.
Greer has a long and complex relationship with fashion. In 2010, she donated this coat and shawl fragment to the National Museum of Australia (NMA) in Canberra. Greer sewed the coat herself in 1969, using fabric cut from the large paisley patterned shawl. The coat is an example of late 1960s and early 1970s counter-culture fashion. She wore the coat for well-known photographs published in Life and in Vogue magazine in 1971 and often wore it during her US tour promoting The Female Eunuch (1970).
Since 2013, Greer’s coat has been on display at the NMA in the Journeys gallery, a gallery dedicated to presenting Australia in a transnational context. The same cabinet exhibiting the coat also features dresses worn by1961 and 1962 contestants in Miss Australia and Miss International. The two exhibitions were developed separately, but when I viewed Greer’s coat alongside a display about Miss Australia, I couldn’t help but see connections.
Viewing Tania Verstak’s dress (winner of Miss Australia Quest 1961 and Miss International 1962) alongside Greer’s unquestionably fashionable coat prompted questions about the relationship between fashion and second-wave feminism. Feminists primarily remember the relationship between fashion and the second wave via protests about beauty competitions, with the 1968 ‘No More Miss America!’ protest in Atlantic City still looming large. However, I think we can understand Greer as a feminist fashion icon.
Fashion scholar Pamela Church Gibson cites Greer as the ‘dominant figure in defining feminist anti fashion rhetoric’. My somewhat cheeky, potentially controversial claim that we can read Greer (via her coat) as a feminist fashion icon seeks to draw attention firstly to Greer’s complex relationship with fashion and textiles, but more generally seeks to complicate how we remember second-wave feminism.
Throughout much of her writing, Greer is critical of fashion. The Female Eunuch suggested women abandon fashion trends; they should dress creatively to please themselves and avoid participation in the fashion system. By the publication of The Whole Woman (1999), Greer no longer imagined that women could avoid fashion. Instead, she argued that clothing is not made for women’s bodies, and that women must modify themselves to fit both an impossible norm and a standardised set of measurements.
This point is echoed in Greer’s assessment of Gillard’s jacket. Although often critical of fashion, much of her commentary on dress is infused with play and satire. Given that Greer often parodied fashion in her writing practices, it seems possible that this was her intention when posing for Vogue and Life. These images emphasise that feminism is pleasurable, sexually liberating, stylish and has a sense of humour. However, this nexus is produced in a specific historical context and is tied to the emergence of the ‘feminist-as-lesbian figure’ in public cultures. The coat’s collection and exhibition by the NMA evokes this context.
As Jane Goodall observes, when Greer mentioned Gillard’s jacket on Q&A she missed an opportunity to meaningfully rethink the relationship between women, style and power. The connection between power and style is reflected in Australian museum collections. The NMA and the Museum of Australian Democracy (MOAD) both have a significant number of items of dress from retired political figures.
MOAD holds the dress worn by Govenor-General Quentin Bryce at the swearing in of Gillard in 2010. The NMA holds Senator Natasha Stott Despoja’s leather backpack, used as an alternative to the handbag or brief case and Carmen Lawrence’s spectacles worn before she became Premier of Western Australia. She acquired a more fashionable pair when she became Premier. These are intimate public things that reveal a great deal about the women who wore them, kept them, and then chose to donate them to a museum. Each reflects a specific negotiation of the relationship between femininity, power and style.
As far as I know, Gillard has not donated anything from her wardrobe to a museum collection. I don’t imagine she is likely to do so – dress always seemed incidental to her negotiation of public life. In 2013, MOAD acquired a photograph of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The photograph was taken by Sophie Deane, a 12 year-old girl with Down Syndrome. Captured when Gillard and Victorian Premier Denis Napthine signed the National Disability Insurance Scheme, it features one of her collarless jackets, which is largely irrelevant to any interpretation of the image. These types of social politics were far more important to Gillard than anything else, which is partly what makes Greer’s comments on her jacket, and indeed her shape, all the more shocking.
When Greer was asked what she would like to donate to the Australian feminist memory collection commissioned by the NMA, she chose to be remembered by her homemade paisley coat. To date, Greer’s coat is the only item identified by the project to be collected. Greer’s coat is an evocative acquisition, but it potentially raises eyebrows – it is itself perhaps another moment when Greer is performing ‘the unruly woman’. The coat tends to disrupt memories and perceptions of second-wave feminism and asks questions about how we remember Greer and 1970s feminisms.
Petra Mosmann is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of History and International Relations at Flinders University in South Australia. Her current research explores the relationship between Australian feminist collection practices and histories. Petra has been a member of the Australian Women’s History Network’s Lilith Editorial Collective since 2013. Her article “A feminist fashion icon: Germaine Greer’s paisley coat” appeared in Australian Feminist Studies in 2016.
Follow Petra on Twitter @petra_mosmann.