May 15, 2012

AWRF 2012: Doris De Pont on Black

"I'm Josie McNaught. You may have heard my name." Was I the only one in the Art Gallery Auditorium to find this slightly off-putting as an opening line from an event chair? Well, from some chairs: to be fair, if it had been Len Brown making the quip, it would have been quite okay. And if everyone else found it unremarkable, I wonder if the list of Ms McNaught's own achievements and successes which followed didn't make them think again.

Eventually, however, we were given an introduction to the glamourous woman whom we had all come to hear, and could see sitting, poised, dressed in black, on one side of the stage, whereupon she stepped up to the microphone and quickly dissipated the off-key note of the "All about me" introduction with her intelligent, amusing and well-researched considerations on why we love to wear black.



Doris De Pont was at AWRF 2012 as the compiler of the book Black: the history of black in fashion, society and culture in New Zealand, exploring New Zealand's obsession with black through essays by people like Andrew Clifford, Chanel Clarke, and yes, Doris herself, which I'm proud to say received its Auckland launch at Central Library in March in the beautiful Whare Wānanga. It's a big, stylish, solid black book, full of great photographs of New Zealanders in black across the ages.

She has also been a highly original fashion designer and more recently, after getting a degree in Museums and Cultural Heritage, the founder of the New Zealand Fashion Museum. At this unique museum, which has no building, being instead an online presence, Doris curates online, travelling and pop-up exhibitions, including one called Black in Fashion which popped up in Wellington, visited in Auckland last year, and was also presented at the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

"The big problem with black is that it's an ambiguous colour", Doris observed. "For every meaning that you attribute to black, there's an opposite and contradictory meaning". In particular, she said, black through history has been both the colour of loss and the colour of gain, or, "as I like to call it", Dying to Dyeing. Prior to 1856, it was very hard to get a good rich black by dyeing, so only the well-to-do could afford to dress in black, and they did, not only for mourning. She illustrated this with a photo from the book of Queen Victoria dressed in black, with Prince Albert by her side, still very much alive, and numerous of their children gathered around, likewise alive and likewise mostly dressed in black. When the first synthetic dyes came out in 1856, black became affordable to all, but continued to be a colour which upheld status and wealth.

Māori also adopted black for mourning, she thinks perhaps from their special relationship with Queen Victoria, their partner in the Treaty. She showed a beautiful photo by Peter Drury of Māori kuia at the Tangihanga for their Queen, with their heads adorned with seaweed and greenery, and black veils.

With the arrival of washing machines, all colours became equal. Black became the colour of authority (police) or anti-authority (rockers, punks, bikers and gangs). We got to see a great photo of the New Zealand Chapter of the California Hell's Angels posed in front of the War Memorial Musuem, all in black leather jackets, except one poor guy -- I'm still wondering what happened to his. We saw Fred's black singlet, a woman with Stevie Nicks hair power-dressing in the 1980s in a black Thornton Hall suit, and Rugby players in the 1880s, the "NZ Natives" team, who were the first to choose black jerseys on the occasion of an English tour in the 1880s, where all the other colours were already taken by the various British teams they'd be playing against.

The illustrated walk through place and time culminated with an image of a black t-shirt from the IWI collection at last year's New Zealand Fashion Week. "This", said Doris, "epitomises NZ fashion for me -- local, dark, edgy and intellectual."

"The story we're telling ourselves is that we're serious but up to the play. We're outsiders, on the edge of the world, but we can foot it with the best of them."

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:00
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