Currently running at Melbourne Museum is an exhibition creatively titled YOU CAN'T DO THAT! It is billed as a fashion exhibition, of designers and models who broke the rules, rocked the establishment and pushed back to became fashion icons in their own right.
I'm not much of a fashionista, so I didn't have much interest in going to it until I happened to see a t-shirt in the window of the museum shop when I took Miss H. last week. The top in question was merchandise from the exhibition and bore the following slogan: YOU CAN'T ROCK THE ESTABLISHMENT.
It was love at first sight and, despite the price tag, I had to buy it. When I got home from my day out with Miss H, I went online and had a look at what the exhibition contained and discovered I'd been quite mistaken in thinking it was 'just a fashion exhibit'. It was not just about models and designers who had pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable, they'd completely smashed them! They'd rocked the establishment to its knees and blasted their way through every 'Can't', 'Don't', 'Won't' and 'Shouldn't' without fear or shame. They were not just daring fashion icons, they were true rebels with dreams they were determined to see to fruition.
I had the pleasure of visiting the exhibition today and reading their stories, decked out, of course, in YOU CAN'T ROCK THE ESTABLISHMENT. The exhibit opened with the following quote which I want to share with you now, as it is relevant to everyone from all walks of life, not just in fashion.
When someone says you can't do you just accept it and give up? Or do you bristle at the provocation and think, just watch me go.
At every turn, the models and designers featured in the exhibit - Stella Dare, Prue Acton, Lois Briggs, Jenny Bannister, Christopher Graf and Andreja Pejic - were told YOU CAN'T, but what made them into icons rather than just designers and models was that they turned around and said I CAN.
Stella Dare was an errand-girl from Flinders Lane in the 1930s, who started who eventually started own designing business; in 1950, when she was designing, the only acceptable thing to wear in Melbourne was essentially copies of what was fashionable in England, but she bucked this trend and created her clothes in Melbourne, for Melbourne, using local influences. Then you had the story of Yorta Yorta woman Lois Briggs, who was the first Indigenous Australian woman to model in Victoria; she was also an accomplished singer, part of the Indigenous singing group The Sapphires. Christopher Graf spurned the common theme of the 1970s for black and white, designing bold, brightly coloured clothing that is still very much is demand today, despite him having officially retired from the fashion industry.
Graf's section very much resonated with me, and not just because I liked the slogan attached to his work in the exhibit. In an interview attached to his section, he stated plainly: "I rocked the establishment because I paid no attention to it." I can vividly recall, particularly in my first high school, the pressure to conform. I was never the kind of person who was terribly interested in being in the centre of everything, but high school - especially the all-girls school I attended - was a dangerous place to be non-conforming. Rocking the establishment was not something you did and the teacher's were just as much part of the problem as those students who controlled the social currency. During Year 10 (2008) one of our essay questions was 'Gay Marriage Will Never Be Legal in Australia. Discuss.' One of the girls in my class wanted to refute, but the head of the English department told her she would be automatically failed and that the mission of the school was to 'educate young women to be morally conscious and socially upright.' Yep. I kid you not.
I box I was up into in high school was that of 'quiet, boring, anti-social library-dweller'. For most of my young adult life, I've been boxed up in a similar way by those around me. First impressions, so I've been told, are either that I'm aloof or painfully shy, but the truth is that I'd rather get to know you before I start talking to you. As anyone who knows me well will attest, I will participate in activities with you for a few weeks before I start opening up to you. I take a while to make friends but, once you've earned my friendship, you'll have it for life. But cross me once and it's over.
It took me a long time to shrug off the box of 'quiet, anti-social person' in my personal life as well, and start doing things I wanted to do. Pole dancing and weight lifting were two of these things, and you'd be amazed how many people are stunned when I tell them I do and enjoy these activities.
"Jewels! Pole dancing! Didn't think she'd be brave enough to do that."
"Lifting weights? In a gym? I thought you were more of a 'read books and hide in your house' kind of girl."
But I've also had those four words levelled at me: YOU CAN'T DO THAT!
"You can't pole dance! It's an inappropriate hobby for someone in your industry."
"Weight lifting? You can't do that! You're not strong enough!"
But the best one would have to be from someone I know, after I mentioned in passing that I was taking up weight training along with my pole dancing.
"You can't do both - too much exercise is really bad for you. Besides, men don't like women who exercise too much, it's intimidating and makes you look less feminine."
I told them that it was incredibly fortunate that such shallow, vane, self-obsessed men would have no interest in me, because their egos wouldn't be able to take it when they discovered they were not the centre of my world. Equally, I have no interest in anyone, man or not, who tells me to behave a certain way.
So why all this after viewing this one exhibit? Well, YOU CAN'T DO THAT might be about the fashion industry, but the message within is powerful and can be adapted wherever you are. Society, the establishment, the people around you... Everyone you meet, at some point in your life, is going to try and put you in a box. Those who love you will be more than willing to let you climb out of that box when it no longer fits, but there will be plenty of conformers, conservatives and others who will tell you to stay in the box they put you in because, God damn it, you have to! You can't be anything other than what everyone else is. You can't do anything other than what is acceptable to everyone else. And you can't be you!
So the next time someone turns around and says "can't", "don't", "won't", "shouldn't" or tries to talk you down, look hard at then and think "watch me prove you wrong" and then go and do it. But do it for yourself, not for them, because they were never worth your time anyway. So go out, be you, create beautiful things, chase your dreams, follow your passions, and rock the establishment!
WHAT: You Can't Do That
WHERE: Melbourne Museum, Carlton
WHEN: Showing until 15 July, 2018
COST: Included with museum admission - Adult: $15, all others free.
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Me With No Apologies.