From St Kilda to Kings Cross is thirteen hours on a bus
I pressed my face against the glass and watched the white lines rushing past
And all around me felt like all inside me
And my body left me and my soul went running
Have you ever seen Kings Cross when the rain is falling soft?
I came in on the evening bus, form Oxford Street i cut across
And if the rain dont fall too hard everything shines
Just like a postcard
Everything goes on just the same
Fair-weather friends are the hungriest friends
I keep my mouth well shut, i cross their open hands
I want to see the sun go down from St Kilda esplanade
Where the beach needs reconstruction, where the palm trees have it hard
I'd give you all of Sydney harbour (all that land, all that water)
For that one sweet promenade – Paul Kelly, ‘From St Kilda to King’s Cross’.
Take a Canberra girl. Add a little money; a few couches to surf on; cheap air and bus fares to Melbourne and Sydney respectively; and a couple of free weekends.
Canberrans, newly minted and old guard, will be familiar with what happens next: the Canberra girl returns home star struck by the proverbial temptations – sartorial, culinary, cultural – that Australia’s two biggest smokes have to offer, like the little girl enamoured by the grown ups’ closet.
Being too cool for school – a character flaw I have to deal with it as best I can – I thought I’d afforded myself complete and un-breachable immunity from seduction by the splendour of the cities. Having rejected, mid way through my degree, the notion that Melburnians are cooler and Sydneysiders more fun than dull, cold Canberran’s, I held a rather smug certainty that anything the two cosmopolitan powers of Australian style could whip out, I could unearth some hidden Canberra gems that would be harder, better, stronger, faster – stylistically speaking – and all the more chick for being unexpected.
I guess I hadn’t heard the saying pride comes before a fall.
As this blog will demonstrate, I’ve come home with a rather bad case of the star-strucks.
Having only been to Melbourne once in my life – for a day when I was eleven, with the parentals and the siblings, tres uncool – I was constantly met with blank stares at parties when this fact came out. My dirty little secret scandalised many – how can one possibly write about style in Australia without having visited its birthplace? Of course, this got my ire up, and I furiously resisted the notion that Melbourne had much more to offer in the style stakes than any other metropolis in the southern hemisphere. I think I deliberately developed a minor aversion to the place on account of SOME – not all - people from Melbourne endlessly disparaging the goods of our nations’ capital – our coffee, our food, our style.
It was only the kind offer of a place to rest our weary heads from the dear Miss Bennett, and the enthusiasm of my main squeeze, J-Man, that prompted me to hop onto ‘what if’ and book some flights for a winter getaway. Packing was a challenge – having heard tell of the uber cool Melbourne fashion pack, I was quaking, under my coat of bravado, in my black leather knee length boots. I decided to take as many options as my classic pre-rebranding country road overnighter could hold. This involved several vintage dresses, a lot of black, and plenty of stretch jersey for its magical crease resistant properties. I was terrified – for, as anyone who has had to move to a new environment knows, big fish from little ponds tend to get eaten alive when they hop on into the roaring stream of life.
Instead, Melbourne and I took one look at each other and fell hopelessly in love. Or at least, we decided we simply had to jump each other then and there. Melbourne is a city after my own heart – it wears its style on its sleave, its lapel, in the seam of a stocking or the heel of a boot. Because of this, Melbourne, or at least the areas of St Kilda, Fitzroy and Carleton that I came to know, is quite relaxed. It knows who it is and as such, has nothing to prove to you. If you take that same attitude to clothing and to life, as I do, you are one of the fold and welcomed to style’s bosom with no further vetting required.
Being someone who feels that a conversation isn’t complete if there hasn’t been something said about clothes or accessories, the casual way that Melburnians have of talking about clothes made me feel right at home. Shocked and delighted was this Canberran to lean that Melburnians actually…
…to talk to you about what you’re wearing, who designed it, how fabulous it was. Needless to say, when a grand dame of the Melbourne style set, wearing the most incredible fuchsia fascinator, stopped me to compliment me on the skirt that I’d made and was wearing during a mid morning wander, I felt like I’d arrived - and that I was, oh, only about ten foot tall.
The thing with Melbourne, as I surmised from my sojourn to the City Museum with J-Man and friends, was that Melbourne was the planned pregnancy after the bastard child that is/was Sydney. No offence to Sydney peeps – I’m coming to valorising your fair city in a few paragraphs – Sydney has always been a shambles. Never really thought about other than a quick and dirty route to eliminate Britannia’s refuse, it grew up never knowing who it was – without order, in anarchistic clusters around the jagged coastline and gash of a river. No-one wanted Sydney, and, consequentially, it grew up with a desperate need to be wanted. Melbourne, on the other hand, was the much loved and wanted child – its conception was carefully planned at a time when there was enough money and know-how to make this one work out well, after the mistakes of last time became evident. Thought was given to the future of the colony’s second legitimate child – streets and suburbs planned in advance, on a grid designed to maximise the fledgling city’s sociability and prosperity decades, centuries, into the future. Just as its shambolic origins influence the Sydney we know and love or loathe today, the planned, considered nature of Melbourne’s origin is evident in the relaxed self assurance with which the city carries itself. Melbourne has nothing to prove, because it has always known its worth.
And it shows in its style. Not to repeat the cliché that weary Canberrans hear all the time, but people in Melbourne dress in a way that’s all their own. Whilst there are trends – in particular, the skinny jeans/rocker hair/bomber jacket look for the lads – there’s a sense that anything you wear is fabulous so long as you look like you in it. Of particular note was the way that Melbourne women are unafraid to embrace both neutrals and colours – see earlier post – as well as vintage and modern pieces – again, see earlier posts. Prints also featured heavily, along with chunky hand knits – a necessity in a city whose mercury drops almost as low as Canberra’s. There also seems to be an aversion to dressing entirely in mass market labels – hence the proliferation of markets, one-off shops that sell local and imported designs, and vintage stores.
Another element of Melbourne style that I feel deserves note here, and became all the more apparent after my adventures in Sydney, is that Melbourne women and men seem much more comfortable with their bodies. People of all shapes and sizes were dressed beautifully, and with an eye to clothes that flatter, flaunt and fit. Perhaps this stems from the preference for one-off shops rather than the chain stores, whose sizing provision leaves much to be desired. The Melbourne gal seems to be much happier in her body – whether it be curvy, tall, short, or straight up and down. Not to say that there aren’t people in Melbourne who battle with body image – I’m sure there are – but they just seemed to be better equipped to dress the body in a way that is sexy and stylish, which, I have no doubt, provides an instant boost of much needed confidence. As a curvy women, I have never felt more comfortable with my figure as I did in Melbourne, because everybody else was embracing and working with what they had too.
The Melbourne experience is not all roses, however. I was concerned at several points that it appears to be the fashion for young Melburnian women to wear one side of their hair almost completely shaved, and the other side quite long. This, I feel, is taking the individual approach to style a little too far. Expressing yourself is a grand thing, but you’re also wearing your hair in such an ugly way that it hurts my eyes and causes me to vom a little in my mouth. No offense but it’s true. And as for those coffees I’d heard so much about…well, they were good, but I still think the Gods are better…
The weekend after my Melbourne sojourn, my dear friend Clementine Kemp and I hopped on a Murray’s coach at the unglamorous hour of 8am on a Saturday in order to spend the weekend with our friend Kitty Gillfeather. Kitty’s older sister’s apartment in Neutral Bay was free for the weekend, and, given that bus fares were super cheap with it being a recession and all, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I must confess here that my relationship to Sydney is a rather complex one. I spent my childhood there – we moved to Canberra when I started high school – and, like anywhere that you spent your childhood, pleasure and pain indelibly colour your perception of the place. Coupled with this was the fact that the part of Sydney my family and I lived in – St Clair, a part of larger Penrith – has a tenuous relationship to the rest of Sydney. Some Sydney purists say that anything further inland then Parramatta can’t be truly described as Sydney – and they are entitled to their opinion. However, the people I grew up with, myself included, always felt ourselves to be a part of the city, even though the tip of the Nepean river we inhabited was an hour away in light traffic from the iconic harbour. I think my test for whether you are, or have been, a true citizen of Sydney is a simple one. Go to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, find Brett Whitely’s ‘The Balcony 2’, and look at it, really carefully, for five minutes. If you have tears in the inner corner of your eyes, or a lump in your throat like a stuck chunk of panne di casa, you’re Sydney through and through. I’m one such person, and Sydney will always have a very special place in my heart.
However, as I mentioned above, Sydney does have some issues of insecurity which I just can’t bring myself to ignore, despite my love for the place. It’s louder, brasher, and sexier than Melbourne, its younger sibling, and I think that this stems from a desperate desire to be seen, heard and acknowledged, rather than from a place of confidence. Somewhat paradoxically, there’s also the tendency to try and fit in as much as possible – hence the proliferation of chain stores and the sad absence of the little one-off shops I love so much. Walking along the busy streets of Sydney, I recalled the Groove Armada lyrics that were the anthem of my high school years: if everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other. Everybody looked the same, and I got tired of looking.
That’s not to say that there weren’t some wonderfully stylish people in Sydney – mostly the lovely Kitty’s gorgeous sisters - and wonderfully stylish places to shop – Paddington markets get a most honourable mention here. What stood out conspicuously for me, though, and was epitomised by our night out at the town, was the tendency of the ladies of Sydney to be (how can I say this without sounding prudish?) a little underdressed. Not in terms of formality, in terms of quantity of fabric! Fifteen centimetres does not a skirt make, ladies. Clementine, Kitty and I weren’t hitting the Cross – indeed, our watering holes of choice were amongst the most well regarded and popular in the city – but some other women didn’t quite get that memo as they were well and truly dressed for a hard night’s work. If you get my drift.
I’m a huge proponent of celebrating the body that you have, whatever its size or shape, and in not hiding away bodies or body parts that are not considered attractive or sexual at this particular point in history. But what is celebratory about squeezing Rubens-esque thighs into a skirt three sizes too small? Or wearing a bra that converts an ample bosom into four bizarre mounds of misshapen fat? One such young patron of a fashionable nightspot was dressed thus. She had the potential to be a very attractive woman, the sort who would have been an artists model two hundred years ago. It seemed, though, that the prevailing norms of Sydney style – ie show as much as you can while you can (and even then for ten years afterwards) – had got the better of her. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened had we transplanted her to Melbourne, and steeped her in the celebratory, individualistic style ethic that was evident in every fibre of that city. Perhaps she would have found herself felling more comfortable straying from the high street chain store look – and they tyranny of high street chain store sizing – and embracing her beautiful curves in a way that made her look as fabulous as she was, rather than like a doughier, spilling out-over-the-edges version of the Sydney cookie cutter girl.
As I journeyed home with many thoughts in my head – top of the list being how I had managed to drink that much without repurcussions – I got to thinking about Canberra’s style. If Sydney is the bastard child with an insecurity complex, and Melbourne’s lead the charmed life that gives it the licence to be whoever it wants to be, what could I say about our fair capital? The youngest sibling, by far, and not yet past the stage of pulling at the skirts of her two older sisters, as my shameful degree of star-struckness illustrates. Canberra is developing a look that is its own – one that I think is informed by a conflation of the student chick of the universities and the crisp, slick quality that the best of the public service provides. However, it’s still a long way from making its debut and coming out on the public with a definitive statement of who she is. And it occurred to me, some time as we were driving parallel to Lake George with the wind turbines white against the purple storm clouds, that that’s ok. We’re a new city, without the sense of history that informs Melbourne or Sydney’s styles, which gives us a playfulness, a naivety, and an innocence, which we shouldn’t try to grow out of too quickly. We can borrow our older sisters’ heels and lippy, for it’s fun to play dress ups, but not be too quick to be either one of them, and wait for our own time to come. A capital idea even if I do say so myself.