why are australians obsessed with tourist merch?
It's not just a Bintang singlet.
Image by Prue Stent and Honey Long
One of the most embarrassing moments of my life centres on a dress that I bought in Bali. Me: a seven-year-old girl with a frangipani behind her ear and the world at her feet. The dress: a pink denim mini covered in white hibiscus flowers. I wore it on my flight home from Australia’s favourite holiday destination, Kuta Beach. On the plane, an air hostess spilled a flute of Champagne all over it and I was forced to wear a blanket for the rest of the flight.
Even after this experience, my Bali dress remained special to me. It reminded me of happier times and showed my peers that I was a well-travelled woman. This appreciation for tourist merchandise has stayed with me to this day. My wardrobe is mostly made up of novelty t-shirts and tropical prints. Some of these souvenirs come from far-off places like Japan or Hawaii, while others were sourced much closer to home — Koala t-shirts, Ken Done prints and ‘Sydney, Australia’ hoodies.
In the past year, similar styles have made their way onto the runway. For AW17, Prada paired chunky knitted sweaters with crafty shell necklaces. (The words ‘shell necklace’ should trigger any Australian adult who grew up in the heyday of Billabong and Rusty.) At Gucci’s 80s-inspired Spring 2018 RTW show, your kooky uncle’s favourite Hawaiian shirt was reimagined as a three-piece suit.
In Australia emerging labels have been taking on ‘tacky’ tourist staples like the Australiana sweater. The frill-neck lizard knits and wattle-embroidered jumpers that appeared on Client Liaison’s MBFWA 2018 runway looked like they came straight out of a souvenir store. Another local brand embracing tourist merchandise is Emma Mulholland’s Holiday The Label. A beach umbrella, foldout chair and cocktail sit under the words 'La Dolce Vita' on one of Mulholland’s jumpers. Grinning hibiscus flowers also feature heavily in her recreational range.
Client Liaison Deluxe Line and Holiday The Label make band tees for people who are more into chilling out than rocking out. These designs may be aspirational but, like any good Aussie, they don’t take themselves too seriously.
"Good taste is always subjective but to us there is beauty in all our surroundings, from the museum to the local souvenir store," Monte Morgan from Client Liaison explains. "Australians have a very low tolerance for hierarchy, which means that anything is up for grabs when it comes to style and fashion."
The exaggerated 90s logo has resurfaced over the past few years, with everyone from Fendi to Versace plastering their trademark on t-shirts, jackets and accessories. This trend riffs on the slogan tees that filled skater’s wardrobes and suburban shopping centre stores in the 90s. During this decade, Mulholland was living in the coastal NSW town of Ulladulla where logos were synonymous with surf brands.
"A friend of mine's dad owned one of the two surf shops there so I really liked brands like Billabong, Hot Tuna and Bad Girl," she recalls. "I think that some of the nostalgia comes into the designs and I like the simplicity of the styles back then; the products were a lot better made then ones you see in surf shops now so that’s something I’m trying to incorporate into my label."
Monte Morgan and Harvey Miller’s first Client Liaison Deluxe Line runway show was nostalgic for an even earlier era. The collection was full of modern takes on the naff stuff that our parents wore in the 80s: colourful windbreakers, boxy jumpsuits, lairy printed shirts. These clothes capture a very specific kind of Australia — the stereotypical wide brown land of the true blue larrikin. CLDL isn’t the first brand to explore Australia’s National identity through fashion.
"The last trend in Australiana was in the 1980s around the time of the Bicentennial when Australia was promoting itself to the world — lots of kangaroos, koalas, the Opera House," Dr Prudence Black, a Research Associate from the University of Sydney’s Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, says.
Created by people like Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson of Flamingo Park and artist Ken Done, these clothes defined Australia for the world. Dr Black explains that, at their best, these clothes can create community. "A sense of belonging can be generated through wearing clothing that symbolises a National sentiment, in the same way that sports fans can generate a sense of solidarity and support through wearing their teams colours."
The tourist merch trend taps into this same sense of collective identity. It tells the world who you are and who you want to be: chilled out and unserious. When brands take up daggy Australian styles like tourist merch, they do so ironically. People who wear 'Carpe Diem' sweaters are aware of their dagginess; they are in on the joke. That’s why a CLDL hoodie can read as ‘fashion’ while a Bintang singlet does not.
By taking tourist merchandise out of its original context — the souvenir shop, the airport, the cheap tourist markets — brands are attaching a new meaning to these clothes. Professor Kate Darian-Smith, from the University of Tasmania’s College of Arts, Law and Education, says that repurposing clothing in this way is subversive.
"Clothing can convey attitudes or irony or a cool disregard for the original function of clothing – for instance wearing beach or work wear or sleepwear in the street," she explains. "This out-of-placeness in clothing can happen across cultures and also across economic groups in ways that are self-consciously defiant and push against perceived norms of behaviour."
People might wear tourist merchandise as an anti-fashion statement, or a symbol of National pride, or, like my Bali dress, they might just wear it because they love it. Mulholland seems to fall into the last category. When I ask her what her favourite memento is, she says, "I love my embroidered Mickey Mouse hat from Disneyland."
Special pieces that she’s collected over the years, like this hat, inform her designs. "I feel like people are changing their attitudes to dressing and the amount of clothes they consume and where they come from," she says. "I hope they can see the value in buying pieces that aren't completely trend or hype focused that they can wear for more then one season. Every Holiday piece comes from something in my wardrobe that I wanted to share as I love to wear it."
Tourist merch is like a less annoying version of the #takemeback Instagram post. On a crappy day, a 'Hawaii' slogan t-shirt is a reminder that you were once carefree on a beach. It’s this nostalgia for simpler times that keeps us coming back to tourist merch. Yes the clothes are tacky — but that's the point. When the opportunity for a little escapism comes along, we’ll take what we can get.