Sunday, June 28, 2009

Trash and treasure on the South Seas

Keeping up with the Joneses is difficult, no matter where you live. Out in the McSuburbs, there’re ever expanding flat screen TVs to be purchased; mandatory upgrading to the bigger, faster, louder, redder Holden Commodore to be managed; and children’s birthday party entertainment to be sourced which out-does Little Johnny’s surprise visit from Dorothy the Dinosaur’s illegitimate offspring last summer. It’s relentless, exhausting and mind-numbing, not to mention economically crippling.

But killing yourself slowly just to fit-in with the neighbours is not peculiar to the identical, pastel dwellings on the urban fringes. Even when you’re a funky couple of kats like Mrs Donkey and I, living in the uber trendy, fur-hat and petticoat-wearing, latte-sipping pockets of the inner north, the pressure to ‘fit in or fuck off’ is just as insipid. However, when doing so means sourcing the finest second-hand clothing the early ‘80s can offer, it’s not as simple as firing up the V8 and chugging down to the local Megamall for new pair of daks.

Far from it! Having an eye for a piece of risque, second-hand fashion that hasn’t yet been picked over by the hoards of freaks on Victoria St is an essential survival skill. Hesitate over that Shanghai silk dress with the ridiculous slit up the back, and you may just find yourself with nothing funkier in your wardrobe than a mink coat and a pair of purple, sequinned thongs/flip-flops to wear to the café – a “so yesterday” look which’ll see you shunned to the dark tables down the back, beneath the staircase where only the work experience waitress will occasionally dare to visit on her way out to the bogs for a smoke.

It’s a slippery tightrope; that of social acceptability in the cut-and-thrust world of unwashed bohemia and having ready access to a steady supply of ridiculous, second-hand threads is commensurate to one’s need for oxygen. Fortunately for us, my being notoriously too tight to purchase new clothing unless it comes with a sweat shop-sized price-tag to match the age of its maker, and Mrs D’s expert eye for eclectic, exotic threads complements well with our local area boasting the highest ratio of second-hand clothing stores per capita in the known world. It even works for lil’ Hambones, who, much to his grandparents’ collective derision, has never worn a new item of clothing in his short life. So to date, all three of us have managed to hold our own as we cram onto a single, uncomfortable wooden box on a frigid, Sunday morning winter pavement, sipping our lattes and offering a rigamortis smile to our equally uncomfortable, yet outwardly content, fellow funkies.

It’s a pretty recent phenomenon, this rapid rise in the social acceptability of second-hand clothing stores. Wearing someone else’s used duds has certainly not always been well received. Back in the day, it was a mark of upwardly, socially mobile suburbanites to clear the cupboards every spring through a donation of last-season rags to the poor and destitute. This convenient means of getting rid of unwanted garments had the added bonus of filling the donor with a great sense of satisfaction at their civic contribution, but strangely enough, it was generally assumed that the charities which received these clothes directed them towards dressing the poor and street-living folk; an odd assumption given that no one in my neighbourhood had ever seen homeless women getting around in pink, backless evening frocks or elbow-length white gloves, nor had anyone witnessed unshaven, urine-smelling drunks lying in the putrid back-alleyways wearing full-length, paisley smoking jackets!

Such is the nature of western charity, since the days of the Victorian poor houses, that once disposed of, the moneyed classes rarely gave much thought to their donation … until recently, when the sale of second hand clothing exploded into a multi-million dollar industry!

You can imagine the talkback radio-led outrage of the masses when they came to learn that charities, rather than using out-dated tuxedos and feather boas to clothe the homeless, were actually making a buck out of other people's [unwanted] donated gear (albeit a buck which was then used to pay for food and lodgings directed at the poor and homeless). Of course, despite their impotent frustration, the moneyed classes were unable to argue with the fact that the poor were still receiving a benefit from the donations (at least, they weren’t prepared to argue about it in plain daylight, but the issue burned for weeks thanks to the anonymous lens of talkback radio), and the issue eventually faded. People became used to seeing the funkies (and subsequently, TV soapie stars) getting around in used threads, and the industry took off.

But before all this recycled commerce came the fore, what was never recognised was what the charities did with all those crap clothes in order to make the money to help the poor BEFORE we had embraced second-hand clothing stores. The answer to that, my friends, is the Pacific. Throughout Melanesia, Polynesia and I presume Micronesia, it is not uncommon for an entire village to pool their resources and purchase from some third-tiered middleman, a huge bale of used Australian women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, and, come arrival day, to almost rip each others’ jugulars out in a mad scramble to nab the best gear with which to clothe the family for the following year.

As mentioned previously, the moneyed folk of Australia’s urban sprawls tend not to give anything appropriate away, however, only what they don’t want, so as a result, one recognises some pretty strange (and hauntingly familiar) fashions on the Islands.

For instance, it’s a pretty regular sight throughout Polynesia to witness a buff, young, tattooed, cropped-haired tough-guy strutting through a village wearing a t-shirt with a fluffy pink dog painted on the front. Or an old man wearing a thread-bare, child’s nightie baring a sickly-smiling, Strawberry Shortcake! About the only island folk who ever end-up looking the part are the grotesquely masculine transvestites, their obese legs and shoulders (and machetes) crammed into pink or pale yellow, sequined, backless, full-length dresses.

And you'd be surprised at just how close to home it all gets. Late one night in 1999, I came across a security guard manning the guard house of the National University of Samoa wearing a t-shirt from an Australian student association I was a member of in 1993, of which there would have been only about 100 t-shirts printed at most!

Freaky coincidences aside, the other great thing about unwanted Australian clothing ending up in the Pacific, is a) that a considerable number of inappropriate garments get shipped abroad, and b) that what is inappropriate in Australia, is not always perceived so amongst the 'English-as-a-second-language' islanders. So it is therefore not uncommon for a man to be standing in a Samoan church on a Sunday, all dressed in pristine white and beaming a beatific smile, and across whose chest is plastered one of a number of rather suspect phrases such as "I've seen God and she's black" ... and no one seems to mind.

My personal favourite, however, was an elderly, wrinkled, hunch-backed Solomon Island woman hobbling along the streets of Honiara wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a sprightly Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli, trade-mark thumbs in the air and twinkle in his eye, issuing the speech-bubble caption, "I just fucked your girlfriend!". Magical stuff!

More recently, it appears that wearing clothing which sports inappropriate English phrases in non-English speaking cultures is becoming very fashionable, so much so that it is being extended beyond dumped, second-hand clothing, to new clothing produced locally. A perfect example seems to be the preferred head gear of high school students in Lhasa at present, who in order to protect their scones from the intense, Tibetan sun, are sporting American-style baseball caps with the rather obscure, priceless phrase, "I Fuck the Fakeshit". I dunno what it means ... and most likely, neither do they (or their teachers), but it has been widely embraced, and I just wish I had have had the guts to wear one to school when I was a lad!

Caption seen on an elderly Solomon Island woman's t-shirt, circa 2005. Pic:


sabrina said...

Oh you should soo go to phuket....the shops are full of these t-shirts! I myself bought a ton of em! LOL!!!

Ann oDyne said...

Henry Winkler wouldn't be pleased with the Tshirt.
Armagnac blogger a lovely guy, is in your neighbourhood.