The Way We Wore: Celeste Barber unpacks the evolution of Australia’s multibillion-dollar fashion industry

Celeste Barber admits the biggest takeaway from the series for her was how successful the Australian fashion industry is.

Celeste Barber admits the biggest takeaway from the series for her was how successful the Australian fashion industry is. Photo: ABC

Actor, internet sensation and fashion influencer Celeste Barber has moved on from her disappointment over Netflix’s decision not to renew her popular series, Wellmania.

Barber, 41, is back in form, hosting a three-part documentary series for the ABC, The Way We Wore (November 21), about the cultural and historical significance of fashion over the decades.

And how the clothes we wore evolved with significant chapters in our modern history.

Think women’s made-to-order Berlei corsets to creating the ‘Five Australian Figure Types’ from the 1930s, to the fashion evolution post-WWII, to Jean Shrimpton’s Melbourne Cup dress and Bob Hawke’s America’s Cup jacket.

“I had limited knowledge about the history of fashion in Australia … it was interesting to learn the fashion industry employs more people than mining,” Barber tells The New Daily, revealing her life-long obsession with clothes.

“That blew my mind.”

Dozens of fashion magazines including Vogue, Dolly and Cleo helped shape ideas about what we wore over the decades. Photo: Getty

Brimming with archival material and deeply personal interviews with some of the country’s fashion pioneers, the series unpacks why “fashion matters” and reveals what it can tell us about who we are and where we are going.

“It was a bit of an eye-opener for me to do,” Barber said.

And the role the fashion magazines have played.

“It’s pushed on us so much, and feeds into our insecurities. Before it was the magazines, but now it’s individuals doing it, not just big corporations.

“Back then it was the big design houses, magazines, pushing these images onto us … now, you can’t escape it … it’s everywhere you go and is just as important to shine a light on that now more than ever.”

After this year’s Logies – where she was nominated for most popular actress for Wellmania – Barber reflects on a chat she had with former governor-general Quentin Bryce, 80, and athlete Madison de Rozario at a FIFA guest panel on August 8.

“I was making fun of being at the Logies and wearing spanks underneath my dress and [Quentin asked], why are you doing that?

“She said ‘I’ll never forget the time when we as women could undo the suspenders and take the girdles off and breathe’.

“That’s a very good point, why are we still doing that?” she said.

It’s no secret Barber’s career was built on parodying the unattainable beauty standards plastered across our fashion media.

In 2015, she began recreating celebrity photos and videos and posting them to Instagram, with the hashtag #celestechallengeaccepted.

She had only posted a handful of photos, when one — Barber imitating a photo of Kim Kardashian in black stockings and a gold bra, lying on a mound of dirt — went viral.

Over the next eight years, she’s posted hundreds of fashion parodies, mainly of supermodels in expensive swimming costumes or lingerie riding a Vespa, shooting basketball or hanging upside down in a pilates session.

Celeste Barber. Photo: Instagram/Celeste Barber

Why does she continue to bring us all back to earth?

“[It’s to show] how unrealistic it is for women to try and live up to those standards and to make people laugh.

“It’s quite laughable to think that we can all do that, or, that that is in any way attainable.

“It’s a small percentage of women but it’ s expected for the majority of women … I wanted to poke fun at it.

“From there it’s gone gangbusters.”

The rest is history, and for the past eight years, Barber has continued the job.

Australian fashion designer Jenny Kee has been part of the history and evolution of fashion in Australia for decades. Photo: Getty

‘Too fat, too skinny, too poor, too tall’

For Barber, it’s personal.

She reckons the series will most likely be the most intimate and underestimated insight into how the country has evolved.

Fashion does matter, she says.

“Like many people, I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with my wardrobe, and the industry around it, and I wonder what sort of power fashion has around us.”

In the first episode, she looks at early silent cinema advertisements through magazines to influencers, interrogating how the media and advertising industries have been harnessed to sell fashion over the decades, and why it has had such a profound effect on how we see ourselves.

Fashion has always served as a means of expressing our identity. Our clothes help us fit in or stand out.

Uniforms, both official and unofficial, signal what’s expected of us.

But some dare to break the rules, using fashion to shift the social dial and create a “new normal”.

In the second episode, Barber reveals how fearless fashion trailblazers have pushed for social change, challenged those in power, and helped marginalised communities to be seen.

She uncovers the stories of Australia’s fashion pioneers as they revolutionise what we wear, including Ita Buttrose, Ken Done, Camilla and Marc, and Alex Perry.

Episode three looks at the early bespoke seamstresses to the multibillion-dollar international enterprise it is today.

“The main takeaway for me was how big, successful the Australian fashion industry is with employment,” she said.

“I got excited by how many brilliant First Nations designers there are … getting the attention they deserve, their own shows. Something to be said about living with the oldest culture in the world and the stories they have, the textiles and colours they have, the designs they come up with.

“Why haven’t we seen them before? Is fashion playing a bigger role, bringing people together?

“Yes, there’s still a long way to go with that …  It is a starting point. Interesting to see the role fashion plays in so many different walks of life.

“Everyone’s stories are different, and we’re seeing it through the lens of fashion.”

The Way We Wore premieres on Tuesday, November 21 at 8pm on ABC TV and ABC iview, with all episodes available to stream on ABC iview

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