The beauty of film

In 2012 my sister Antonia Riviere and I were visiting fellows at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. We were there researching Australian clothes rationing during World War 2. We were interested in how film had been used to support the government’s austerity drive, whether Australians been encouraged to ‘make do and mend’ like their British counterparts, and how could we use our own making to explore these and other questions.

When we arrived at the archive almost four weeks ago, a shelf of DVDs and video tapes were waiting for us in our large, well-equipped work room. While we were preparing our application, Ant had done some searching for films using the online catalogue and we thought of these awaiting titles as a useful starting point for our project. As it turned out, Ant’s search had been very thorough and there was very little lurking in the archive that had not been on our original list.

We had no idea what the films would be like. The collection is currently being digitised but it is a slow process and we had seen nothing of the footage until we put the first tapes and DVDs into the machines on our desks.

Our proposal is named after one of those titles. “Mr Dedman arrives wearing the first Victory Suit made in Australia” is a 3 and a quarter minute information film made in 1942.

In the film, John Dedman, the Minister for War Organization of Industry, is seen arriving from Melbourne in a car, entering his office and as the commentary tells us, being “immediately interviewed.”

The film appears highly scripted. Dedman sits at his desk answering questions from journalists who seem docile and well-rehearsed. He explains that although Australian textile factories are producing more than double their pre-war output, this extra material together with the original production is needed for the fighting services. Further increases still are needed beyond this, but without increasing the workforce.

“That’s a tall order” comments a journalist chirpily.

“So is winning the war!” retorts Dedman in what seems to me a passably good performance.

“And how about the Victory Suit Mr Dedman?” asks another journalist.

Dedman spins round his office chair, stands up and turns back to face the camera. He carefully points to the various details of the suit as he elaborates on the labour and material savings of the Victory Suit:

“No vest. No trouser turn ups. No buttons on sleeves. That may seem a trivial change. But each of the old fashioned button holes use up one extra yard of thread. That means a saving of 8 yards on every suit.”

Andrew Spaull in his biography John Dedman: a most unexpected labour man tells us that Dedman had consulted The Master Tailors Association in Sydney for advice, but that the savings he claimed were being made by the suit were quickly questioned by people from a variety of quarters. The Victory Suit was not a success for a whole host of reasons, including that Dedman “was no rugged, elegant male-model; perhaps none were available because of manpowering, and the suit seemed to fall off his sparesly framed body. His short-lived modelling career was judged to be a failure.”

But despite the scripted nature of the film and the short-lived success of the Victory Suit, it is the film’s performativity and sensuous tactility that prompts me to wonder about an aspect of clothes rationing I had not considered before.

Although I have read about clothes rationing during WW2, witnessed the contemporary revival of Make Do and Mend and heard about wartime clothes from our mother, it wasn’t until I saw this film that I thought through the implications of clothing and textiles being placed in the political spotlight. Film allowed me to imaginatively experience the unusual juxtaposition of the trappings of authority and government – the confident minister, the office full of journalists – and the familiarity of supposedly humble cloth, buttons and yarn.

The intimate as well as the public dimensions of our lives are bound up with clothing, fashion, our bodies and cloth. During times of ‘total war’ these are brought from the margins of public life to the centre stage. Something that had been peripheral to Australian government policy (having been left previously to market forces) became central almost overnight.

Film has the capacity to capture the sensory details of changes as they happen and are announced – the cut of a garment, the throng of people asking questions, the slightly hesitant way in which Dedman carries himself. This is film’s power and seductive beauty – and perhaps for these reasons (as well as others) has changed politics.

Watching the film the first time round I didn’t know anything about Dedman’s popularity or unpopularity or whether his Victory Suit was a failure or a downright success. For that I needed to read the work of Spaull and others and delve around in several more archives – the Australian War Memorial in particular.

A really enjoyable part of this research for me has been the piecing together of film with other forms of evidence and interpretation such as letters, interviews and historical analysis.

And there’s only another three and a half weeks left!

“The continuing dialogue between living and dead”

In 2012 my sister Antonia Riviere and I were visiting fellows at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. We were there researching Australian clothes rationing during World War 2. We were interested in how film had been used to support the government’s austerity drive, whether Australians been encouraged to ‘make do and mend’ like their British counterparts, and how could we use our own making to explore these and other questions.


In Braidwood last Saturday I had a small breakthrough with our research. After having gloomily wandered up and down the long wide streets for a couple of hours (more on this below), I went into a second hand bookshop and found what turned out to be the ‘right’ book.

Braidwood is an ex-mining town about 100km south of Canberra. A bus passes through the town twice a day on its way to the South coast, leaving Canberra at 7.30am and heading back at around 4.00pm.

It was good to be out of the city, driving through the green of this Australian Spring, seeing the endless stands of different eucalyptus trees. I got off the bus onto Braidwood’s main street, a long straight road with shops up either side, most selling antiques, clothes and touristy goods. None opened until 10.00am and so I walked slowly, looking into each of the the windows, my hands cupped against the dark glass.

I had a tight knot in my chest. Over the course of the morning it came to me that somewhere between the week before and the present moment I had lost the shape of the research. This is a feeling my students sometimes struggle with, yet it always surprises me when I fall into it myself, as if I should somehow be immune.

Perhaps I had been watching too much WW2 footage. I was especially affected by two films I viewed back to back, one of them Road to Tokyo made by NFSA historian Graham Shirley about Australia’s experiences of the last months of the war, built around archival footage and intense interviews with surviving POWs and the other Gaylene Preston’s War Stories. Preston interviews seven elderly women about their experiences of World War 2 and each reveals something about love, sex or death in a way that captures and celebrates their ability to make sense of their unique yet common experiences.

The bookshop-cum-café I had my eye on opened at around 11 o’clock. A group of people, my age and older, were sitting at one of the wooden tables, chatting amicably. I caught snippets of their conversation as I inspected the bookshelves around the edges of the room. There was a section on Australian history and I took time to pull out each volume and leaf carefully through the pages. As I came to the end of the last row I had two books in my hand that seemed promising, one by Helen Colijn called Song of Survival, the other by the Australian historian Jan Bassett, The Facing Island. I sat down with them and ordered some hot coffee and toast.

Jan Bassett’s book is a memoir published posthumously in 2002. When she was 13, Jan’s beloved Nana Edie died, and Jan inherited Edie’s beautiful, old chiffonier. In it she found a secret drawer containing a bundle of letters from a New Zealand soldier, Wilson Tonks, written while he was fighting in the trenches during WW1. Tonks had thrown a bottle with his address into the sea on his voyage from home and Edie had found it and replied.

The book takes an unusual form for a memoir. It consists of the letters written by Wilson to Edie – of course without the replies that Edie wrote back – and letters from Jan to her now dead Nana Edie, in which she writes beautifully and poignantly of her own historical researches about war, especially women’s experiences, her relationships with family, friends and lovers, and here and there of her treatment for cancer, from which she now knew she was going to die. The tone of the book is resilient but compassionate, wise, intelligent and sad – especially about war.

The book seemed to resonate with our work here. I reflected on how in our first few days in Canberra we had gone to an op shop where Ant found a grey pullover half-finished. She was drawn to it partly because it had been abandoned.

She wondered who had spent so much time on it (it has complicated cable stitch) only to leave it unfinished. Purchasing it, she brought it home, picked up the dropped stitches and with bits and pieces of wool began to mend, change and finish it, including within the colours she introduced, some lines of morse code. When I asked her why the morse code, she said it was in response to one of the film segments we had been watching which shows servicemen leaving Sydney dock. Each man holds onto several long streamers stretched between themselves and the women, children and older folk on the dock, communicating in ways that are visible yet encoded.

Both Bassett’s work as an historian and Ant’s giving of new life to the pullover seem to be concerned with fragile and endangered lines of attachment between people. People who know each other and people who don’t, people who are alive and people who are no longer alive or who might soon be dead.

Jan Bassett’s book about war and love periodically comes back to death, something we have been dealing with since we arrived — for as soon as you watch footage and read letters and histories of war, it is death you are inescapably faced with.

Bassett writes of a visit she made to the north-eastern Aegean island of Lemnos in 1988 to carry out some research on Australian Army nurses of WW1. At the Commonwealth war cemetery she felt compelled to read every name in that cemetery.

“Was it because it seemed such a long way from Australia and I felt sure that very few of those men’s families would ever have had the chance to see their graves? I don’t know.”

Across the road she found the Greek general cemetery with its brilliantly coloured flowers growing between the cracks of the stones, in which ‘everything […] suggested that there was a continuing dialogue between the living and the dead.”

I sat in the bookshop reading this and I thought of a film we had watched a night or two earlier -– Ray and Charles Eames’ Day of the Dead. Near the end, the male narrator explains that the filmmakers have come to the house of a young girl who died 5 months ago and that “there is no sign of sadness, no superficial gaiety, nor any hint that struggling emotions are being held in check. It is a dedicated preparation for a good party which the [dead girl] will enjoy and in which she will take part.” A little later the female narrator says “Tears are shed for the living. We never shed tears for the dead. We must be very careful that no tears are shed on this day. Because it would make the roads slippery and dangerous for the souls on their journey…”

I sat reading and thinking about something Jenny Gall had said to Ant and me the day before, about how research is always on some level about the questions we need to be asking ourselves – something I try to remember with my students. It suddenly seemed clear that Ant’s making and my videoing and the clips we have chosen and our presence in the archive was in Bassett’s words, about how to keep alive a ‘continuing dialogue between the living and the dead.’ Given its tactility, longevity, potential for individual signatures and transmission of emotion and meaning, textiles appear to be well suited to this.

Later in the book, after a longish passage where Bassett writes about Spanish flu and why it’s so little discussed given that it killed more people than the Great War, she finishes by describing a friend of hers called Beth receiving news that she has cancer of the liver. She and Beth and Beth’s husband spend several hours talking about many things, including grandparents.

“Beth spoke about her maternal grandmother, who had died from ‘Spanish’ flu in Mildura, leaving behind several children, including Beth’s mother, four year old Veda…..I had never heard this story….Less than nine weeks later Beth herself died, leaving behind a nine-year-old daughter and a fourteen-year-old son. Working out how best to convey the meaning of Beth’s grandmother’s death twelve thousand times over is a very difficult problem for historians. One death seems much more ‘real’ than thousands of deaths. And if I can’t make any sense of Beth’s death myself, how on earth can I communicate its meaning to other people?”

This question of the individual is one we have wondered a lot about. Only one of the films made during WW2 that we’ve seen here really comes close to giving an individual perspective on clothes rationing during the war. And although individual experience holds problems for the academic researcher – to do with context, reliability, perspective and so on – to understand the human condition we need to connect with the ‘reality’ of individual experiences.

Finally, sitting in the café, I tried to see how improvisation fitted in with all of this. It seemed to make sense to think of improvisation as a mode of connecting, a way of picking up on something someone else has had to let go of (the pullover, the archived films, things inherited from loved ones, ideas passed on, someone else’s waste). If new experience and knowledge is to be created at the same time as connections with something’s or somebody’s identity and history are maintained, then this picking up is likely involve an embellishment, a different nuance or interpretation, even a radical transformation – but the picked up thing will somehow still bear the handprint, the voices, or the form of what has been relinquished.

Inside the archive

In 2012 my sister Antonia Riviere and I were visiting fellows at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. We were there researching Australian clothes rationing during World War 2. We were interested in how film had been used to support the government’s austerity drive, whether Australians been encouraged to ‘make do and mend’ like their British counterparts, and how could we use our own making to explore these and other questions.

We have been at the National Film and Sound Archive for a week now, and every single day has been packed with amazing things to do – a tour around the NFSA site out in the Mitchell suburb where huge amounts of archival material are stored and processed; a tour through PATS, the preservation and technical services where materials are painstakingly restored, reprinted, photographed etc.; and a number of meetings with the incredibly helpful and knowledgeable NFSA staff.

Labels used at NFSA Mitchell

The staff have given us useful instruction/suggestions/mentoring: from how to use the Mediaflex data base where lots of useful information about the collection is stored, to the processes involved in getting copyright clearance for use of material, to specific suggestions about individual films and artefacts we might want to view. We’ve been guided through our induction to the archive by Jenny Gall, Co-ordinator of Research Programmes at NFSA and Heather Gill, Research Programmes Officer.

Across the road from the NFSA is the Australian National University (ANU) and there are some great people there we’ve had meetings with too – Valerie Kirk who is Head of Textiles, her colleague Anthea Callen who came from the UK about 18 months ago to be Head of Research at the School of Art at ANU, and Melinda Hinkson who is an anthropologist working at ANU who I first met a couple of years back when she and her husband, also an anthropologist, were visiting University of Manchester where he was a Simon Visiting Fellow.

When not in meetings we’ve been watching films from the collection and making a list of relevant books so we can get down to some reading.

Zoetrope image on shelves at NFSA MItchell

One of the most thought provoking films we have seen and which we keep coming back to is by the British filmmaker Richard Massingham. A public information film made during the Second World War, it encourages the long term care and re-purposing of clothing. The message is communicated through the story of a man’s suit from its purchase to its remaking. Told from the suit’s point of view and with good performances by the actors, one of whom is the director Massingham, it communicates its message gently and poetically, lingering on the sensory details of handling and mending the suit and the unpicking of seams when the time comes for its deconstruction.

Many of the other public information films we have seen are far less subtle in how they set out to shape behaviour. What makes a film endure? In Which We Live embodies more than its simple message about how to behave in times of austerity. In a way its underlying theme has to do with touch, skill and the value of textiles – as a means of knowing our environment, connecting emotionally, remembering the past and dealing with loss.

Mending and re-puposing – by Ant Riviere

In 2012 my sister Antonia Riviere and I were visiting fellows at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. We were there researching Australian clothes rationing during World War 2. We were interested in how film had been used to support the government’s austerity drive, whether Australians been encouraged to ‘make do and mend’ like their British counterparts, and how could we use our own making to explore these and other questions.

The subject of mending and re-using textiles threaded its way through many of the conversations we had while we were visiting Marina – re-purposed clothes have been an integral part of Marina’s personal aesthetic for years, and as I enter my tenth month of clothes buying abstinence, mending is no longer just a challenge and a pleasure, it has become a necessity.

In the course of our discussions Marina remembered a mended dress she had seen exhibited at the Costume Collection Yarra Park, so before leaving for Canberra we managed to make an appointment and fitted in a quick visit to Bulleen. Loel Thomson, owner and curator of the collection, greeted us and kindly took time to talk with us and show us around her amazing gallery space. Loel’s interest in social history informs the way she displays the collection, and where possible she shows the clothes in context, alongside jewellery, bags, shoes, paper patterns, lace, needlework, photographs, magazines and booklets.

The Depression era display we had hoped to see had been taken down since Marina’s first visit, so Loel took us to the storage area where she found the items we were particularly interested in viewing – a dress and a couple of wagga rugs, all of which had been bought at farm sales.

It was very moving to look at such humble patched things, especially while surrounded by racks of elegant evening dresses, furs and fancy hats.

The dress was especially poignant; it was patched from the back, several different fabrics having been used to infill under the worn areas of the original cloth, with the newer cloth stitched in place by machine and hand.

There were very extensive areas of machine stitching, hand running stitch and the extreme wear and tear and general cobbling together of frayed cloth gave the impression that the owner must have hurriedly mended her dress most evenings to make sure it would see her through the next working day.

It seems like a small miracle that it has survived and is still being cared for, carrying with it a tale of unknown hardship.

The National Film and Sound Archive

In 2012 my sister Antonia Riviere and I were visiting fellows at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. We were there researching Australian clothes rationing during World War 2. We were interested in how film had been used to support the government’s austerity drive, whether Australians been encouraged to ‘make do and mend’ like their British counterparts, and how could we use our own making to explore these and other questions.

Courtyard of NFSA

Yesterday Ant and I arrived in Canberra at the National Film and Sound Archive where we will be spending seven weeks on the Scholars and Artists Fellowship programme. Our research focuses on improvisation in art and life, approached through some of the moving image and sound materials the archive holds on WW2 austerity.

In the last couple of years Ant has been working with materials that are immediately available to her. She began using remnants from family life after going to a conference about basketry. Baskets can employ very similar techniques but show great variations of form because of the differences in locally available materials. My interest is in the improvisation involved in certain artforms and the way the fluid, contradictory, contingent situatedness of experience is part of both creativity and social life.

At NFSA we were met by Dr Jenny Gall, Co-ordinator of Research Programmes who gave us a tour of the archive and showed us around the residence where we are staying. NFSA is next door to the Australian National University campus and there is a lot of neighbourliness between the two institutions.

Walking round campus we passed through the corridors of the art school and decided to look up Valerie Kirk who is head of Textiles and a friend of MMU’s Alice Kettle. We asked Valerie if she might be able to find Ant a small space to work in and she seemed hopeful – we will meet with her next week to discuss our research with her and also follow up some conversations she has been having with Alice about another project.