In the 1980s, Australia was awash in a tide of bright and colourful Ken Done tea towels and rocking a Coogee knit was considered the height of sophistication. In the midst of Expo ’88 mania, everyone sported clothing emblazoned with splashy images of Sydney Harbour Bridge, koalas and Australiana chic. It was bold, brash and people couldn’t get enough of it.
By the mid 1990s however, this wave of colour and cultural celebration had faded into a puddle of cultural cringe, in which anything remotely Australian was met with disdain and embarrassment.
Yet fashion is a cyclical industry and what falls from grace will inevitably come back into vogue.
Over the past few years, an increasing number of independent labels have taken ownership of these symbols that were once the subject of mockery and made them, well, cool.
Australiana 2.0 has arrived.
In markets and boutique shops across Australia, you can find Iced VoVo earrings, tea towels featuring hipster koalas and Vegemite and Golden Gaytime ice-cream enamel pins.
Pete Cromer, whose label of the same name creates prints and key rings of colourful stylised budgies, koalas and kangaroos, likens the irreverent nature of his designs with a “rebirth” of appreciation of all that is Australian.
“It’s part of a resurgence, like Kath and Kim – things that are daggy are now also kind of cool. People of a certain generation are more familiar with it and we’re seeing it in a new light.”
Cynthia Sear, an anthropologist who researches consumerism and capitalism at the University of Melbourne, says many people enjoy the novelty factor, especially those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s.
“These items are quite innocent but they’re also quite authentic and genuine, and there’s a bit of irony in them, too.”
And unlike other national emblems, such as the Australian flag that has long been the centre of political debate, there’s not a lot that’s political about a pair of banana-shaped earrings.
“These things don’t polarise and they don’t involve issues of race or Indigenous politics. It’s a happy way to celebrate being Australian.”
“There’s quite a bit of anthropological theory right now about how we identify ourselves; we’re a more global world now and it lends itself to us thinking about who we are. With the resurgence of these innocent symbols, it’s a way to embrace Australiana that isn’t complicated.”
Cromer agrees, adding that it’s a celebration of a culture that many people grew up in and share similar experiences they can bond over.
“I think back to my grandma and she loved Iced VoVos and we can now celebrate the way we grew up, because that’s part of our culture. They’re our icons because we all share similar stories and experiences with them.”
At a market in Melbourne’s historical Royal Exhibition Building, huge swaths of people mingle, jostling for position in front of each stall. One of the stalls, McKean Studio, sells colourful metal bracelets that have city skylines etched into them.
Kate McKean, who opened the business four years ago, says what started as a hobby has found an eager market for those who want a “quality” symbol of their home.
“There are those cheap stores at [Sydney’s] The Rocks and places like that sell kangaroo testicle pouches, but I wanted to create something that really celebrates a lot of the things that we love about Australia,” she says.
She adds that what differentiates the new Australiana is the humour that’s laced throughout resurrected Australiana, citing our “lovable larrikin outlook” on life.
“Even our wildlife is funny-looking, so why not celebrate it? Other countries, like Germany, are so serious in their culture, that I think it’s a really nice thing to have about Australian culture. We can poke fun at ourselves and our colours are so bright and vivid and we’re just a fun place.”
The evolution of cringe to cool started about five years ago, when many makers and small labels first took their products to shops and markets across the country, and where they found an unexpected but growing market.
Although small and independent makers have been leading the charge of this trend, mainstream brands have also jumped on board: fashion label Romance was Born released a range with Jenny Kee, and Sheridan and Havaianas have both collaborated with Done. And bed linen label Kipp + Co had a successful run with its May Gibbs collaboration, with her Snugglepot and Cuddlepie characters featuring prominently.
The tourist souvenirs that are the subject of such scorn are still around, of course – stuffed koalas mass-produced in China and plastic keyrings that feature the Gold Coast’s infamous metre maids are still eagerly purchased by tourists wanting to take a piece of Australia with them.
However, Elie Azzi, who curates the collection of cards, prints and other products sold through La La Land, says there’s no link between tourist knick-knacks and Australiana 2.0.
“A lot of the Australiana you see in tourist stores tends to be really tacky and not that nice but what we’ve been doing is challenging that and finding art that captures a more beautiful and humorous type of Australia.”
He adds that it’s a misconception to think that Australiana is only for the tourist market.
“There is a local appreciation for Australiana. Maybe it was tacky once but now it’s become trendy.”