Onesies are usually seen on those aged zero to 12 months. But artist and “fashion experience” creator Adele Varcoe has been wearing a onesie every day for the last seven years.
She brings her onesies to people of all ages at her performances, using the garment to tease out our relationship with our clothing.
Like a skin
Varcoe said her decision to start wearing a onesie was “quite spontaneous”. She had studied fashion at university and was cleaning out her wardrobe when she came across a lycra leotard.
“I was teaching that day and I just challenged myself,” she said.
“I thought ‘what would it be like to wear this for the day, lecturing in front my students in this skin-tight hot pink leotard?’ And I had such a different day.”
Strangers approached her, eager to find out where she got her outfit. “It really became a conversation starter, a way to talk about clothes and why we wear what we do.”
For a trip to London a few weeks later, Varcoe packed only onesies.
“Sometimes I felt self conscious, but then over time it became the norm, like a skin, and seven years later here I am, still in the onesie.”
She has a onesie for every occasion, including a formal one for weddings, a sexy red lace number for dates and a garish leopard print onesie for yoga.
“Why are you wearing this?” is the most common question Varcoe fields from strangers. “I like to ask people why are they wearing what they are wearing, and who they dress for,” she said.
The onesie black market
Keen to enlarge her social experiment, Varcoe created a series of performance pieces in which she persuaded people of all ages to wear onesies. This culminated in her getting 650 people into onesies, with the help of a team of onesie makers, at Vrystaat Arts Festival in South Africa in 2017, and clothing 1,200 people in onesies at MONA FOMA in Launceston earlier this year.
Varcoe said her performances ask: “What is it that makes something fashion, or perceived as dress, or as ‘normal’?”
“I think a community or a group of people need to accept an idea for it to become fashion,” she said.
“When a group of people dress in a particular way, it shifts the perception of the garment.”
Perceptions did shift at MONA FOMA; at first festival goers were ambivalent about the onesies, but they quickly became coveted items.
Varcoe noted that the disadvantage of her onesie experiments were they created “segregation between those that have and those that don’t”.
At MONA FOMA only a quarter of attendees had the garment. A onesie black market emerged in the parking lots of Launceston, with festival attendees haggling over prices and “doing whatever it takes to get themselves one”.
To make or to buy
This month, Varcoe introduced the onesie experience to the people of Melbourne in her show Wowzzzeee, at the Festival of Live Art.
“Wowzzzeee is onesies with the wow factor,” she explained.
“When you come along to the festival, you are faced with two doors: one is to make, the other is to buy… each door presents two quite different experiences.
“If you enter the make door, you will be pretty much put to work in the factory, where you’ll be making a Wowzzzeee, and it is quite a challenging garment to make, so it really invites you to work pretty hard.”
Varcoe created a kind of “sweatshop”, but said she was wary of making light of what is a real problem in many parts of the world.
She said she wanted to maintain a playful tone in the work. “Without that it goes into dangerous terrain of mimicking something that’s real out there, [and] I never wanted it to feel like I was recreating something,” she said.
Choosing the buy door presents the audience member with a different set of challenges. As a “buyer” you must negotiate with a “maker” about how much you are willing to pay — in real-world dollars — for a custom-made onesie. The maker breaks down the costs of the garment from design and patterning to labour and distribution.
Varcoe came up with the “choose your own adventure” version of her performance after impatient punters at MONA FOMA started heckling onesie makers as they sewed the garments.
“We are sometimes so disconnected from the maker and way things are produced,” Varcoe said.
But in Wowzzzeee the consumer must face the maker. The pressure of determining what they’re willing to pay for a piece of wearable art has the potential to make participants break out in a sweat.
Varcoe does not end the social experiment there. Each participant is asked to commit to wearing their skin-tight, see-through sequined Wowzzzeeee until they go to bed that night.
The results, Varcoe said, have been full of joy.
“[The onesies] bring about risky behaviour… people start dancing and high fiving… I think there’s a certain confidence that comes about when people put these on because they’re feeling pretty bold and brave to actually do it.”
Wowzzzeee is on at the Festival of Live Art in Melbourne until March 25.