Tropical belles are a study of Brisbane women’s unique fashion sense, of flowers and nature, but mostly it is about losing it all, my lockdown and doing what I must to find joy. It sustained me through a rough period and is my pandemic love project.
It is my desire that the photographs bring you a feeling of joy and beauty when you study them deeply. This project is also a testament to giving and giving to a project, and not realizing it is filling you up until later in the process.
It includes two memoir pieces, which are directly below, and four ladies of fashion. This project essay series was done in conjunction with The Australian Centre for Photography and Rachel Knepfer, ex-Director of Photography for Rolling Stones Magazine.
Monique’s Pandemic Journey
I was in turmoil. The conditions in my life were pulling me down and messing with my mental equilibrium.
My ESL teaching and writing business had disappeared due to Covid. I was living alone for the first time in my life and had recently moved to Brisbane. I knew very few people and the pandemic kept me isolated. I was also in a disposition where I could not handle writing in my study anymore. Just the thought of sitting for long periods made me itchy and furious. I fiercely wanted physicality and new adventures.
Another state-wide lockdown was about to start when I found out The Australian Centre for Photography was closing due to the pandemic. I’d studied with them when living in Sydney and had had several photographs featured in their exhibitions. They were offering a personal mentorship which for some reason I did not know about, but now the opportunity was disappearing fast. It seemed like a solution to my problems. I wanted more passion in my life, something to offset the difficulties I was facing and it would get me moving.
Alex Moffatt, who worked for the ACP, interviewed me and insisted I work with Rachel Knepfer who had been the photo editor of Rolling Stones Magazine for twenty years. In that time, she curated all the magazines’ images. Pierre Arpin, Director of ACP, said yes, even though he no longer had a job and continued to provide support in the following months.
I had two projects in mind, and one involved lots of visits to rural Queenland which would be tricky during a pandemic. Rachel convinced me to choose my tropical belle idea, which focussed on Queensland fashion and matching them to flowers as I believed the ladies were getting inspiration for their fashion outlook from their semi-tropical surroundings.
As soon as I decided the disparate jigsaw puzzle pieces floating in my brain collided in a fizz and a pop. The project appeared fully formed. It’s funny how that can happen. It’s as if the project is waiting for you to say yes.
My favourite way to start is to throw myself into it. I don’t like planning it out in a methodical fashion. I wanted to follow passion and inspiration, and see where it led me as ultimately it would create a better project.
I got up at 5am and went to the wholesale flower markets. It would have made more sense to start with the ladies and match them to the flowers, but that’s where my inspiration took me.
When I got there a whole new world awaited.
The flower markets were full of half-asleep women with blinking moon eyes and an otherworldliness – they still had part of themselves in the land of dreams. Hair was wonderfully messy from sleep. A strange array of pre-dawn clothes was thrown on to keep away the cold and a couple had jackets thrown over pyjamas. Showers, breakfast, school runs and real life would come later.
I fitted in. I had a strange array of clothing thrown on too and loved the vibe. I began breathing more deeply. My plan was to photograph ladies of fashion and here I was surrounded by wild flowers – goddesses of dreams, and whispered fantasies of future longings.
The doors opened and we entered. There is nothing quite like a wholesale market with flowers in every direction. Astonishing. It overwhelms the senses in a wonderful way. I wandered around and let my inspiration guide me. Mostly, it was a feeling energy. If a flower type resonated I bought it.
I got home and filled my living area with vases of flowers and buckets of greenery.
I photographed non-stop as I had a small window of opportunity before signs of wilting, and I had bought too many flowers.
It is soulful to surrender to what must be. I threw myself down at the stairs of my journey and surrendered to the rhythm of waking up early, photographing all morning and editing in the afternoon.
It took time for each flower and its luminosity to reveal itself to me through the photographic medium. I worked hard to become familiar with my macro lens and with capturing the energy I could see before me. More often than not, it was the inspiration of a moment that got the shot I wanted. I would see something in the foliage and it would move me. I’d take the photo in that instant. It was only through hard work that I got to this point where the magic happened.
My night-time dreams became flowers only – they moved in 3D through my brain. Collages, colliding images, zoom-ins, smells, colours, texture, feelings, desire. When I woke in the morning and went straight to the kettle, I was surrounded by a jungle of flowers on my benchtops and tables. My dreams matched my surroundings and I became so happy. Joy exploded in my chest.
Have you ever noticed how joy starts? My heart feels it first and then it travels to the rest of my body. Chemical reactions cascade through my blood. It all – feelings and chemicals – reaches my brain, and joy takes over all my thoughts.
Meanwhile, the daily ritual of photographing and editing continued. It soothed and opened me up, removing much of the mental and physical turbulence of losing my teaching work, writing business, the toils of the pandemic and being in a strange new city.
My heart breathed richer and slower. Joy which had been temporal, became permanent.
When the flowers wilted I had some days off and then bought more from the wholesale markets. The photographing began and the cycle repeated itself. I did not want to let go of this passion project and it did not want to let go of me either.
This is how I dealt with it all. This is how I transmuted pain and suffering into joy.
Bewildering at First
I moved to Brisbane and my original 1970’s London maroon leather jacket, wool skirts and knee-high boots lay abandoned in my wardrobe. To add to my woes most of my tops and dresses were a synthetic blend and couldn’t be worn most of the year.
I needed cotton outfits that breathed so as to cope with the heat and humidity in Brisbane.
There is a saying: women glow, men perspire, horses sweat. It certainly doesn’t apply in the tropics, although it brings a whole new perspective to the Australian classic,
“Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover.”
I wanted to glow with health and charisma, not with a face red, sweat trickling down my thighs and hair springing ever upwards.
During my first summer my knee-high boots became mould factories and were thrown out. No amount of cleaning kept it away. And my jackets, of which I owned several, had to be on permanent rotation on the back of the door to stop mould growing
I would not succumb to t-shirt, denim shorts and thongs, fading into the boganville of Brisbane. Australians have a bad reputation overseas: our casualness and lack of care with clothes can shock others. Part of this stems from the climate, but it’s also part of the no-worries outlook.
When I visited Paris and London in 2018, I filled my suitcase to the brim and stripped all the packaging off to fit clothes in as I bought so much. I left old clothes for my Airbnb hostess, a hot Parisian crime reporter, on the kitchen table. She wrote me an above excellent review.
I couldn’t figure out how to look good in Brisbane. My modis operandi was thrown out of wack.
I decided to keep my eyes open. Amongst the casualness I noticed there were these ladies – vivid tropical belles nestled amongst the green foliage. They steadfastly ignored Sydney, Melbourne and European trends. Instead, they drew inspiration from the lush tropical surrounds. They were all ages, but more often than not, older.
Orange lips with maroon hair. Intoxicating emerald dresses dosed with chlorophyll jewellery. Pastel blue tops matched with equally pastel lemon pants, decadent flower prints, glorious toenails, loud dresses and ones that flaunted, well, everything, no matter the shape or size.
These tropical flowers were bursting with life. They were an affront to my Sydney eyes. There was far too much colour for one person to carry. They needed some black to tone it all down.
Nothing seemed to go together, although it did. It wasn’t sophisticated. It wasn’t decent showing all that skin.
Yet, how could I deny a tropical outfit carefully curated from the earrings down to the toe nail polish?
I awoke from my Sydney freeze-lock and went forth. I worked to dismantle some ingrained belief systems about what fashion was. It was bewildering at first.
Little by little I let more cray cray into my soul. I bought a dress with swans on it and skirts with Japanese prints and hippy motifs. There were fun t-shirts for outings. I bought oddities, delights, sensual things. I still avoided tropical prints as I couldn’t bring myself to go that far.
Brisbane tropical belles are loud and don’t listen to the latest trends from overseas. Also, they will never retreat to a middle-aged bob and a navy smock that hides loose arms. Instead, palettes, shade, metals and cleavage are bent to their will. Their boldness takes over any room they enter and, thus, they will never be forgotten or disregarded, which is a trap that can happen as you age. They won’t listen to an article that says women over 40 should only wear things that stops below the knees. That is laughable in this heat. Nothing will make them conform to what should be or how it is.
It’s not forced, nor an attempt to be seen or feminist proud. It’s honest and an unconstricted truth about their soul. Wild, free and unfettered.
Side note: Many thanks to Rachel Knepfer (ex-photo editor of Rolling Stones Magazine) who was an absolute joy to work with. We resonated on a level that sparked the imagination, and threw perfection and judgement out the window, which allowed more devotion to the craft. Strangely, she lived three blocks from my old home in Coogee, Sydney although it took me moving to Brisbane to find her. We bonded over cliff walks and cliff pool swims. I also want to thank the Australian Centre of Photography for this wonderful opportunity. Thank you, Pierre Arpin, Director and Alex Moffatt for persisting with this project even though The ACP shut due to the pandemic.
Side Note: Since the pandemic I have noticed that many tropical belles have disappeared from the streets. It is my hope that these ladies will resurrect themselves and their closets soon. Enjoy the exhibition and choose a lady below.