Doktor Frock


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Romancing the Frock

By Judy Anderson, Arts Writer, Gold Coast

Adapting the role of provocateur, Corinne Colbert uses self-effacing humour to celebrate women's rituals, send up celebrity obsessions and challenge female stereotypes. The "cartoonical-iconical" frocks in Romancing the Frock function as radical symbols for the feminine and succeed in cheekily unravelling romantic notions of love and desire.
Preferring non-precious recyclable materials like onion bags, shower curtains, mozzie netting & industrial plastics, Colbert has spent much time climbing in and out of skip bins at building sites and fruit shops. In Romancing the Frock, however, there is a noticeable absence of the familiar shower curtains and fruit bags. Instead she uses brown paper, gift wrap and shredded romance novels to construct paper dresses that range from doll's size fifties frocks to overblown 19th century Romantic fashion.

Her life-size 1860s-inspired brown paper dress, absurdly titled The Visiting Frock for Madame de Barge seems a hilarious design for a frock. Overly frilly, bowed, pleated and corseted, one can imagine the constraints on the wearer's freedom of movement and sense of self. As Colbert explains, "The Romantic ideal is a restrictive one for women with its corsets and fragile social positions. It represents the ideal of the politically useless woman who attends tea parties with little else to do. The reference to Madame Le Farge, the leader of the French revolution, is an affectionate parody. Funnily enough she is not from the 1860s at all! Today the wearing of a corset is no restriction for freedom loving women such as Madonna, one of the greatest trend setters of our era, and at least the women's movement has stopped the practice of removing kidneys to fit into a 17 inch corset!"

The initial impact for the viewer, on encountering the stitched and sculpted paper frocks, can be an overwhelming desire to dress up. The urge is to interact with their tactility. Although made of paper these dresses appear anything but fragile. Coated in shellac and beeswax, they seem comfortably shabby, well worn, pre-loved. Mostly fifties classics, with a few 18th and 19th century visitations, each frock is embellished with fragments of post-war romantic novels stitched into their seams. The shredded text adds an element of biting irony. Threaded symbolically with the quest for true love, knights in shining armour and happy ever after endings, the fabric of the frock represents the fabric of romantic illusion.

The Marie Antoinette frock stands out in honour of its original glamorous wearer as 'the first real celebrity'. "The reason they chopped off her head," reveals Colbert over a cup of tea, "wasn't politics at all - they were jealous of her frock!"

While nothing is 'precious' for Colbert - not the materials - not the process - not even the end product - there is a level of serious delight in her frocks, a kind of 'playful' preciousness. Who doesn't want to dress up like Marie Antoinette or Marilyn Monroe? Rather than creating distance, or 'looking-only' viewing, these works are an invitation to touch, to remember childhood games playing at being grown-up. Yet, while re-enchanting us to the art of dressing up, the frocks challenge the politics of dressing up itself, a feminist critique of gender construction, desire and female stereotyping delivered in the guise of having fun.

Like Dadaist visual puns, Colbert's frock art approaches non-art to challenge the notion of what is art. As much 'sewing' as it is 'art', her work is skilfully constructed as only an experienced seamstress could, and cleverly conceptualised. Inspired by designers such as Elsa Schapirelli, the early twentieth century fashion designer whose collaborations with Surrealist artists resulted in extraordinary fabric designs, Colbert enjoys adapting unconventional materials and processes, and above all, relishes irony and humour in her work.
Her performance art borders on the burlesque - an exaggerated carnival of frocks and tea parties, the revelry of dressing up and raucous sewing circles. Her recurring message is always one of celebration and reclamation of women's rituals and ways of being in the world. In the company of Colbert's frocks, our own past, present and future fashion faux pas, frumpish blunders and cringe-worthy debacles in the romantic stakes begin to seem funny, particularly when diluted with a pot of tea.

It helps to be able to laugh at yourself, says Colbert whose rule of thumb for when to stop (whatever it is you are doing) and 'have a cup of tea' is when you're no longer having fun.