The Smock - A Classic Style that Never Goes Out of Fashion

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This year as I've browsed the chain stores – one of my favourite shopping habits – I've noticed something surprising. The smock top is back. Well, not exactly, because it's never really been away.

How long has this fashion been around in its current incarnation? Was it 2006 or 2007 that I first noticed a distinctive new, untailored style that appeared initially in the form of what was called the sack dress? It wasn't quite a smock, but was inspired by a similar concept of unstructured fullness.

Simple smock tops became huge that year. Soon everything was smocked, even short cropped jackets and sports hoodies. By today's standards the  smock tops of the mid-2000s were a bit dull, in uninspiring colours and with not quite enough gathering at the seam running across the sternum.

The smock evolved gradually from its 2006-07 incarnation, with a number of variations, from the peasant style to the flowing top with lots of gathering at a scoop neck. Present incarnations continue to play with gathering and draping, and have been influenced by fashion's move to stronger colours and abstract patterns; the peasant version is still prominent. 

But some things don't change: there is always something leisurely about the smock that perhaps harks back to its rural origins, and makes us imagine sunning ourselves in rustic pastures.

When I was researching this story, it was difficult to find examples of recent smock styles among organic and fair trade brands, either in Australia or overseas. Perhaps some of us are sick of the smock because its initial popularity was so over the top (pardon the pun) and we wore our smocks to death. Yet there are ethical styles out there - the smock above, from nixie clothing,  is made from vintage silk scarves. The gorgeous smock dress below is by 3Fish:

And this extremely cute smock top is from odd molly:

But the beauty of smocks still being fashionable – or at least not unfashionable – is that you can dig your old ones out from the back of the cupboard and brighten them up with up-to-date neckwear. And because they are a relatively recent style they're easy to find in op shops and thrift stores.

Of course, there are still lovely vintage specimens around from the 70s, like this one, from shinyredthings on Etsy.

I'm not a sewer but I imagine the smock style would be relatively easy to make as it's less tailored than conventional shirts and doesn't have a collar.

This enterprising blogger refashions men's work shirts into smocks by cutting off the collar and gathering the neck, and replacing the original sleeves with a puffy sleeve in a contrasting fabric. The results have a distinctive crafted elegance.

History of the smock top

Early smocks were worn by male peasant farmers in rural Britain from the early eighteenth century onwards. They were made from heavy wool or linen, and were more or less dresses – some a kind of 'shirt dress' with buttons down the chest, as per the example below – or coats, with buttons all the way down. Embroidery was added to the design in the nineteenth century (all of this illustrating that gendered fashion is a cultural construct!).

The male smock had in turn been inspired by the chemise, a loose undergarment worn by both men and women in Europe from the Middle Ages onwards.

Yoked cotton smocks were popular with pregnant women from the 1940s (and possibly earlier), and of course there was the popular swagger-style coat of the 1950s, which was loose and untailored.

But smock tops for women really hit their stride from the late 1960s as part of the first wave of hippie chic. Hippie, or 'gypsy', chic was inspired by traditional folkloric dress and smock tops were originally embroidered peasant blouses, often made from cheesecloth and worn with blue flared jeans. Hippie fashions like the peasant blouse were sometimes worn in direct defiance of corporate culture.

Kirsten Dunst shows a modern take on this look below (though I suspect she is making a fashion statement rather than a political one!).

As for the smock dress, brands as different as Mary Quant and Laura Ashley made it their own. The Mary Quant example below is something I'd be glad to wear today with a bit of fake tan on my white legs.

But I completely fell in love with this vintage smock dress, of unknown brand:

Back in the 70s (I am in fact quite ancient) my first smock dress – or chemise as we used to call them – still creates a feeling of fashion happiness when I think about it. It was made of cream calico, with puffed short sleeves and brightly coloured embroidery on the chest. On the cusp of adolescence, it made me feel like a fashion star. I adored myself in it.

The beauty of the smock dress is that you can belt some versions of it. And you can also tuck your smock top into your jeans for a blouson effect.

Not only that, but Alison DuBois from the hit TV show Medium convinced me that you could wear a smock top under a jacket for a more tailored look while solving the odd murder. Perhaps she was also psychic when it came to fashion!

Until next time!

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Hoarding and Decluttering: The Temptations of Memory

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A while ago I wrote a blog entry about whether the two mega-trends of thrifting and decluttering were compatible. Did a love of thrifting inevitably lead to hoarding, I wondered. Could a scourer of op shops (like me, for instance) actually lead a minimalist lifestyle?

My preoccupation with hoarding comes from the fact that my parents display totally opposing tendencies in this area.

My father is a hoarder of sorts. This trait took years to fully reveal itself, and remains limited to a few rooms in the house because my mother is a tidiness freak. 

While I was growing up my dad’s hoarding hardly impacted on me – except as an exemplar of untidiness – apart from the garage and garden shed, both almost unusable because stuffed with useless junk, including a canoe that to this day hangs upside down from the roof of the shed like some bizarre art installation, and is purported to have a hole in it. Oh, and my dad's huge glass-topped mahogany desk, whose surface was even then obscured by papers, that my mum had to suffer in their bedroom for many years. As she's gotten older, it's become harder for her to control my dad's messiness.

When we kids grew up and moved out of the house, Dad inherited a bedroom that became his 'office'. He used to complete his watercolour paintings in there, but it's so full of junk now, apart from a small space cleared for a computer and chair, that he’s abandoned it for this purpose. With its boxes of obsolete papers, discarded canvases, painting materials and plastic bags of electrical cables taking up most of the floor space, and the desk obscured by nests of manila folders stuffed with papers, it's a safety hazard.

Ominously my father has been 'given' another room for his painting, a tiny room at the back of the house that was formerly a spare-cum-sewing room. So far it's sufficiently free of junk that my dad can paint again but I predict that in a few months this room too will be unusable. He will occasionally create messy outposts in the rest of the house – for example, spreading his tax return documents around the dining room table, completing a painting project in the sunroom – but these are always temporary and are soon shooed back into the general chaos by my mother.

Dad is in some ways not a typical hoarder. Hoarding is often associated with compulsive shopping; Dad hardly ever shops for non-necessities unless he has to. Nor does he actively accumulate material objects in other ways (although he used to buy the odd broken-down car that he would tinker with on weekends). It's the past he hoards: religious pamphlets, old copies of journals, financial and administrative documents, and anything to do with his political battles with his teachers union, the local council and government bodies. He still has papers from at least fifty years ago.

While hoarding didn’t impact much on my childhood, its roots were present in subtle ways. For example, I knew one thing that would always garner my mother's approval (the usual things didn't really cut it with her): 'cleaning the kitchen' at night. What this meant was not just doing the dishes, but sorting, filing and taming the accumulations of junk that regularly spread themselves around the kitchen benches (this wasn’t just Dad of course – we are a family of seven). Organising this assortment of mail, torn pieces of envelope with phone numbers written on them, tiny miscellaneous toys, coins, sets of keys and so on, and creating sweet if temporary order, was something that my mother and I could both rejoice in.

Has Dad passed down his hoarding tendencies to me? Not at first glance. I'm a tidiness freak and I like to think I’m a great declutterer, but in that regard I’m fooling myself. I'm good at getting rid of some things but not others.

I hold onto clothes for longer than many, but I can get rid of the most treasured garment once I’ve made the decision; I actually enjoy the process of weeding out my wardrobe and dropping off a bag of goodies at my favourite op shop. Once it's time for a piece to go, I don't give it another thought.

But the fact is I do have my own hoarding weakness – books. I have five bookshelves if you don't count the one in my office that is stuffed with folders of edited educational materials.

I find it very hard to let books go. I have thrown the odd few out, but my decisions are extremely conservative. And I still have many books that I won't read again and that bear little relationship to how I live my life these days. Do I really need my secondhand copies of Emotional Intelligence and Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People? (These books were both written before the financial crisis – if they were so influential, why didn't their sage advice for corporate types stop the Goldman Sachs executives plundering the USA and destroying the world economy?) To me the knowledge these books hold represents security, and a link with past versions of me, and I can’t let them go, not yet anyway.

Another thing I hold onto is appointment diaries. Mine go as far back as 1994. I keep them in my bookshelves so it doesn’t feel as if I’m hoarding them. I tell myself they’re useful as primary sources for memoir writing and so on, but they’re really just another link with earlier versions of my life and myself. In the rare times I go through one, trying to discover when some long-ago incident occurred, I’m strangely comforted by the mundanity of the various lists I was so fond of making. Whatever my emotional and material struggles, I continued to go to the supermarket, have my hair cut, drop my books back to the library and pay my rent.

Flyers relating to arts and cultural events – exhibitions, readings, films, plays – are another weakness. It’s so easy to forget the details of these experiences, and while there’s enough room in my filing cabinet, I can’t bring myself to throw away anything that jogs my memory.

In fact, the things I hold onto suggest that I’m like more my father than is comfortable to contemplate. Like him, it’s reminders of the past that I cling to. In the absence of a photographic memory, these refugees from my past testify to my changing life and the things that continue to sustain it.

Do you find it easier to let go of some things and not others?

Are there mementoes of the past that you struggle to throw out?

Until next time!
If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might also like Clearing Out Clutter: A Goodbye Ritual for a Loved Object.

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Become a Fearless Habit Breaker - Tips for Changing Your Shopping Habits

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Since moving south of the Yarra I’ve been buying my free range chicken from the supermarket. But it’s vacuum-packed and far from fresh, and I’ve recently started a new shopping habit -- buying organic from a stall at my local food market. I made the change not just because organic chicken is healthier but because the animal welfare standards are higher.*

In the meantime, here I am, fronting up yet again to the organic meat stall. It’s not at all like the market’s organic groceries store, which has an unpretentious, down-to-earth atmosphere. Here, the whole look and feel goes against organic as earthy and embraces organic as superior tasting, premium meat, for the comfortably-off that have long gentrified this area, and Melbourne’s army of foodies.

The all-male staff are dressed in spiffy blue-and-white butchers aprons. On busy Saturday mornings a couple of them hover in the tiny shop floor area, which has a cash register so they’re not serving you from behind a counter.

I make my way to the stall, past the conventional slabs of meat set out on their antiseptic white trays, past the live lobsters in their tank that I feel so sorry for. The staff always ask me awkward questions, such as what I am planning to make the family for dinner (I live alone!). They sometimes overcharge me, as if so few people buy the chicken drumsticks that they’ve forgotten that they’re actually half the price of the thighs.

Still, it’s convenient and I know that if I keep at it this, too, will become routine. The market is close enough to home that if I’m organised enough I can tram it instead of driving. I’ll learn to bat off the silly questions that I know the stall managers have told the staff to ask, replying with a witty remark that will defeat their formulaic responses.

I’ll stop feeling guilty that I’m buying the cheaper cuts. I’ll resign myself to the fact that with my frugal ways and holier-than-thou questions about the origins of the meat, I am not their target market. And a new, more positive shopping habit will become second nature.

We know deep down that shopping isn’t trivial even though it’s often portrayed that way. How we shop has massive effects on our budget, our wellbeing and the producers of the things we buy, and also reflects our ethics. Consumers make the world by what, how and how much we buy.

Sometimes we get stuck in our ways when shopping. We’re stressed and busy, and it’s easier to do what we’ve always done.

Whether you’re trying to save money, go green or simply spend less time in recreational shopping, changing a shopping habit isn’t easy. It means getting out of your comfort zone when so much else in life is uncertain. Here are some tips that can help.

Recognise how habits work. The brain is very adaptable, and habits are sticky things. It can feel uncomfortable and take some willpower to change the way you do things. However, simply persevering with a new habit will mean it eventually becomes a seamless part of life. Recognise that you are going to feel uncomfortable for a while when you change an ingrained habit, and try to sit with the discomfort until the new way of doing things becomes a part of your routine.

Don’t make too many changes all at once. This could lead you to feel overwhelmed. Make one small change at a time and see if you can stick with it.

Don’t let small slip-ups stop you. If you backtrack on a goal, don’t worry. Just try again. If it doesn’t feel right to continue with the change, drop it (this is not the same as feeling uncomfortable).

Budget for the change.
If the change is going to cost more money, especially in the short term, you may need to budget for it by foregoing another expense.

Learn from the experiences of others. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. There is a ton of information on the internet about new ways to shop and live.

Don’t compare yourself with others. This is an easy mistake to make when starting to change the way you shop. Dramatic change garners attention. Social media means we know right away what everyone else is doing and it’s human nature to compare ourselves with others. People who produce zero waste, have stopped using plastic, or no longer buy new clothes or takeaway food are setting a fantastic example, but doing something, especially at the start, is still better than doing nothing. Start from where you are and use the experiences of others as inspiration for your own unique journey.

Find support. If you have friends who are making similar changes, become a motivator for each other. You could arrange to meet or talk regularly to compare notes, cheer each other on and affirm your goals. Start a blog or Facebook group, or join a group that has similar goals to yours; for instance, the Meetup website includes groups with goals of saving money or living a greener lifestyle, or you could start your own meet-up group.

Are there shopping habits you are trying to break?

What techniques have worked for you?

Until next time!
If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might also like Three Frugal Tips So Obvious You Probably Haven't Thought of Them.

I’m vegetarian at heart, but because of food intolerance and low blood sugar, my diet’s so limited I have little choice but to eat meat.

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Get Your Copy of the Inspired Shopper for Free!

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For a few days only, The Inspired Shopper is totally free!

That's right, downloading the book won't cost a cent! Here's the page on the Amazon UK site.

You don't have to register separately - Amazon sets up an account for you when you buy for the first time.

You can also download a free Kindle reader.

Why am I doing this? I believe in the ideas in the book, and I want as many people to gain from them as possible.

I'm also looking for feedback on the book, and hope that those who read it for free might take the time to submit a short review.

This offer will only last a few days so grab it while it's hot!
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Fashion Gets Set for Return of the Roaring Twenties

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Put another pin in your hat, Dot. You’re in for a fast ride!’

– Phryne Fisher

Television can sometimes have an explosive effect on the fashion industry – witness the rage for all things sixties created by Mad Men. The phenomenally successful Downton Abbey has introduced a new generation to high-end Edwardian couture and jewellery, setting off a number of global trends.

Another era 
is currently receiving a much-deserved boost. The Roaring Twenties  the extravagant period that came before the long slog of the Great Depression – changed fashion forever. Its being brought to life for a whole new audience in recent and forthcoming movies and TV series showcasing the sheer larger-than-life glamour of the era.

The twenties was the most revolutionary decade for fashion in the 20th century, says Nicole Jenkins, owner of Melbourne vintage fashion store CircaThis era  has reverberated through the years since.

Nicole,  also a costumier and collector, points to
 revivals of twenties styles in the 1960s and 80s, as well as current revivals by Prada and other design houses.

The twenties has [also] been a perennial favourite for dress-up parties, as the look is so distinctive and easy to put together.’

Two recent Australian television series have already showcased, to great acclaim, Roaring Twenties pizzazz. Underbelly: Razor (pictured below) is a 13-part Australian miniseries set in Sydney. It depicts therazor gangs who controlled the citys underworld between 1927 and 1936 and features truckloads of glitzy, gaudy twenties glamour. According to Wikipedia, the first episode made the show the highest rating drama in Australian history’. The Daily Telegraph ran a competition giving readers a chance to play extras in the series, and was inundated with entries.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is a detective series set in Melbourne, Australia, in 1928. Oozing glamour and sensuality, wealthy amateur sleuth Phryne Fisher swishes through the staid drawing rooms, foggy back lanes, grimy docks and smoky jazz clubs of the city with her sleek chestnut bob, toting her pearl-studded pistol as she brings murderers to book aided by her handsome colleague Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.

The series has just completed its first run in Australia and a second series is in the pipeline. I couldn’t find information about overseas sales, but I’d be very surprised if Phryne doesn’t make an appearance on the BBC and possibly North American screens at some point.

Phryne – superbly brought to life by the elegant Essie Davis – is a style icon with a conscience, a glamour girl from humble origins who strives to achieve justice for the underdog. She resides in an elegant two-storey Victorian mansion replete with iron lace balconies and wonderful art nouveau decor, supporting a household staff of three, a foster child and a dedicated lady companion, Dot Williams, who assists in her investigations. With a series of exotic suitors and a simmering sexual tension between her and DI Robinson, she epitomises the new sexually liberated woman of the twenties. Her superbly tailored wardrobe delights the eye with its intricate designs, bold patterning and deliciously luxuriant fabrics.

The series is based on the bestselling novels by Australian solicitor Kerry Greenwood. An intellectual heavyweight with a yen for crime, Greenwood has created a larger-than-life heroine, a period female superhero who speaks several languages and is as adept at flying a plane as she is at dancing the tango. Yet Greenwood strives for authentic period settings, and only agreed to the TV series because she was given a say in the design. She was thrilled with the results.

The odd cloche hat makes an appearance, but Greenwood wanted to distinguish the distinctive style of the late twenties both from the flapper fashion that marked the early part of the decade and the very fitted styles of the thirties. At the time, costumes were designed as whole ensembles, with everything matched from underwear through to coats, and fabrics were incredibly fine and embellished. While purists have pointed out historical anomalies in some of the props, the gorgeous locations are apparently in the main true to 1928 and the years before it.

Nicole concurs that the fashions in Miss Fishers Murder Mysteries are distinctlyfashion forward, and not always recognisable as classic twenties. She goes on to suggest that these days original twenties fashion is not always replicated ‘in its true form because styles arent always flattering – yet the era has still been highly influential.

‘The drop waist styles are loose and comfortable and particularly flattering for ladies with slim, boyish figures. Unfortunately, theyre not suited to curvy figures, which most of us have, so interpretations usually involve adding a bit more shape.

More twenties glamour to come

Cloche hats, concave bobs and  sequinned, feathered headbands will certainly be on display in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming extravaganza The Great Gatsby. I’ve only seen the trailer, but that alone suggests that the film will make Chicago look like a Sunday picnic.  It’s to be released in 3D, and will be playing in US cinemas from 25 December and in Australia from 10 January.

Nicole is  looking forward to seeing how Luhrmann portrays the fashions of the time. ‘It promises to be very swish and stylish, stylised even, as his creative team like to produce a hyper-real and creative version of history.

The forthcoming third series of Downton Abbey is also set to provide sartorial thrills. The show has become a cult hit in the USA, with Sunday night viewing parties and themed merchandise. MSNBC’s Today show has given fans advice on how to dress like the Downton Abbey ladies and produced a collection of unauthorised Downton Abbey jewellery that it was later forced to pull.

The third series is already creating plenty of buzz. Airing in the UK from September, it will be set in the post-war era and will feature twenties fashions. Below are some examples of the Edwardian styles that have made such an impact.

As far as twenties fashion goes, it seems that the unassuming Dot Williams is not the only one in for a fast ride in the next few months   I cant wait!

Until next time!

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might also like Wanted – An Annie Hall for the 2000s.

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Three Frugal Tips So Obvious You Probably Haven't Thought of Them

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Getting serious about saving money can seem like an onerous task. But it starts with simply changing your attitudes to money and the way you approach spending it. Here are three new frugal tips that are so obvious you may not have thought of them yet!

1. Assume you don’t need anything

Apart from the basic necessities (food, housing, energy, transport) we often say we ‘need’ new items. What we really mean is that we believe our lives would be easier, happier and better overall if we had those items.

When we go shopping for a particular non-basic item we start from a default position that’s so drummed into us we don’t realise it – that we must buy whatever it is we’re looking for. We feel deprived and somehow inadequate without the item.

One way to decrease your spending is to assume that you already have everything you need apart from basic necessities. Then, when a fresh need comes to your attention – a new smartphone; a pair of Mahno Blahnik shoes – you start from the assumption that you don’t need it and work backwards.

Assuming you don’t really need it, ask yourself if there’s anything you already have that could substitute for it. Alternatively, could you borrow it instead? Find it secondhand? Swap something to get it? Or, when you give yourself time to think about it, do you really have enough of that kind of item already?

Of course, at any one time there’s a fair chance that you don’t have everything you need. I often recommend people write a list of things that they intend to buy to put some boundaries around their spending.

The beauty of starting from a default ‘no needs’ position is that you exhaust every other possibility before buying the item. Then if you decide you do really need it, you can buy it without guilt. The real, genuine needs will emerge from the dross of your many wants like shining diamonds, and you’ll find the right items easily at the right time.

2. First things first

I used to be in a 12-step program, and if there’s one thing that is plentiful in these programs it’s wise sayings. Some might argue there are too many, but they can sometimes be quite profound. One of the sayings that has stuck with me over the years is ‘first things first’.

There are two useful ways you can apply this to your spending. The first one is simply allocating enough money for the basic necessities of life (food, housing, energy, transport) before buying non-necessities. Of course, there are many ways you can reduce your spending on these necessities so that you can save more money or buy something you really need.

The other meaning of the saying is even more straightforward, and involves how you spend your time. Shop for the necessities first, and then do any leisure shopping you want to do. If you’re prone to overspending, getting your priorities right in this regard could help you reduce the amount of leisure shopping you do, and therefore your spending. Instead of tacking your food shopping onto the end of a spending binge, take the time to think about what food you’ll buy, where you’ll buy it,  and how you can buy the healthiest food to look after yourself. Changing your priorities in this way is a signal that you’re looking after yourself, and this could also have benefits for your spending. 

You could also look more carefully at other basics like the transport you use to get around, and how you use electricity and gas. Putting time and energy into thinking about those things that you might otherwise spend, say, shopping online could not only reduce your carbon footprint but give you a more mindful experience of life.

3. Look at your familys money history

You’re not stuck with the spending habits that were instilled in you – it is possible to change your attitudes, and looking at how you came to develop them is a great way to start.

A useful exercise is to sit down and write a history of your family’s attitudes to money. Ask yourself:

How did my parents and grandparents spend money?

What were the attitudes to money that lay behind their spending habits?

What are my attitudes to spending?

How have the attitudes and habits of my family helped form my own attitudes?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll be able to look at your spending habits much more objectively and start to get some distance from them. And you’ll begin to understand that you don't have to be stuck with them!

After taking a serious look at my parents’ attitude to money, and those of my maternal grandparents, I now have a completely different approach to saving and spending from the rest of my family. 

Have you found that you gained more control over your spending after changing some of your basic attitudes? What were your original attitudes and how did you go about changing them?

Until next time!

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Search for Organic Kids' Clothes Leads to Online Business


When Liane Shannon had her daughter, Emma, she was concerned about the effects of synthetic and non-organic fabrics on her skin. But finding childrens clothes that were made from natural fibres and also fashionable and vibrant was much harder than shed anticipated. So she decided to create them herself, and founded an innovative company in the process! 

Liane is now the Creative Director of Master and Miss, an Australian children’s fashion label that offers clothing made from certified organic cotton from size 0000 up to size 5.

My earliest memories are of my mother at her sewing machine making clothes for our family, and following in her footsteps seemed like the natural thing to do.

As well as being organic,  Liane was determined that all the clothes would be designed and manufactured in Australia.

I interviewed Liane about why she started the company, the state of play with sustainable clothing in Australia, and what the future held.

When did you start Master and Miss? Was it a solo venture?

I founded the company in May 2011, but had started doing my research about six months earlier. Master and Miss is a solo venture but I do have some great support from a friend who is very experienced in web design and SEO. Without his help and guidance I would have been at a total loss as I have no experience in this area.

Could you describe the situation you found when you started looking for organic clothes for your daughter, and how you responded?

As a baby, Emma would get red spots all over her skin that weren’t food related.  I found that organic cotton and clothing made from natural fibres reduced this. When I started looking for organic cotton clothes I just couldn’t find what I wanted, ie good basics that had a bit of style to them. I could find lots of clothes that I loved but they weren’t organic, so I decided to make my own.

I sourced plain organic cotton, which is what I’ve used in my first collection, but moving forward you will start to see a lot more prints and patterns. One of the aims of Master and Miss is to be able to provide mums with key pieces, like leggings and skirts, that they can buy year after year and then pair the latest T-shirt with, so that customers get lots of wear options.

Has Australia been slow to take up the promise of sustainable clothing?

I think that more people are becoming aware of the impact that we are having on our environment. Just look at how far recycling has come – we all have recycle bins now, but when I was a child this was not common practice. Solar energy and water-saving devices are becoming standard in new homes. I think all this has a knock-on effect – sustainable clothing will only continue to get more exposure and this will hopefully lead to more companies looking at organic and natural fabrics. It’s all about educating people and giving them good quality choices that are not three times the price.

What was most satisfying to you about the process of designing the clothes?

I get such a thrill in seeing a design that has been in my head become a reality, and then when I get to dress my own daughter in one of my designs, the thrill is doubled!

What were some of the challenges of setting up a sustainable clothing business in Australia?

The lack of choice of fabrics available in Australia. I would love to add more details like trims and ribbons, but this would mean using non-organic or importing from overseas. The dilemma I face is: will consumers mind if I add these non-organic features, and will it take away from what the brand is all about?

What were some of the advantages of setting up the company, eg ability to sell clothes online without a middle person?

The main advantage of selling online is being able to reduce overhead operating costs like renting premises, electricity and insurance. Plus I can increase my customer base to include not only the whole of Australia but the world. The disadvantage is that people don’t get to feel the quality of the clothes and see how well they look on.

Why was manufacturing the clothes in Australia important to you?

I love the fact that I am creating jobs in Australia, and I love being able to deal face to face with people and be hands-on. If I manufactured clothes overseas I would not be able to do this. I would also be helping another country to prosper when we should be looking after our own backyard first.

Is there any particular highlight or landmark that stands out for you in the process of setting up or developing the company?

People had told me how hard it is to have your own business, and how costs and so on can get blown out or not go to plan. I thought I had covered every eventuality, but there were so many UNEXPECTED teething problems that I seriously thought that this was all going to be too hard. But you have to believe in yourself and back yourself all the time and I have surprised myself at how resourceful and driven I have been. I LOVE Master and Miss, I am so proud of what I have achieved in such a short time and I can’t wait to see where it will be in five years time.

How do you see the future of sustainable clothing in Australia?

Hopefully BRIGHT! As I mentioned before, I really think people are much more aware of the decisions they make. With brands such as Master and Miss providing consumers with more choices and at reasonable prices, I’m confident that consumers will choose a locally made, organic cotton garment over an imported mass-produced one.

Do you sell your clothes internationally?

While Master and Miss does not have any overseas distributors we ship internationally. If you're looking to place an order and want confirmation of  postage or shipping rates, please email enquiries@masterandmiss.com.au

25% discount offer to all Inspired Shopper readers!

Master and Miss have kindly offered a 25% discount on their entire range for Inspired Shopper readers. To receive your discount you need to login to the website or register as a user. When you reach the checkout, you need to enter the code INSHOP. Hurry, as this offer expires 30 June!

Until next time!

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might also like Shop with Your Children without Having a Nervous Breakdown: Nine Great Tips.

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Treasure Hunting: Five Brand New Op Shop (Thrift Store) Tips

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1.  Visit stores that are far away from where you live. It’s easy to get used to the prices and kinds of stock in your local op shop, and to assume that it’s all the same wherever you go. Explore further afield and get a new perspective on prices and the stock available. Not only that, but a new store is a novelty that gives you a fresh eye to hunt out the bargains with. I found the navy cardigan pictured above at a Salvos store in Bentleigh, a suburb I hardly ever visit. It was half-price so cost only a few bucks. I just love the ruffled sleeves. The pendant in the picture was also an op shop find, from Salvos in Camberwell.

2. Don’t make assumptions about how the geographic area affects stock quality and prices. Stores in disadvantaged areas don't necessarily have poor stock, and those in well-heeled parts of town aren't always overpriced. There’s a tiny op shop opposite Fitzroy’s high rise housing estate that obtains some of its donations from the pupils of an exclusive boys grammar school in the south-eastern suburbs. A couple of months ago I visited a Vinnies store in Kew, a prosperous inner eastern suburb of Melbourne, and found it was cheaper than the Vinnies in Malvern. This cute shirtdress was waiting for me -- it was only $8 and brand new. An independent op shop I visited in Kew on the same day also had great prices.

3. Visit op shops when business is quiet. Any day when there’s less competition for the stock is a good day to go op or thrift shopping! Long weekends are a great time to visit; most of my suburb seems to go AWOL if there's a public holiday either end of the weekend. Cold rainy days are also great for secondhand treasure hunting.

4. Leave something behind. On most of my best op shop visits I'll find at least one treasure that wasn’t meant for me. On a recent visit I bought what appeared to be two brand new cushions (Ikea?) for $5 each (pictured above). On the back wall of the same shop I found a gorgeous kitsch print for only $19, but I left it behind because it just didn’t feel right to buy it. That print was meant for someone else, and whoever they are, it's probably looking fantastic in their loungeroom as I write!

5. Wait for prices to go down. As op store mavens know, ‘chainstore’ op shops like Salvos and Vinnies have a ticketing system that involves reducing the price of items that haven't sold after a certain time period. Independent op shops will often overprice their stock for much longer, but eventually they'll reduce the prices on items that aren't selling.

I waited about two months before I nabbed this gorgeous picture at my local op shop. It has a lovely carved frame in gold-coloured metal and is in great condition, but at $70 it was beyond my budget; about $45 would have been my limit. Luckily it was hanging quite high up on the wall so it was easy for shoppers to miss. One morning I dropped into the store and noticed that the price had been halved to $35. I snapped it up immediately! My patience had been rewarded.

Happy hunting!

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Counting Your Chickens: Free Range Egg Labelling in Australia

A rescued battery hen
Picture: Animals Australia
In an episode of the spoof program Portlandia, a hipster couple scan the menu at a groovy locavore restaurant. They ask the friendly waitress about the provenance of the organic chicken. She gives them the name of the chicken – Colin – provides his papers and a photo, and confirms that he was a heritage breed, had four acres to run around in, was ‘woodland-raised’ on a local farm, lived a happy, contented life, and was fed a diet of hazelnut, soy and sheep’s milk.

But this isn’t enough for them. They leave the restaurant to investigate the farm for themselves, asking the waitress to hold their seats.

While this is comedy, the fact is when it comes to anything to do with animal rights and food production, you can’t take anything at face value. Eggs are no exception. If you’ve moved beyond cage eggs and want to find out about the alternatives, it’s not as straightforward as you’d expect.

An end to cage eggs?
There are four broad categories of egg-laying systems: cage eggs, barn laid, free range and organic. Battery cages were banned in the EU from 1 January this year, because of the unacceptable level of cruelty they impose. They are also illegal in seven US states.

Unfortunately, cage eggs are still legal in Australia, and the situation for hens confined this way is dire. The Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL), the representative body for the industry, will never change its pro-cage stance voluntarily; only consumer pressure will force our MPs to act. Animals Australia is currently running a campaign to end battery cages in Australia, and you can help.

In fact there's already a great deal of awareness of hen welfare in the community if retail figures are anything to go by. Free range eggs represented 32.9% of the retail market in 2011; add certified organic and barn laid to that figure and it’s fair enough to conclude that at least half the egg-buying public have already thought about how their eggs are produced. If we consumers pushed hard enough, a ban on cages could become a reality here.

Alternatives to the cage
Animals Australia has produced an excellent summary of the various categories of egg-laying systems and what they actually mean for animal welfare. It’s not simple: within the three more humane categories, different labelling systems exist with their own standards. Unfortunately it’s also positively labyrinthine in the USA. Luckily for UK consumers, things appear to be more straightforward there, as this guide suggests.

Below I’ve set out some of the discoveries I’ve made in my attempts to work out what’s going on with Australian labelling. The gist of this is: you can buy genuine free range eggs from the supermarket, but you'll have more choice if you buy them from other outlets.

Bog standard supermarket 'free range'
  • The Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL) has its own free range certification based on these standards. This certification is controversial among animal welfare groups and some free range egg producers because debeaking is permitted; it’s claimed that many of the chickens don’t ever see the entry point from their barn to the paddock and stay inside their whole lives; and stocking densities may be excessive (see next point).
  • The AECL is lobbying the government to allow ‘free range’ to include 20,000 birds per hectare. At the moment the recommended maximum is 1500 but this is only a legal maximum in Queensland. The industry argues that its free range producers are exceeding this number anyway, and that it is simply trying to impose a maximum for accreditation purposes. It uses this video to justify its stance. According to Animals Australia, the AECL also proposes that free range hens be allowed to be locked inside sheds for the first 25 weeks of their lives – even though they begin laying eggs at just 18 weeks old and currently go outside from about 5–6 weeks of age.
  • The labelling of AECL-accredited free range eggs doesn't mention the AECL directly; it’ll probably say something like ‘certified free range’. You might ask if there’s much difference between the different companies within the AECL’s free range certification. You’ll need to investigate that yourself. The fact is, the supermarket free range egg companies have become very clever at designing packaging that replicates small indie companies with high standards; two labels that do this well are Eco Eggs and Loddon Valley.
  • The labelling of supermarket free range eggs can be misleading in another way. Sometimes the provenance of the company and its level of independence is misrepresented. I was cheerfully buying McLean’s Run eggs from the supermarket, which are ‘certified free range’ with a maximum of 1500 hens per hectare. When I rang the information number provided by the company, the person who answered the phone identified it as Sunny Queen farms! So who actually owns this supposedly independent company?
RSPCA standards
  • The RSPCA, which is currently running its own campaign against cage eggs, has introduced its own quality assurance labelling. This has higher standards than the AECL standards and aims to ensure hens can express their natural behaviours. Frankly, it makes things more confusing for consumers because it includes barn-laid eggs. The RSPCA would probably say that it was encouraging producers of barn eggs to keep to minimum standards of hen wellbeing. But the result is a justification of barn-laid eggs, and hens kept in these conditions don’t get out into the open air for most of their lives.
Higher standard free range
  • Certified organic is a form of free range that has the strictest and highest standards of all. This isn't always made clear by the labelling - when you buy certified organic eggs, they will always be free range, but with higher standards than the other categories.
  • Free range eggs accredited by the RSPCA have higher standards than AECL accredited free range, but there are still some issues. The RSPCA standards allow beak trimming as long as it’s carried out using infrared equipment (the more brutal method of hot blade trimming is still reportedly used for standard AECL accreditation, although the AECL denies this). And RSPCA accredited free range eggs aren’t readily available in supermarkets, though the barn-laid RSPCA-accredited eggs are. This means that because many people trust the RSPCA and buy their eggs from supermarkets, they’ll end up buying barn laid. Here’s the list of RSPCA accredited companies and products.
  • More seriously, the RSPCA publicity actually encourages consumers to choose RSPCA-accredited eggs rather than, say, certified organic.
  •  Other independent forms of free range accreditation have stricter guidelines than the AECL or the RSPCA, including in the area of beak trimming. For example, the Free Range Farmers Association only allows 750 birds per hectare and does not allow beak trimming. This body argues that beak trimming is necessary only when there are too many hens per hectare – if true, this raises questions about the wisdom of the AECL increasing the allowed density for free range accreditation. (Possibly the main difference between this high standard free range and certified organic would be the type of feed the hens get and/or the use of pesticides on the farm.)
  • My experience is that in Melbourne at least, of the eggs available at Coles or Woolworths, most of the certified or accredited free range eggs will be so under the AECL guidelines and not the more rigorous forms of free range accreditation mentioned above. Important exceptions to this are Family Homestead eggs, Sunny Queen certified organic eggs and Pace Farm certified organic eggs. These  are available in at least some Coles supermarkets in Victoria and the two organic categories are available at some Woolworths stores. More on these below.
  • Family Homestead eggs, available at Coles, are possibly your best choice at the supermarket. They are produced under higher accreditation standards than AECL or RSPCA eggs and are accredited with the Free Range Farmers Association Victoria and Humane Choice True Free Range. According to the website, they do not debeak; they use dogs to guard the hens; there are only 750 hens per hectare; best of all they encourage visitors to check out their farm. Sunny Queen organic eggs and Pace Farm organic eggs would seem to be produced under the most rigorous accreditation standards because they're certified organic, but keep in mind they are large and ruthless players that produce eggs for all the niche markets, including cage eggs.
  • Apart from the ones I've mentioned, eggs with more rigourous free range accreditation standards or those certified organic tend to be available at health food stores, organic grocery stores, farmers markets and food markets, and IGA supermarkets in some states. (But don’t assume that eggs sold at markets and labelled free range are automatically superior – check the label for the correct logo.)
  • Whichever label you choose, remember that male chicks are killed at birth, sometimes very cruelly, and laying hens are sent to slaughter from 18 months of age.
What you can do
  • Identify the accreditation you feel comfortable with. Some people start off with barn laid and work their way up!
  • Buy your eggs from health food or organic stores or markets.
  • Pressure your local supermarket to stock free range eggs from more rigourous accreditations than the AECL one, or a greater range of non-AECL free range and organic eggs.
  • Ask Coles and Woolies to stop stocking cage eggs
  • Demand that they refuse to stock AECL free range eggs if the revised standards go ahead.
  • Write to your local MP and the federal Minister for Agriculture, Joel Fitzgibbon, to demand the banning of battery cages in Australia.
  • Start your own online campaign for banning cage eggs.
  • Support the Animals Australia campaign, and tell your friends and family about the suffering of hens in battery cages.
Until next time!

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might also like How to Carry Out Your Green and Ethical New Year's Resolutions.

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Green Teeth: Introducing the Environmental Toothbrush

A few months ago I wrote a post about the terrible effects of plastic on our oceans, and ways to reduce your use of plastic. Since then I’ve been preoccupied with the dominant role this substance plays in our daily lives. All too often I find myself puzzling over what to do with a used biro, or the plastic clip that came with the packet of rice cakes I bought from the supermarket.

Toothbrushes are one of the many plastic products we buy and throw away, not realising that there are other options. I use old ones for cleaning grouting and around taps and sinkholes but there’s only so many toothbrushes you need for this purpose!

Enter the Environmental Toothbrush. Apparently the brainchild of a Brisbane dentist, its handle is made of sustainable bamboo. It’s designed to be thrown away, but the company claims that the entire toothbrush, including the bristles, is fully compostable and will biodegrade in soil without pollution.

The bristles of most normal toothbrushes are made with nylon. The bristles of the Environmental Toothbrush are made with a polymer that in ideal conditions composts within 48 hours. But non-ideal conditions are often the problem with compostable plastics, and apparently these bristles compost even in the sea. The company chose polymer in preference to pigs hair or horses hair, options that would have been objectionable to vegans.

The design is both simple and appealing. The bamboo handle looks good and is nice to hold; people who’ve started to use wood implements after years of plastic often mention how pleasant it is to look at as well as touch. We seem genetically designed to crave natural substances. The packaging is biodegradable, a nice change from the insult of even more plastic to dispose of when you buy a conventional toothbrush.

The big ifs with this toothbrush are two-fold – the energy used to create it and the conditions of the workers who manufacture them in China, where they’re made.

Without any information to the contrary I’d have to assume that the toothbrushes are made using conventional power. As for working conditions, we’re completely in the dark, which is too often the case with eco-friendly products. I’d like to think this product is people-friendly but at this point there’s nothing on the website to assure me of this.

Even without these assurances, however, this toothbrush is a definite step forward. It was the only eco-conscious toothbrush made by an Australian company that I could find on the web.

The price is a big positive; at $AU36 for a packet of 12, it works out at only $3 per toothbrush. The only drawback is that you have to buy them in bulk.

The Environmental Toothbrush can be bought online from the website, and the company ships worldwide. Freight is free within Australia. The toothbrush is also available at a number of Australian retail outlets – see the site for details.

Disclosure: I received a free sample toothbrush from the company.

Until next time!

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might also like Top Tips for Supermarket Savings.

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Fair Fashion? New Legislation Aims to Protect Outworkers in Australia’s Clothing Industry

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Picture: Enrico Bianda

For many fashionistas, overdosing on cutting-edge fashion at the local shopping mall is the epitome of bliss. Yet for most of the workers who create the edgy designs we adore, the experience is anything but blissful.

Chances are that the slinky $200 top youre trying to decide whether you can afford was made by someone earning as little as $4 an hour, working for long hours in an unsafe environment – even if the garment was made in Australia.

Up to now, much of our homegrown fashion has been constructed by poorly paid outworkers in unsafe sweatshop conditions. Many outworkers toil for more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week, receiving no overtime pay or penalty rates. They often receive no superannuation, annual leave or workers compensation. They’re usually made to pay for their own equipment and even thread.

Outworkers are frequently forced onto sham contracts. Because they’re paid so badly, they take on large volumes of work. To keep up with the fast turnaround typical of the fashion industry they face very tight deadlines, so end up working excessive hours.

But change is sweeping through the industry. On 22 March, federal parliament passed historic legislation giving outworkers in the fashion industry the same rights and responsibilities as employees. The Fair Work Amendment (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry) Bill was passed by the Senate with the support of the Greens and the independents. 

The legislation allows the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union (TCFUA) to enter and identify sweatshops and assist employees working in unacceptable conditions.

According to Ms Michele O’Neil, National Secretary of the TCFUA, ‘This law means that ... TCF outworkers and workers in sweatshops are entitled to be treated with the same dignity under the law as any other Australian employee. These workers will now be entitled to receive the same minimum wages and conditions as every other worker in the industry.’

She strongly urged industry employers to get on board. ‘It’s utterly unacceptable that in 2012 there are still significant numbers of workers in this industry who do not receive even the most basic working conditions, including a minimum hourly rate of pay, leave and a safe and healthy workplace.

But Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia, the body which represents the fashion industry, is critical of the legislation. In a recent submission to a review of the Fair Work Act, it said that there were undoubtedly some vulnerable home based workers in the sector, but ‘most participants in the TCF industry do not fit that category and should not be defined as outworkers or sweatshop owners.

‘The current ... regime has removed the flexibility to employ casuals and contractors working from home and has become so complex [that] aspects are proving to be unworkable and difficult to comprehend.’

An ethical label

How have Australian outworkers’ poor working conditions been ignored for so long? Production in the fashion industry is outsourced, and supply chains can be very complicated. Brands that focus on cost alone can easily ignore the conditions under which their garments are produced. Outworkers often have poor English skills and can become very isolated.

The Fairwear campaign and Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA)  have made heroic efforts on this issue for years. Both groups work towards the goal of Australian outworkers in the textile, clothing and footwear industry receiving fair wages and conditions.

ECA does this through its voluntary accreditation system. 
This system helps brands and manufacturers meet their legal obligations and standards throughout the entire supply chain.

Accredited companies are permitted to use the Ethical Clothing Australia swing tag or label. This shows that the garment was made in Australia and everyone involved in its production received at least the legal rates of pay and fair working conditions.

Last year  ECA launched the Meet Your Maker campaign to increase awareness of its ethical label and the garment makers that were benefiting from it.

ECA spokeswoman Eloise Bishop said that there had been ‘a significant increase’ in the number of businesses applying for accreditation.

‘We now have more than 60 Australian businesses already accredited and applications for accreditation doubled [in 2010],’ she said.

‘We hope that campaigns such as Meet Your Maker contribute to this increasing level of awareness and interest in ethical manufacturing.’

The future: sustainable and fair?

As well as wanting their clothes to be produced fairly, consumers are also increasingly demanding that they be sustainable, with a low environmental and carbon footprint.

In 2010 ECA was commissioned by the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industries Innovation Council to look at creating a new voluntary label for Australia that would include sustainability factors.

The report recommended that the best way to do was this was to expand the existing ECA label to include an environmental accreditation as an optional extra. The Council is currently considering the study’s findings.

Until next time!

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