fashion

Photographer Liz Sunshine Is Interrogating How We Relate To Our Clothes

29/11/23

Author: Divya Venkataraman

DOCUMENTED BY: Liz Sunshine

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The doyenne of Australian street-style photography is asking us to look into the corners of our closets and ask ourselves what really matters when it comes to fashion.

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Documented By: Liz Sunshine

The doyenne of Australian street-style photography is asking us to look into the corners of our closets and ask ourselves what really matters when it comes to fashion.

Liz Sunshine is one of the most aptly named people I’ve ever met. In the middle of a hectic day of shooting, she’ll have forces on every side bidding for her attention—people haranguing her for pictures to be sent over, or if not, to take their picture, or if not, to take pictures of her—but still, she will welcome you with the brightest sunbeam of a smile. One that crinkles her eyes up and pulls up the warmth from within her and puts it on full show. 

Sunshine has been a street-style photographer for a decade, from the beginning of fashion’s (somewhat tumultuous) relationship with Instagram. At the start—like at the start of so many complicated love affairs—it was heady and beautiful. Social platforms seemed like they were made to capture and transmit fashion, given their image-focused audience, their fast pace and the scope they allowed for discovery.

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Documented By: Liz Sunshine

Now, of course, the honeymoon period is behind us. Fashion and social media have settled into a relationship best described as ‘It’s Complicated’. In the era of light-speed trends and micro-aesthetics and the outsized impact of the algorithm (‘Do I actually like that skirt, or have I just been served it enough times?’), she was prompted to consider the stultifying effect it can have on personal taste. After so long contemplating others’ clothes, Sunshine began to consider her own relationship to fashion, and specifically, to the pressure for constant newness. “In early 2022, I realised I didn’t have a great relationship with clothes,” she says. 

“On one hand as a documentary fashion photographer, I have spent a decade dedicating my photographic work to documenting Australian style. Over this time, I’ve developed a deep respect for the effect that clothes have in who we are and how we operate in the world. 

“And then, on the other hand, working in fashion has added a layer of complexity to the process of getting dressed every day. The pressure to always have something new, to wear particular brands, to be a sample size, to accept gifts… [it] really didn’t align with how I wanted to live. I would often buy things as a strategy to look the part knowing that others would value them, and in turn, value me more.”

So, last year, Sunshine embarked on a mission, enlisting her online community of followers, to understand our relationship to clothing. She is also challenging herself to buy only 26 new pieces of clothing this year—which is around half that of the average Australian consumer, who purchases 56 items in a year.

She started a project called ‘Come As You Are’, for which she has been photographing women at pop-ups around Melbourne, which aims to “celebrate individuality.” She hopes to end up with 1000-plus portraits. 

“After a trip to Copenhagen earlier this year, I realised how lucky Australia is to be so multicultural and diverse in not only our physicality but also in our style. On returning home, I let out a deep exhale as I walked through Melbourne city and was met with different people from different backgrounds, who all dress uniquely.”

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Documented By: Liz Sunshine

The photographs will be displayed along with a series of anonymised questions and answers that Sunshine has been asking women on social media about waste and textile consumption, like ‘If you had fewer clothes would you enjoy them more?’ and ‘Have you ever thought about your values in connection to your clothes? What story do your clothes tell about you?’. “We started it not only to celebrate our individuality and connect with each other in real life, but also to bring awareness to textile waste in this country,” says Sunshine. “The hope is that by creating a safe space to talk about our clothes without judgment we can help to effect change. We love clothes, but ultimately believe good style comes from consuming less.” 

She describes her own style as “a work in progress.” For Sunshine, it comes back to how her style reflects the things she cares about. She hopes that the WIP designation will not only allow her to dress how she wants, without the constant mental checklist of people to please or impress but will also encourage others to do the same. “In a values-based fashion world, there is no right or wrong way to dress. Whether it’s valuing clothes that are made well, have a smaller environmental impact, will live in your wardrobe for a long time or are made of biodegradable materials,  the visual opportunities are open-ended. There are no right or wrong visual choices, so we can return to how clothes make us feel in the moment.” 

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Documented By: Liz Sunshine

A good outfit, to Sunshine, is “something that propels you forward, it lifts your spirit and fills you with confidence, happiness, and a deeper knowing or connection to yourself, and often in turn to those around you.” 

So what are her biggest lessons from this period—coming up to two years—of trying to crack the code of her relationship to clothing?

“I’ve learned that conversations, time, space and values are everything. That knowing who I am and what I value is more confidence-boosting than any Chanel loafer will ever be.”

However, she does have a caveat: “I still love luxury things! But where I once used them as signals to other people that I was part of their tribe, I now hand-choose pieces much more carefully and value them for their history and craftsmanship, and to celebrate moments in my life.” 

“I still have moments standing in my wardrobe, hands in the air, declaring I have nothing to wear—but then I catch myself and intentionally look deeper.”

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Documented By: Liz Sunshine

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