We’ve had climate couture, now the Voice finds its way onto the red carpet

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In case there was any doubt about Labor Senator Jana Stewart’s position on the referendum for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, her outfit for Wednesday’s Parliamentary Press Gallery Midwinter Ball should clear things right up.

Stewart, a Mutthi Mutthi and Wamba Wamba woman, and Australia’s youngest female Indigenous MP, will arrive at Canberra’s answer to the Met Gala in a gown printed with the Uluru Statement From the Heart and a cape emblazoned with the word, “Yes”.

Wearing her values: Senator Jana Stewart in the gown she will wear to the Midwinter Ball.Credit: Darrian Traynor

For anyone needing a refresher, the statement, a precursor to the referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, includes the following words: “We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country”.

On Monday, the Voice legislation passed the Senate, meaning a referendum will be held within six months’ time, most likely in mid-October.

Although politics usually takes a back seat at the Midwinter Ball, which is attended by MPs of all stripes, it has become a forum for political fashion statements in recent times. Last year, Greens’ Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and Claudia Perkins, the wife of Greens’ leader Senator Adam Bandt, wore gowns featuring climate-change messages that were thought to be inspired by US Senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2021 “Tax the rich” Met Gala dress.

Graphic designer Fozia Akalo puts some finishing touches on the dress.Credit: Darrian Traynor

But the designer of Stewart’s dress, Clothing the Gaps co-founder Laura Thompson, wants to make something clear: this is not a “protest gown”.

Clothing the Gaps’ Laura Thompson (left) designed the gown for Jana Stewart.Credit: Darrian Traynor

“What Jana is wearing is very much less of a protest and more of an invitation,” says Thompson, a Gunditjmara woman whose brand normally focuses on sustainable streetwear.

Melbourne-based Thompson, who will attend the ball as Stewart’s date – “I’m carrying the train!” – hopes a fashion moment tied to the Voice will help the issue reach new audiences, particularly young people on social media platforms where the discussion may not be as active.

“Jana and her dress will stop people on their Instagram scroll,” Thompson says. “Hopefully, then people will decide to learn more [about the Voice].”

The champagne-coloured, one-shouldered gown is printed with the text of the Uluru Statement, as well as the word “yes” in “Labor red”. Stewart will also wear a red velvet cape featuring the word “yes”, proving Canberra’s winter weather is no match for fashion activism.

Speaking to this masthead after the Voice legislation passed the Senate, Stewart says the gown exemplifies her personal fashion philosophy of “wearing my values”.

“I’ve been very conscious and deliberate about the things I wear and how I present myself,” she says. “There are lots of stereotypes about First Nations women – how we look, how we dress. I have always wanted to put my best foot forward.”

Prior to joining the Senate in 2022, Stewart was about to launch her own fashion label, Frankly Blak. She intended to make “nice linen dresses”, printed with her own Aboriginal art. But then life, specifically politics, got in the way. She says she plans to make herself some bespoke pieces to wear in parliament soon. For now, she’s happy to make a statement wearing the dress Thompson, who is also her sister-in-law (the women are married to brothers) has designed.

“A lot of time in politics, you are speaking to the same crowd,” Stewart says. “Wearing this dress is an opportunity to wear my values and create conversations [about the Voice] in circles that aren’t necessarily watching parliament.”

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