Rockabilly: living in the 50s
Photographs by Steven Siewart
Vintage fashion parade, Fifties Fair, 2005. Photograph Steven Siewart
Photographing this scene is like time travelling. Every now and
then I put my camera down to drink in the atmosphere of postwar
Sydney. - Steven Siewert
The 1950s were an exuberant decade that saw the birth of rock’n’roll, new fashions and social mores, and a breakaway generation who were the first to become known as teenagers. At the turn of the 21st century there are some for whom the 1950s never died.
A new exhibition profiles the work of photographer Steven Siewert, who has spent years documenting Sydney’s rockabillies. This vibrant subculture live and breathe an era that, for many, predates their birth.
The term ‘rockabilly’ came into existence in 1956 to describe a style of music that combined rock’n’roll with country or ‘hillbilly’ music. Key rockabilly artists of the 1950s were Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. In the early 1980s rockabilly revival groups like the Stray Cats played up the retro 1950s greaser image, while bands such as the Meteors combined rockabilly with punk to create a subgenre known as ‘psychobilly’. In the 1980s and early 1990s Sydney rockabillies frequented the Landsdowne Hotel, the now-closed Phoenician Club and the North Bondi RSL, which hosted live music and provided the necessary space for dancing. Today, venues like the Empire Hotel and Bar Broadway stage local and overseas rockabilly bands and DJs, while psychobilly bands play at the Annandale Hotel.
The term rockabilly is now used more broadly to describe people who are passionate about the 1950s and its iconic elements – from fashion and decor to cars and music. There are thriving rockabilly subcultures in the United States, Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. To those involved in the scene, rockabilly is a lifestyle, not just a style of music. Many are avid and serious collectors, their homes decked out in retro furnishings and fabrics, while weddings and parties involve vintage clothing and cars.
Key events on the rockabilly social calendar include the Fifties Fair at Rose Seidler House and Brisbane’s GreazeFest. Key fashion elements for men include Hawaiian, cowboy, bowling alley and gas station work shirts; jeans and leather motorcycle jackets; suits; and flamboyant hairstyles. For women it’s a vintage dress or skirt paired with original 1950s accessories and seamed or fishnet stockings. Tattoos are popular with both sexes.
Steven Siewert combines professional work as a Sydney Morning Herald photojournalist with personal projects like his rockabilly series. He is a member of the photographic collective Oculi.
Inara Walden Curator
Museum of Sydney
Rockabilly: living the 50s, Museum of Sydney was on at the Museum of Sydney from 7 June to 17 August 2008.