Earlier this year, Siren co-founder Kirby Fenwick noticed that the joy she’d found in women’s sport, specifically in the AFLW, had dimmed. Then, she discovered femorabilia.
It starts with a t-shirt.
It starts years earlier than the t-shirt.
And yet, it never starts, and it never ends either.
I make the t-shirt on the eve of the inaugural AFLW Grand Final. It’s March 2017 and after a few short weeks the season is coming to a close. The grandstands of an AFLW game have quickly become a kind of home, a place that welcomes and invites, that is safe and inclusive and fun. The first season is already a collection of memories seared into my brain, alongside a bunch of badges and scarves, season records and plane tickets and commemorative magazines. But it’s not enough.
I want more. More memories. More games. More stuff to demonstrate my fandom. I buy the league-sanctioned badges and scarves and hats, and I wear them proudly, but I want, and need something else. Something that expresses how much I adore this competition, how completely and utterly it has changed my life and my understanding of what and who I am.
And so, I make the t-shirt.
It starts with letters made in word art, printed, and cut out, used as a pattern to cut the fabric. An “I” and an “A” and an “F” and an “L” and a “W” and a red heart too. Iron-on adhesive and an iron. Keep it simple. It’s the message that matters, right?
I wear the t-shirt to the opening game of the 2018 AFLW season. I love this game, this league and the women who play it—pioneers we call them, trailblazers. And they are. They’re also the target of vitriol and ridicule. I try not to let that bother me, to settle like dust on my skin. I try but I don’t always succeed.
Someone takes a photo of me in my t-shirt, and I post it to Instagram.
I wear the t-shirt again and again. It feels powerful. A rejection of the commodification of women in sport; a declaration of what really matters: the love, the fandom, the stories, the making, the being a part of something.
At some point, years later, the t-shirt is folded away, tucked into a drawer and then one day, it’s on the bottom of the drawer, stuffed under other t-shirts and… forgotten?
The red of the heart on the t-shirt is fraying now, the glue of the iron-on adhesive has lived through many washing cycles and many a season and is now barely holding on. I feel some sympathy with this red heart. I run my hands over the fabric, pushing it back into place, pressing down. I feel a little frayed too. A little worn out. A little faded.
After 6 years and 7 seasons of AFLW, I found myself feeling unengaged, unstuck, like I didn’t quite know what kind of fan I was anymore. I didn’t know if the red heart was still an accurate representation of my feelings. Did I still love this game, this competition, these pioneers, and trailblazers? It’s gotten really complicated. But that’s no fault of the game or the players.
That’s all me.
Making a natural response
There are other t-shirts. Felted tributes to iconic photographs and slogans that feel like a call to action. There are badges too, audio projects and thousands upon thousands of words.
At the time, the making was simply a natural response to this game I love. A desire to contribute to the conversations, to be a part of the community, and a want to capture some of the history.
I didn’t have a word for it. It just was.
The many threads of femorabilia
If you search for a definition of femorabilia, the internet tells you there isn’t one.
“Do you mean memorabilia?” it asks.
It’s like searching for AFLW.
“Do you mean AFL?”
No, I don’t.
I first hear the word in Sydney.
I’m at the International Women in Sport Symposium during the FIFA Women’s World Cup. It’s a heady time. The Matildas are all over the tv and the newspapers and my social media feeds. Records are being broken. This is a tipping point, right? The seismic change? Things will never be the same. I’m not so sure. And whenever I express my doubt, the words feel sour in my mouth.
At the lectern at the International Women in Sport Symposium Professor Jean Williams and Jacqui McAssey are discussing their femorabilia project. Jean is a sports historian and author; Jacqui is a Senior Lecturer in Fashion Communication and founder of GIRLFANS Zine.
Femorabilia. I roll the word around in my mouth, my tongue catching on the syllables and the way they don’t quite seem to line up.
I listen to Jean and Jacqui as they discuss their collaboration. The jacket Jean wears, emblazoned with the word “Kerrminator” and an illustration of Sam Kerr thrills me. It’s unique, a one-off, a handmade response to a player and a game that is at once subversive and steadfast.
There are many threads in Jean and Jacqui’s work, literally and metaphorically. But there’s something else, too. Something that I feel deep in my belly.
The joy their work garners.
The dimming of joy
We launch Siren in January 2020. Our timing is, well, interesting. As a global pandemic encompasses us, Siren offers a distraction, some kind of stability and direction, too, but it also offers hope, no small amount of delight, and plenty of joy. We write and write; we publish and commission. We have ideas and implement them right away. What a thrill! There’s a freedom that comes with being independent, with creating something of our own.
It’s a wild ride, but it also facilitates my increasing interest in the history of women’s sport. In the stories gathering dust in history books and the memories of the women who were there. Throughout those heady first few months and years at Siren, the joy that I felt at the very first AFLW game simmers and glows. I feed it with a plethora of sports and leagues and women excelling on the field and off it. I tell stories. I read them and share them. I watch documentaries and feel rejuvenated by the conversations I have with the women in sport community.
I’m aware throughout these months and years of the politics threaded through the work we do, of my own politics. The frustration with the status quo, with the calls for patience. An aching desire for a more inclusive and welcoming space. But joy is there too and for a while it takes up the most space.
Until it doesn’t.
The more I delve into this community, the more stories I tell and read and share, the more conversations I have and observe, the more complex my feelings become. There is so much discrimination, so many examples of women being marginalised, exploited, compromised, assaulted, and humiliated. So much othering and exclusion.
I take these stories into myself, folding them into my body and feeling them settle under my skin. One more, one more.
I do this because bearing witness matters, seeing and hearing and acknowledging matters. Right?
Then my work widens, into serious capital R research.
I write an honours thesis on women in sports journalism in Australia. And I take those stories in too, folding them neatly and gently. Bearing witnessing, acknowledging.
I dig into the archives and pull up hundreds of examples of media coverage of women in sport. I read reports and policies, many decades old.
I take these stories in too, folding and folding.
At some point, these stories begin to layer over the joy like scraps of papier-mâché over a taut balloon. They are piled so high they simply bury the joy. Envelope it. Smother it. The glow fades.
And then one day I’m sitting in a room in Sydney, listening to Jean and Jacqui and I wonder where that t-shirt went.
My fandom is…
noun: fan; plural noun: fans
- a person who has a strong interest in or admiration for a particular person or thing.
How does one become a fan? I don’t know a world where football doesn’t exist. I don’t know a world where I’m not a footy fan. And yet, I also don’t feel like a fan.
I can’t list statistics for you.
I don’t know all the stories, the footy lore or the niche references and in jokes.
There are wide gaps in my knowledge, in my understanding.
On more than one occasion, I’ve deleted the newsletters from my club before I’ve read them.
Sometimes, I don’t even watch the games.
There are several rules I actually cannot explain.
My fandom is a feeling, but it is also tangible—scarves and beanies, badges and guerseys. Dressed in red, white, and blue at my grandfather’s 90th birthday because my fandom is also family.
My fandom is wrapped up in the stories, the people, the romance of it all. The coincidences and the “can you believe it?” moments where surely the footy gods have intervened.
My fandom is wrapped up in my feminism, in my personal and my political. My fandom is troubled because I can never be the fan who doesn’t critique, who simply lets it all wash over me and doesn’t stop to ask why.
What I have discovered about fandom is that doing the work makes being a fan… complicated.
A project, a movement
It’s late on a Thursday night and I’m on a zoom call with Jean Williams, the Jean Williams whose work with Jacqui McAssey all those months ago still simmers in my belly.
What is femorabilia, I ask.
“What we did was effectively [make] clothing and badges. And the items were made by women who are very invested in the culture of women’s football, almost as a site of resistance,” Jean explains.
“We don’t need to buy 50,000 or 100,000 new jerseys that are going to be made by Nike using exploitative practices in the global south that disproportionately affect women and children. We can, just in quite a humorous way, handmade way, go there’s an alternative future, still a tiny, tiny way in the distance, but there is an alternative possibility.”
Jean isn’t “anti-shirt”, but she is pro-fandom, and pro-collaboration, and pro-joy.
The Kerrminator coat is a perfect example of Jean and Jacqui’s approach. It’s sustainable because they’re recycling and upcycling and because they’re working with local creators like illustrator Millie Chesters. It’s also funny, especially to those in the know.
“People think it’s funny because everybody knows Sam Kerr’s kind of relentless.” Jean tells me. “So, they get the sort of in joke. And that’s been around in men’s sports for a long time. But women don’t always express it because I think we’re quite encouraged to be quite worthy… Well, bugger that. We like it because it’s fun!”
But the humour is not just trying to make you laugh.
“With an element of humour and of joy, people who are not entirely convinced, go, ‘oh, well, that’s quite—I don’t really know what you’re doing, but it looks like a lot of fun, keep doing it.’
“So even those people who are not sure, can go well, you know, you don’t look angry. But actually, I’m furious!”
The fury is kind of the point too because femorabilia is as much about resistance as it is about fun and fandom. But it’s a resistance that is woven with joy.
“It’s about female joy. And it’s about sites of resistance, and particularly this World Cup where everybody went, ‘we’re making huge progress’. Well, actually, we’re not. And you could see that at the final. And the fact that it took [the Spanish women’s team] to win the World Cup to draw attention to what was happening in the Spanish FA. All the rest of us knew that anyway, so it is political. And I think defending female joy and pleasure is political.”
I circle back to the joy, because, well, because it’s what underpins it all for me. Sustainable and subversive, collaborative and fun, threaded with an often very personal fandom and the culture of women’s sport, a site of resistance. All of that. But joy too.
“To answer your question about joy, there is a real political point about that. Jacqui and I were so heart warmed that people didn’t think we were just kind of bonkers—although it was a bit bonkers—that they could see the joy in it. And they were like, ‘Oh, I’m going to give that a go’. Because that’s kind of the point.”
I ask Jean if she thinks femorabilia can be more than clothes or badges. Can it be zines and collage, can it be embroidery and quilting?
“Yes,” she says, quickly and without hesitation.
“Women’s sport culture has always been considered low culture, right. It’s not like we’re creating opera or ballet or writing Shakespeare, or what have you. But actually, we are through our fandom and through our joy, we are expressing that in creative ways that make us female makers.”
And there’s a historical connection here too, to the women who have come before us. Jean tells me about women who would “make whole outfits in blue and white to go down to London. Or they would knit scarves” and I’m reminded of the scarves my own grandmother knitted. There’s something there about carrying on the work of the generations who come before that feels important, necessary.
An unlikely combination
When I get home from Sydney, I pull out my homemade t-shirts. I’m thinking about Jean and Jacqui’s work and their words, rolling the word femorabilia over my tongue.
I remember the way I felt when I cut those letters or when I stitched those pieces of felt together. The way my fandom intrinsically felt mine; a tangible example of what the AFLW meant to me. I think too about how my work, in some tiny, tiny way, was a site of resistance, a reclaiming of a story, a desire for an alternative possibility.
Just before the start of the 8th AFLW season, I pull out some material and some needles and a whole bunch of coloured threads. I’ve decided to make an AFLW sampler. A kind of story of the season, or of my interpretation of the season. It seems an unlikely combination: Aussie Rules and embroidery. But here, on this piece of rough calico, the two combine and I can’t help but smile. The unlikeness of it, but the way it feels right. Real. Me. My fandom. My joy.
While the season may be over, my sampler is not yet done. Not even close. I want the whole thing to be covered. A riot of colour and… well, joy. So, I keep stitching. And as I do, I’m reminded of something Jean tells me.
“If you are left on the margins and ignored, it gives you a degree of autonomy.”
Why femorabilia matters
I ask Jean why this work matters, why the making matters, why femorabilia matters.
“Because I think we are at that crossroads,” she says. “When I look at FIFA in 2019, Megan Rapinoe was the biggest pain in FIFA’s side, which is to say, you know, obviously queer, purple hair, telling the President to eff off at the same time as winning a World Cup. I mean, what is not to love about all of that?
“By 2023, they tried to compartmentalise and commercialise Megan Rapinoe; they actually used a lot of what she did in 2019 as part of the promotional campaign. It’s FIFA trying to exploit the resistance within women’s football that she represents.
“And so [femorabilia] is a very, very small—and I do feel a bit like King Canute trying to turn back the tide as does Jacqui, I know—but we are just at that moment where women’s football is going to get rinsed.
“We need sites of resistance of people who are genuinely fans to go actually, this is self-made culture by women for women, and we don’t accept your narrative FIFA, and this is my alternative narrative. And it’s tiny, tiny, but I think it’s important.”
I don’t know what’s next for femorabilia. And neither does Jean. But maybe that’s the point.
It’s not about knowing what’s next, it’s about leaning into the joy, about making, and crafting and collaborating, about finding new ways of expressing old ideas and maybe in the process, discovering new ideas.
It’s about staking your claim to a story, your story but also about making space for other stories, other voices who have been ignored. It’s about marking out your resistance to the exploitation and commodification of the culture of women’s sport. It’s about challenging and disrupting. It’s about finding the humour in all that. And in the process, maybe a little of that alternative possibility becomes real and tangible.