personal work: mother plastic

My Mother Plastic project is a colourful, kitschy take on the results of our modern tribal affairs, our collective individualism & narcissism leaving us awash in plastics and waste. My fashion story takes on the conceptual figures of “Mother Nature”/ “natural mothers” and asks what it would look like if everything “natural” were replaced with something synthetic. In my story Mother Nature doesn’t wear leaves or grass or go naked; she wears recycled rubbish and plastic. The mothers in my story don’t breastfeed their children or give them healthy organic food; they rely on formula and load the kids up with sweets.

To this end, I conceived of five hyperreal looks: a plastic version of a floral Mother Nature, dressed to look like an electrified bouquet of flowers (like the latest model trees in the cinematic land of The Lorax, where plastic trees are the only kind you can get) in astroturf, cellophane & fake floral mohawk; Mother Nature as a plastic packet of fruit; the Gold-Digger with a painted golden shovel in a dress made of chance; Mother Virgin Mary with a plastic Barbie halo & baby bottle full of powdered milk; & the Sugar Mama, quite literally, feeding her child on sweets. Four of the dresses came courtesy of Dumpster Design & the fifth was a collaborative DIY creation between me & my husband. They were made, respectively, from plastic cling wrap & food colouring, lottery tickets, j-cloths, Cadbury’s candy wrappers & astroturf & cellophane. Two accessory designers – Sarah Meredith of RockCakes & Rebekah J Shirley of Beksie’s Boutique – created bespoke jewellery, hair accessories & headpieces, also made from various upcycled & plastic/synthetic materials.

A subtheme to all of this is poking fun at stereotypes of women and the drive to shame women for being “plastic” or “fake” (vis shows like Snog, Marry, Avoid) or for failing to adhere to a socially acceptable construct of “natural” beauty. It is also meant to raise questions or comment upon the commodification of women, bodies & beauty and their subsequent status as consumable, disposable objects.

I have two young children, two boys aged 5 months and 3 years, and the Sugar Mama and Mother Mary images are particularly informed by that. I hadn’t necessarily thought of it that way until I described my idea for Mother Mary to a friend and she responded with, “Wow, that’s an interesting representation of your experience of motherhood, Erika.” And it occurred to me that she was right. There’s so much pressure on women to be perfect mothers – and among a certain subset to be perfectly “natural” mothers – along with all the other pressures to be “naturally” beautiful, to be successful in our careers, to be good homemakers and cooks and wives and bombshells, etc that in the end I wanted to poke fun at that stereotype just like all the others.

In my case, with my first child, I tried to follow a course of natural parenting as closely as possible; I had a home birth, used cloth nappies, did attachment parenting (baby carrier, co-sleeping, breastfeeding), made my own organic baby food, stocked up on wooden toys, swore off television and access to technology etc etc, all of this while starting and running my photography business at the same time – and to be honest, even though I’m glad we chose to do all of that, I still often felt as if it wasn’t enough. I don’t know if other mums truly were judging me or this was just the result of my own insecurities. Because what happened is that all my ideals about natural parenting eventually smacked up against the hard edges of reality and a massive level of exhaustion (as it’s all fantastically time-consuming), and eventually it all became too much and, despite our initial objections, we ended up with a house of full cheap plastic Chinese crap, disposable nappies, store-bought baby food, baby formula to supplement the breast milk, occasional sugary snacks, ice cream bribes and a dedicated iPad for our older child.

It was after all this started to change that I started to feel as if I were failing in the competitive mothering arena, while other mums had managed to keep up that level of natural parenting much longer than I had and maintained quite strict adherence to all of those standards, and if we’re honest, some quite pedantically. I found myself showing up at playgroups with a store-bought cheese sandwich for Oliver that I’d bought in a rush on our way out the door while everyone else had something like organic homemade roasted vegetable couscous full of produce hand-grown and harvested from their own allotments, and well, I wasn’t winning any parenting awards among that crowd.

In any case, everyone takes it all so terribly seriously, and while parenting is obviously quite a serious and important endeavour, I think we’ve really just got to keep a sense of humour about it (even if I often struggle to keep it when the whining and the stress start getting particularly intense). One part of motherhood that I wasn’t at all prepared for was the real loss of a sense of self, the total subsuming of my own identity and needs and desires to this new role as mum, and I spent some time mourning for the loss of my old life and the old me. The Sugar Mama and Mother Mary, in particular, are me rebelling against all that a bit, satirising myself and a social ideal of motherhood that I found impossible to sustain unless I were going to give up work altogether – and when your work is your passion is your work, as luckily mine is, is not so easily done.

In any case, I owe a massive thanks to all of the passionate & talented creatives who contributed their energy to this project. If you are reading this, hire these people below! 🙂

Update: This series has placed 3rd in the Advertising: Conceptual category of the ND Awards  2014 and appeared on Stern magazine’s Weitwinkel blog.


Photography, production & styling – erika szostak | photography
Dresses: Dumpster Design (Gold-Digger, Sugar Mama, Virgin Mother Mary, Mother Plastic Fruity); Erika Szostak & Mark Cooper (Mother Plastic Floral)
Headdresses: Beksie’s Boutique
Jewellery: RockCakes
Cakes: Flutterby Bakery
Assistant photography: Dade Freeman
Makeup: Charlene Howells
Hair: Raf Blosinski of Forde Hair
Models: Frankie Kent, Jacqueline Damelle & Max Paterson
Assistant styling: Twinks Burnett

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