Zoe, Mrs Mary, Marjorie and Chloe Gullick, outside Altoncourt, Killara (ca. 1909). Zoe, Marjorie and Chloe are wearing wide-brimmed sun hats, a look which Margot Riley says Australians pioneered.
ALARMINGLY, WHEN I ASK historian Margot Riley what Australians have contributed to fashion, she immediately brings up a classic combination – the safari suit and long socks.
“I think that was pretty uniquely Australian,” Margot says dryly. Thankfully, she moves on and lists a few other Aussie fashion innovations.
Eleanor Elizabeth Stephen (ca. 1855) sits in a lovely crinoline dress. She is likely attached to a steel rod at her neck to hold her still for the photo. “People think why are they looking so serious, but it’s quite difficult to hold a smile still for the length of time required. It could be up to minute in these early days,” says dress historian Margot Riley
“In the 19th century there were quite a lot that were designed to deal with climatic condition…the wearing of sunhats in town and light-weight silk coats in summer.
And then of course now you get wonderful local designers who are responding to the local environment, people like Linda Jackson and Jenny Kee.
I think that sort of bush couture aesthetic that they developed in the 1970s and ’80s was a very important shift trying to create and independent unique look that tried to set Australia apart.”
Opera singer Madame Carandini and her three daughters (ca. 1876) in the era when it became fashionable to collect photos of public figures.
For those that don’t know of them already, Linda Jackson and Jenny Kee are cut from the same cloth, producing patterned and quilted clothing in bright eye-assailing colours.
In our settler days, however, Australian fashion was regularly hijacked as a more subtle disguise.
“In Europe there was a very strong code about what was worn, by whom and doing what, and people knew that and they were very sophisticated in reading a crowd,” Margot says.
“[Early Australians] could change their look when they came to Australia…and they took advantage of distance and poor communication to reinvent themselves.”
Valma Ashcroft (later Burrows, at left), one of Australia’s earliest paid fashion models, and another model in Australian fashion outside the Minerva French Perfumery, Kings Cross, 1941.
Once they’d made something of themselves early convict emancipists were not shy about flashing their wealth around either. “There’s always comments made about how flashily they dressed,” says Margot. “Australians had a very vibrant workforce here; labour was in demand so the working man probably had more disposable income than in many other countries in the 19th century and the fashions reflect that.”