In the archives of the Miegunyah House Museum at Bowen Hills, carefully wrapped in layers of tissue paper and tucked inside an unassuming archival box, lies an old wedding veil. At first glance, it may not seem particularly remarkable. One of many at Miegunyah, its simple crown of wax-and-wire orange blossoms atop raw-edged, unadorned netting might easily be overlooked in favour of its lacier, fancier sisters in the collection, and the modest label on the box—World War Two Wedding Veil, 1942-1945—makes no claim to a glamorous provenance.
But although not especially noteworthy in its ownership, nor novel in terms of its style (the orange blossom veil had been a popular part of the Western bridal trousseau since the 1800s1, the veil is significant in terms of its construction and fabrication. It is made out of mosquito netting, and the attached wax blossoms (which date from much earlier than the 1940s) were either borrowed or a hand-me-down, possibly from the mother of the bride2. Made in the home from re-used and borrowed materials, the veil is an example of creative transformation and the resourcefulness of home dressmakers during a time of wartime austerity.
Utility and austerity
Women’s fashion in Australia before the Second World War, while influenced by the ‘look’ and novelty of international trends, had always been interpreted through the conditions and constraints particular to antipodean living. To use Margaret Maynard’s phrasing, fashion in Australia was “the product of a mixture of imperatives”, with haute couture style largely re-interpreted through the availability of clothing and materials, regional trends, local climate, and of course, personal taste3. In this sense, Australian women were accustomed to altering and adapting European fashion trends to suit their own lifestyles. When Australia joined Great Britain at war in 1939, however, increasing interruptions to the trade and manufacture of commodities, as well as the need to divert resources to the war effort, brought new conditions and official calls for austerity into the mix.
In the years that followed the outbreak of the Second World War, the Australian government introduced a rationing scheme to control the amount of goods and clothing that citizens could purchase. Some individuals, in anticipation of the scheme, began to ‘panic buy’ and hoard goods, causing the government to intervene by issuing clothing coupons to regulate purchases4. Following this, Prime Minister Curtin launched an official ‘austerity campaign’ to promote thriftiness on the home front. The ‘tightening of belts’ and a sacrifice of life’s luxuries were sold to the public as a form of patriotism and ‘good works’5. Besides promoting moderation in spending and consumption, regulations were introduced to control the amount of fabric, trimmings and fastenings used in clothing, as well as the amount of labour used in fabric and clothing production6. As the war progressed, many clothing manufacturers in Australia were re-purposed by the government to produce provisions for the war effort. In Brisbane, the Ponds dress factory on Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley, was transformed into a uniform repair shop for the U.S. Army.
Beauty as duty
Fashion didn’t disappear during this time of imposed austerity—in fact it (and feminine beauty) was galvanized by government propaganda as a way keep a brave face on the home front. The popular press continued to feature editorials on the latest trends, with America hailed as the new centre of fashion following the fall of Paris and subsequent end to the import and circulation of French designs7. Women’s magazines, in conjunction with official schemes to boost home front morale, pushed fashionable appearances and the idea of feminine beauty as ‘duty’. Editorials and advertisements encouraged women to keep their (and their loved one’s) spirits high by looking their best8. Australian women therefore had to negotiate both the call for an appropriately feminine and fashionable appearance and the adherence to wartime rationing and austerity measures.
Newspapers and magazines ran features on the latest styles of government-approved ‘utility clothing’, often alongside instructions for home dressmakers on how to replicate the slim-line garments at home. These features in the popular press were often sponsored by official anti-waste campaigns, designed to encourage citizens to get the most out of goods and clothing that they already owned. The ‘Make-do and Mend’ campaign (launched by the British government and later rolled out to Australia and other Commonwealth nations) was the most successful of these, promoting thriftiness and creativity in the home as a patriotic and proactive part of the home front war effort9.
While making do, re-using material goods and being resourceful was a common practice in many homes during peacetime, as the war progressed these activities became a national imperative. Pamphlets were published with instructions on how to update or completely re-model existing clothes. Pat Kirkham writes that the emphasis on the creative application of women’s existing skills and ingenuity “repositioned women less as would-be unpatriotic squanderers than as capable citizen-enablers, encouraging agency and activity”10. Jumpers were unraveled and knit anew, dresses dyed and re-modelled, children’s clothes made from adult’s clothes, underwear from old bed sheets, blouses from curtains, new hats from old ones, women’s suits from men’s suits. Women’s magazines and local newspapers, such as The Sunday Mail, ran competitions for the creative transformation of clothing, celebrating resourcefulness11.
Although official rhetoric often sold austerity measures as a form of patriotic sacrifice, it is not a stretch to imagine that for some women, reducing consumption, improvising with existing materials, and asserting their creativity and responsibility also helped foster a spirit of hopefulness and resilience at a personal level. As Maynard writes “dress is one area in which individuals still have some control over their lives. Even during the adverse conditions experienced in Queensland during the war period, women certainly exercised this control”12. Thrifty re-making was thus not simply an economic exercise, nor patriotic or pragmatic act, but for some women also a symbolic act—resourcefulness as an assertion of agency in an unstable time, and the creation of hopefulness for a brighter future.
A mosquito net wedding veil
The domestic ‘everydayness’ of the mosquito net wedding veil, made during a time of unprecedented difficulty and uncertainty, represents the resilience and hopefulness of those on the home front. The double-layer of mosquito netting—possibly salvaged from atop a bed frame, then cut and loosely pleated—combined with the wire-and-wax orange blossoms (borrowed from a traditional white wedding from a previous time), mark a determination for a return of peace and normality. It is a symbol of courage and resistance in the face of goods shortages, rationing, the absence and loss of loved ones and fear of invasion.
Although we can’t be sure of the exact nature of its provenance, we can guess that it’s making gave the maker and wearer a focus on a better, albeit imagined, future ahead.
- Clarke, S. (1986) Dressed to Kill 1935-1950 (exhibition catalogue), University Art Museum
- Fisk, C. (2013) The Bride Wore White: 200 years of wedding fashion at the Miegunyah House Museum, Queensland Women’s Historical Society.
- Jarvis, A. (1983) Brides: wedding clothes and customs, 1850-1980, Merseyside County Museums
- Kirkham, P. (2005) “Keeping Up Home Front Morale: “Beauty and Duty” in Wartime Britain”, in Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain and the United States, Jacqueline M. Atkins (ed.) The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, pp. 205-227.
- Maynard, M. (1986) in ‘Introduction’, Dressed to Kill 1935-1950 (exhibition catalogue), University Art Museum
- Maynard, M. (2001) “Refiguring the fashionable body”, Out of Line: Australian Women and Style, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, pp.32-48.
- McNeil, P. (1993) “’Put Your Best Face Forward’: The Impact of the Second World War on British Dress", Journal of Design History, Vol. 6 Iss. 4, pp. 283-299.
Published in Issue 11, on March 25, 2014.