Margaret Maynard

Queensland Fashion: Part One

Over three instalments, in Issues 1 & 2, Margaret Maynard’s story of Queensland fashion takes us through all the grand themes of Queensland’s history and identity.  In Part One, starting with colonial times, we learn about some of the challenges and pitfalls of researching fashion and dress, and Margaret asks whether Queensland has its own distinctive style.

Queensland Fashion: Part One

During the colonial period (between 1859, when the state became independent from New South Wales, up to Federation in 1901) there was an extraordinary variety of dress worn in Queensland. Yet to specify with accuracy what was distinctive about colonial attire in the state is to encounter complex issues, some still evident today.

Fashion and Dress

Although fashion belongs within the broad category of dress, one must understand that fashion is not the same thing as dress. In the 19th century, dress, whether customary, occupational, professional, or for leisure, could range from stylish outfits brought from England by settlers of both sexes, local readymade suits, stockmen’s trousers and shirts, the loose tunic and straw hat of a migrant Chinese laborer, or the minimal attire of some indigenous people. Fashion however is rather more difficult to define.

Generally speaking we regard fashion as a cultural practice which in colonial times was the province of the affluent, middle to upper middle class, its primary purpose to convey the social standing of wearers. These settlers could afford to consume an ever changing sequence of styles, fabrics and accessories. Fashion’s novelties, until the second half of the 20th century, were most evident in the clothes of women, who were avid followers of fashion changes, less so men whose stylish changes were more discrete, often defined by quality of tailoring rather than design.

Of necessity men and women of the lower classes, including indigenous people, remained outside cycles of consumption. Well-off ‘ladies’, as opposed to women, tried to keep up to date with European clothes, imported or based on knowledge gleaned from ‘home’ – chiefly England. This desire was made more complex by the fact that Paris was the centre of fashion at the time. So ironically it was Parisian ideas filtered through English illustrated magazines sent to the colony, or the fashions described in letters, that were most sought after.

A Distinct Approach?

The small social elite who observed fashionable proprieties lived throughout the state, in towns as well as on pastoral properties. In Brisbane it was Government House that set the real tone during the cooler months, when the social season included garden parties, receptions, even masked balls.

Yet the problem we have in naming any fashion a specifically Queensland style is illustrated by the following hypothetical example. If a local Brisbane dressmaker created a stunning gown for one of these Vice Regal occasions in imported velvet and silk, taken from an overseas pattern, can we call it Queensland fashion? In its own way it was. Even so, despite local fashions seeming to be almost replicas of styles from elsewhere, contemporary visitors to Brisbane often remarked how garments in the town had minor differences from their expectation. It might be a shape or length of sleeve that appeared unusual, the unfamiliar bulk of a skirt or the fabric color which was a surprise. And ‘ladies’ living on stations certainly felt out of place if they went to Sydney, where their dress was likely to look shabby and out of date.

A further fundamental issue we need to consider is what exactly do we mean by regional dress, especially in the case of Queensland? For instance, is a state’s official geographical boundary ever an exact mark of regional differences in dress or manners? Commentators from southern Australian states have certainly been quick to label Queensland as ‘different’, whether in politics or in social behaviour. And Queenslanders do stand out, by their occasional carelessness about appearance or alternatively a liking for brash attire. But these are not absolute determinants. To add further complexity, historically north Queenslanders have tended to differ in dress, even in speech, from people in the south.

Collecting and Researching Queensland Dress

Dress in Queensland whether imported, locally designed and made, or even second hand has never been comprehensively researched. Until 1861 Brisbane had a population of only about 6,000 (although it expanded rapidly) so was initially a small town with few quality dressmakers. We also know that the state had a somewhat less dynamic clothing industry in the 19th century compared to Victoria or New South Wales. Whilst it had a small upper class, who could afford to maintain elaborations of a stylish appearance, most of the population could not. For much of the year the climate was an inhibiting factor and it is the sub-tropical climate that has made it difficult to preserve historic clothes. The high ratio of men to women in the state in the early years may perhaps have something to do with the fact that institutions have shown little interest in either seriously collecting dress or fostering its study. One can point to only a few studies on the topic. Until recently the supposed triviality of dress, especially that of women, has mitigated against its serious attention.

Nevertheless the topic of dress is one waiting for research to be undertaken. Fortunately there are a great many contemporary written, printed and imaged resources available. If one looks at the surviving items that do exist (mainly fine clothes of women but almost no male dress), and closely examine newspapers, diaries, magazines, photographs and other contemporary images one can find a treasure house of information. Here lies the potential to create a fuller narrative of colonial and indeed 20th – 21st century Queensland dress. This is something The Fashion Archives wishes to foster.

To an outsider Queensland’s historical attire was made up of an occasionally puzzling mix of features both specific to local society and conditions, as well as styles that were unremarkable. Defining regionality in Queensland attire has largely been limited to assessing the degree to which locally made garments, especially fashions, were either overly similar or alternatively dissimilar to the latest overseas modes. But there are many factors that can offer a far more subtle understanding of local dress habits. These will be discussed in Part 2. They include particularities of class, the urban/town divide, effects of warm climatic conditions, diversity of population, distances from major fashionable centres like Sydney, and difficulties in acquiring dress at all, especially in remote areas.

Did you see Margaret’s Part Two on Qld fashion? And be sure to read Part 3!

Portrait of a group of women at a tea party, Charters Towers, 1880-90
Portrait of a group of women at a tea party, Charters Towers, 1880-90John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 71744
Advertisement for evening gowns from Allan & Stark's, 1900
Advertisement for evening gowns from Allan & Stark's, 1900John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 170837
Chinese gold digger starting for work, ca. 1860
Chinese gold digger starting for work, ca. 1860John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 60526
Richard Randall (1869-1906) 'Untitled', undated
Richard Randall (1869-1906) 'Untitled', undated Museum of Brisbane
Selector and his family in the Beenleigh district, ca.1872
Selector and his family in the Beenleigh district, ca.1872John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 20248. Photographer: William Boag
Two men sitting outside a Queensland Defence Forces military tent at Fort Lytton, Brisbane, undated.
Two men sitting outside a Queensland Defence Forces military tent at Fort Lytton, Brisbane, undated.John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 251272. Photographer: George Jackman
Margaret's Reading List:
  • Dressed to Kill 1935-1950. Impact of WWII on Queensland Women’s Dress University of Queensland Art Museum (1986). Probably the first exhibition of dress held in Queensland.
  • Khan,K. 2010. "Aboriginal Dress in North Queensland, Australia." In Maynard, M (ed). 2010. Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, Volume 7. Oxford, Berg.
  • Marendy, M. 2000. "From the workroom to the museum: women and the production of custom made clothing in colonial Brisbane" (PhD Thesis). Brisbane, Griffith University.
  • Maynard, M. 2001. "'A Great Deal too Good for the Bush': Women and the Experience of Dress in Queensland." In On the Edge. Women's Experiences of Queensland.  Reekie, G. (ed). Brisbane, University of Queensland Press.
  • Maynard, M. 2001. “Proliferating Habits. Leisure and Clothing in the 1890s”, Brisbane History Group Papers, 17.

Published in , on August 27, 2013.