Margaret Maynard

Queensland Fashion: Part Three

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 Three we move firmly into the 20th century, as Margaret covers the major changes of dress and fashion in Queensland, from the 1920s through to the 1960s. Finally she concludes with some insightful reflections and observations of fashion in our sub-tropical state.

Queensland Fashion: Part Three

Modern life in the first half of the 20th century, with its technological progress and broadening consumption, brought fairly dramatic changes to the dress of men and particularly women in urban Queensland, as elsewhere in Australia. These changes were less noticeable in rural areas yet travelling salesmen and mail ordering could bring city styles to the bush. The climate continued to affect what people wore, as did more relaxed social attitudes. Although the State continued to have a small social elite, Brisbane remained, with some exceptions, less innovative in fashion than the more go-ahead, sophisticated urban centres in Victoria and New South Wales, even in the 1960s.

In the 1920s shopping venues for all types of fashion, clothing and accessories in Brisbane expanded. These ranged from general department stores like McDonnell and East, providing popular attire for everyday use, to somewhat more up-market goods at Finney Isles & Co. General men’s outfitters tended to be in George Street, with bargain stores in South Brisbane. The most stylish shops were in Queen and Adelaide streets (there was even a ‘nice’ end of Queen street). These were connected by the Brisbane Arcade built in 1923. Here were stocked exclusive items for women from fine lingerie, hosiery, millinery to shoes and full outfits. Pike Brothers of Queen Street catered to high class men’s outfitting and tailored sports wear. Better class shops imported from around the world, but also employed in-house dressmakers and tailors. Many stores like McWhirters in the Valley had profitable mail order sections and a number of men’s stores had ‘gentlemen travellers’ who sold merchandise all over the State, setting up rooms in hotels for customers.

Although Brisbane was conservative, before WWI the Brisbane Courier ran regular fashion columns from Paris and London, like ‘Pearl’s’ ‘News from London’.

Periodicals including Queensland Society Magazine, illustrated with drawings as well as fashion photographs, kept readers in touch with the latest styles, noting the growing impact movie stars had on fashion. Leading costumieres like Mme Vivienne, Janet Walker and Lucy Secor had elite salons in the 1920s, in the case of the latter a branch of her Melbourne and Sydney establishments. Shipments of gowns and frocks from Sydney and Melbourne supplemented imported garments and those made by local dressmakers. From the mid 20s new fabrics such as artificial silk became available, known by the term rayon. The great novelty in men’s and women’s life during the 20s was the increasing interest in sport and physical culture. This flowed through to fascination with swimwear and clothes for golf, tennis as well as motoring.

One of Brisbane’s most noted designers of special occasion ladies’ attire was Gwen Gillam. Working from small premises in the late 1930s then, after the war, successfully in the Brisbane Arcade she catered to city and country clientele, the latter perhaps in town for the Ekka (the RNA Exhibition). Gillam acquired glamorous imported fabrics for her outfits, such as fine European linens and wools from Gardams the town’s best-known fabric shop, her styles echoing fashions seen in overseas magazines and films. Surviving garments although not that original stylistically, show her delight in using the sheen of Hong Kong silk and delicate hand worked trims. It was however the 50s and 60s which were her highpoint.


WWII brought changes to the entire circumstances of fashion all over Australia. Austerities really began to bite hard for everyone by the end of 1941. Yet Colvins of Queen Street still produced a Fashion Autumn and Winter Catalogue for women in 1941, including tailored clothes, furs and evening gowns, for both country customers and city dwellers. Although fashionable dressing for women was to an extent kept alive for most of the war, there was a tension between maintaining stylish femininity and the pragmatics of a coupon economy and universal clothes rationing (1942-48). Everyone was encouraged to reuse existing clothes and/or acquire special ‘austerity suits’ of non essential materials. Brisbane suffered particular hardships, as it was far from major southern manufacturing centres and its large influx of service men needed clothing. By 1944 even utility garments were scarce.

Women were drafted as defence auxiliaries and also worked on the land, in factories including clothing factories, trams and buses. Uniforms were worn by the women attached to the army, navy and air force. The Australian women’s land army (AWLA), formalised in 1942, mostly wore khaki shirts, army pants, bib front overalls, boots and an army hat although a drill uniform was eventually designed. Searing criticisms were levelled at women in trousers as many felt they were sexually inappropriate for working life although more acceptable as leisurewear.

Post War Dressing

After the war, rising incomes meant clothing consumption increased substantially, encouraged by availability of new fabrics and styles. Ready-made garments became more common. The influence of Dior’s New Look (1947) with tight waist and long full skirts reached even the dress of Brisbane women, but its interpretation remained somewhat conservative. Sensible choices were paramount. Even so dressing up was still a feature of social life. In the 1920s and 30s debutants had been formally presented to the Governor at coming out balls and this required fine dressing. Later, for public dances at the renovated hilltop venue Cloudland Ballroom (renamed and reopened in 1947), young women wore full skirted dresses (inspired by the New Look), their partners more soberly attired in suits.  A version of this special event dressing remains in high school ‘formals’ in the 21st century.

Subtle differences in local style continued as they did pre WWII, not forgetting the ever important impact of climate. One of Queensland’s best known stylists was bathing costume and leisurewear designer Paula Stafford. In 1942, soon after she and her husband moved to Surfers Paradise, she began making two-piece bathing suits cut from tea towels and table cloths (due to fabric rationing) initially from her home in Cavill Avenue. Catering to an increasing influx of tourists to the Gold Coast, bikinis of the briefest kind became her signature. Despite the initial controversy caused by this swimwear, Queenslanders as well as others took eagerly to her styles. She later exported all over the world.

The 1960s marked a major shift in dressing for younger men and women, in response to what was really a cult of youth. These new demographic and cultural changes encouraged social freedoms, and pluralistic tastes opened up; a foretaste of dressing today. The previous decade in Sydney had seen the development of ‘alternative’ dressing especially for young men (Bodgies), aping the clothing of British ‘spivs’ and later the ‘drape’ suits of Americans. But Brisbane was slower to see these changes. Companion young women (Widgies) dressed in tight skirts with a back slit allowed them to jive to rock and roll music.

In summary the dress of men and women in this state continued to exhibit the somewhat conservative factors of the previous century. At the same time there was a growing consumer market for fashions especially among young people. The warm climate remained a significant overall factor affecting style, as did the growing influence of coastal living. Added to this were clear urban versus rural differences that continued into the second half of the century.


There is no simple answer to the question how do we define Queensland dress and fashion.  Although there is a general view that Queenslanders have their own take on style, pinning down precise local features is difficult. The reason is the character of attire and associated behaviours is a subtle mix of factors some obvious, others less so. Queensland is made up of highly populated urban areas as well as coastal living and vast, sparsely inhabited rural domains. Each of these areas may exhibit their own stylistic preferences although common factors exist. This is made more complex as Aborigines, Islanders, as well as immigrants from Europe, Africa and Asia live here, sometimes with their own dress habits.

Certainly the semi-tropical climate and enthusiasm for beach living has added to increasing social acceptance of casual dressing since the 20th century, even in cities.

Despite this informality, markers of status have always existed, although the more precise indicators of social class in the 19th century have morphed into those of wealth and occupation. Over the years there has been a certain conservative attitude to style, now under challenge especially by younger adults, and an exuberance that seems opposed to the ‘good taste’ of some dress in Melbourne.  Yet a considerable amount of clothing in daily life is not much different from elsewhere in Australia, as well as many places around the world. On-line shopping, enhancing a growing consumer market for fashion, means regional tastes probably matter less than those generated by the wider global marketplace. In many ways one can argue for an ethos of style in this region which is more characteristic than attire defined by state borders.

Did you miss Margaret’s Part One on Qld fashion? And be sure to read Part 2!

Section of the main showroom inside F. W. Nissen jewellery store in Brisbane, Queensland, ca. 1950
Section of the main showroom inside F. W. Nissen jewellery store in Brisbane, Queensland, ca. 1950John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 560064
Dancing at Cloudland Bowen Hills Brisbane ca 1948
Dancing at Cloudland Bowen Hills Brisbane ca 1948
Gwen Gillam, Cocktail Dress in silk organza, ca. late 1950s.
Gwen Gillam, Cocktail Dress in silk organza, ca. late 1950s.Queensland Museum
Shoppers purchasing rationed goods in T.C. Beirnes store in Brisbane during World War II
Shoppers purchasing rationed goods in T.C. Beirnes store in Brisbane during World War IIJohn Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 112044
Paula Stafford and a model wearing a bikini, ca. 1955
Paula Stafford and a model wearing a bikini, ca. 1955John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 151506
Margaret's Reading List:
  • Paula Stafford and the Bikini, curator Stephen Rainbird, The Centre Gallery, Surfers Paradise, Gold Coast, 1988.
  • Queensland Women in War, curator Louise Denoon Queensland Museum 1995
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Published in , on September 10, 2013.