Margaret Maynard

Queensland Fashion: Part Two

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 Two, straddling the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we learn about some of the adaptation and innovation in men’s and women’s fashion of the period. Both genders were deeply influenced by the Queensland climate in an era when suits and corsets were the dominant attire. Margaret also discusses the difficulties in collecting and acquiring everyday dress, and why we have so few good examples in Queensland institutions.

Queensland Fashion: Part Two

Fashions worn by the social elite and middle class in Queensland have over the years looked remarkably similar to European dress. Yet population diversity and other factors have meant many subtle deviations occurred. Taken together these subtleties have lent a unique quality to local attire. Not surprisingly climate has had the greatest impact on clothing, and of course the urban/rural divide.


A popular generalisation about fashion in colonial times was that Queensland settlers foolishly ignored the heat to maintain social conventions. The well-to-do, especially in public, whether at official engagements, balls or church, undoubtedly kept up the façade of dressing as in Europe, even if their attire was made locally. For women this meant inappropriately structured, tight undergarments, long skirts, hats and gloves and for men, formal suits. Government House was the model for this kind of clothing. Yet, a surprising amount of male and female clothing was a response to the climate. This supported a contemporary belief that heavy clothes which overheated ‘white races’ in the tropics caused moral and physical deterioration.

In private, ‘ladies’ loosened their stays, wore supposedly healthy garments like the ‘Gossamer Swan Bill’ corset (with a marked S bend thrusting the torso out and hips back) made of climate sensitive fabric. For summer they chose light outfits of summery Indian muslins, Ceylon skirting or Japanese cotton and low heeled shoes like dancing slippers. For men, white or light coloured jackets and trousers were worn in town until dark suits replaced them in the 1880s. ‘Tropo’ sunhats or helmets were common. For leisure men retained light coloured and cool informal garments including pyjama suits. These outfits or adaptations were amongst a complex mix of formal and informal attire that contributed to what one can call Queensland style.

Class and Gender

Class and gender differences were clearly marked in Queensland dress. Women of the middle-class maintained a formal appearance for social occasions and when they left home for shopping. They wore bodice shapes dictated by corsets and crinoline supported gowns, plus hats and gloves. For most of the 19th century professional men and merchants wore lightweight, white tropical gear, mentioned above, with broad-brimmed straw and felt hats or pith helmets, influenced by European clothing in India. White was hard to keep clean and was thus a class indicator. These outfits could be called genuine regional styles. But by the 1880s, as urban populations became more concentrated, men of this class turned fairly rapidly to top hats and dark coloured, locally produced readymade suits. The change over to dark city suits had happened much earlier in Melbourne so this was a conscious shift made by Queensland professionals away from more casual tropical gear.

As well as sharp class and gender divisions in urban areas, historically the state has had a strong demarcation between urban and rural life, particularly reflected in clothes. Yet in the bush, during the 19th century, fashionable appearances were still kept up by the affluent for formalwear, and rural dress was frequently seen in town. Class differences in informal men’s clothing were less noticeable in country areas since it was a practical decision by squatters or station owners to choose working moleskins and wide brimmed hats. These were on the whole similar to those of workers. Working-class women active in stock control, farmyard duties as well as timber-getters generally wore practical, less structured clothing than the dress of their female employers.

Protocol decreed ‘ladies’ minimise similarity to Australian-born women, with their supposedly ‘rough’ manners and careless attire. A white skin continued to be a class identifier and life in the sunny Queensland climate posed a problem. To preserve their complexions women wore wide brimmed hats or boaters, occasionally bonnets with frilled brims, and carried sun parasols. Working women on the land could not maintain a pale appearance hence a brown complexion was a visible sign of their social subservience. Interestingly, as early as 1910 the increasing popularity of sea bathing fostered an appreciation of a tanned skin for women generally, well before it happened in Europe. It became a desirable and fashionably alluring modern ‘accessory’ by the 1920s, alongside beachwear.


Climate, class and occupation, demography and life habits have all imparted a sense of diversity in Queensland dress. Gender, age as well as race have added to its complexities. Dress in Queensland has been occupationally diverse, although there were strong similarities between the tough work gear of outback station workers, gold diggers, miners, stockmen and their pastoralist employers. These often failed to betray ethnic differences, the turbans of Afghan camel drivers and the hats of Chinese migrants (the latter occasionally photographed in full traditional dress) being something of an exception.

Indigenous people in Far North Queensland and the interior, living far from Europeans, made and wore attire and accessories unique to their environment. Everyday clothes included bark blankets, reed necklaces and forehead bands with the addition of crescent-shaped baskets. Such clothing raises the issue of whether or not we should consider this Queensland dress. On the other hand when minimally attired indigenous people came in proximity to Europeans, they were required to replace customary wear and adopt issued shirts, coarse blankets or cast-off dress, but not trousers unless working as stockmen.

Acquiring dress

Distances from supply in remote areas had a considerable impact on Queenslanders. Especially but not entirely in urban areas, ‘ladies’ were keen to observe the latest European fashion. They noted changes mentioned in letters from home or magazines, be it fabrics, length of skirts, position of waists or cut of sleeves. In the 19th century, fashionable women in Brisbane and smaller towns could patronise dressmakers. In town these needlewomen had access to fine imported fabrics. From 1882 Mrs Janet Walker, who employed up to 120 assistants at one point, ran a series of significant society dressmaking establishments both in Queen Street and Adelaide Streets, Brisbane, until retirement in 1938. She also ran a ‘Ladies’ Emporium from 1896-1900, selling a wide range of items (many imported) just for women, thus making it different from a department store.

There were also small retail shops, drapers and clothiers which catered to needs of men as well as women, supplying all kinds of clothes and accessories. Later, in Brisbane, full-scale department stores were established like Finney Isles and McWhirter’s, but women also made and altered their own garments. Many clothes and certainly all fine fabrics were sourced from Europe. Mail ordering for well-off country clients was readily available from department stores, and even from Janet Walker. Customer’s measurements were kept to facilitate a quick turn around of orders. By the 1870s the Queensland Woolen Manufacturing Co. was established in Ipswich and a decade later production of everyday tweeds and shawl fabrics was expanded into a thriving clothing factory for making and retailing readymade items.

Post WWI

The war had a major impact on dress, especially for women now being encouraged into the wider workforce. Even so the small social elite continued to exert its influence. It became appropriate for women to have their hair cut short and by the 1920s to wear dresses with dropped waists and short skirts. Corsets became lighter but never abandoned. Whilst some Brisbane women still wore ankle length outfits for swimming, the tendency was to wear beachwear that exposed more and more of a suntanned body. Bright colours became an important feature of daytime fashionable clothing for them, as well as new classes of leisure wear and beach accessories. Department stores continued to exert their influence and The Brisbane Arcade, between Queen and Adelaide Streets, built in 1923, became a space to sell classy merchandise. Paris continued to be the primary source of fashion information, spread by journalists in newspapers and increasingly illustrated magazines. Fashion parades and the cinema started to impact on the taste of consumers as well, and it was about this time that fashion photography began to be regularly used in advertising.

Urban/rural divides, the weather, lack of access to the latest dress and fabrics in the bush, and sometimes conservative attitudes had as much affect on Queensland style as a defined state border. The combination of unremarkable as well as local characteristics show that it was in this mix of factors, (some quite subtle, governed by the availability of commodities) that the true character of the region’s dress and associated cultural practices can be determined. In light of this, the cliché that Queenslanders did not dress for the climate must be reconsidered. Indeed, since the later 20th century the state has become a primary tourist destination, trading on brand images of lightly clothed, sun tanned bodies and colourful swimwear.

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

Lord Lamington with family, friends and personal assistants outside Government House, Brisbane, 1899
Lord Lamington with family, friends and personal assistants outside Government House, Brisbane, 1899John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 171819
Mannequin parade at Finney Isles & Co., Brisbane, 1929
Mannequin parade at Finney Isles & Co., Brisbane, 1929John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 88110
Portrait of a man in a garden, ca. 1907
Portrait of a man in a garden, ca. 1907John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 141892
Tea break near the beach on Fraser Island Queensland, ca. 1911
Tea break near the beach on Fraser Island Queensland, ca. 1911John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 39551
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 September 10, 2013.