In 1907, Margaret Gregson, the madam of a South Brisbane brothel, appeared in the city police court wearing ‘six great rings, studded with diamonds and precious stones’ on her right hand. More rings appeared on her left hand, while brooches and gold chains nestled ‘in the rolls of her costly white lace bolero and fine white gown’ 1. Four years earlier fellow brothel-keeper Madame Charles appeared in the same court with ‘a wealth of peroxided hair, dressed all in black, and a tout ensemble that was unmistakably French’2. Two decades before this, in 1886, a Scottish immigrant to Brisbane, Mary McConachie, claimed that many of the city’s prostitutes dressed in gaudy finery. In Brisbane even common streetwalkers attired themselves in ‘ruby velvet trimmed with cream lace’, she wrote:
“or perhaps peacock blue satin with cream lace, black satin or velvet with gold lace, white or cream silk, white hats with long drooping white feathers, and abundance of jewellery, of every description“3.
The average streetwalker would not have had the means to affect the head-to-toe extravagance described by McConachie. Since the best brothels commissioned clothes from dressmakers and loaned them to their employees, however, it is probable that a small number of the city’s prostitutes dressed in this way4. In 1881 Brisbane had a population of little over 37,000 citizens5. That was enough to support only a few upmarket brothels, most likely located in Paddington, South Brisbane and Mary Street in the city – although a number of seedier establishments were clustered in nearby Albert Street6. The situation was not greatly different in the early 1900s, when Brisbane’s population had grown to just over 120,000. There would still have only been a handful of women with sufficient funds to assemble the ensembles sported by Gregson and Charles at that time. Having said this, a great many more women involved in the city’s sex industry strove to achieve an eye-catching look. Their uncertain incomes prevented them from being as ambitious as those two madams, both of whom seem to have aspired to the sartorial decadence of the European courtesans known in France as the demi-mondaine. It would thus be more accurate to describe most Brisbane prostitutes’ style as ‘flash’, meaning ‘showily streetwise’, rather than ‘costly’ or ‘fine’7.
Of course, not all women who sold sex desired to look ‘flash’. Plenty plied their trade discreetly in an effort to avoid being stigmatised as fallen women8. Having said this, it was harder for Brisbane women to sell sex incognito than it was in many other localities. This was because the Queensland Parliament passed the Contagious Diseases Act in 1868, a controversial law that sought to control venereal disease by targeting prostitutes. The only other Australasian colony to pass a similar law was Tasmania in 1879, with both the Queensland and Tasmanian legislation modeled on several similar Acts passed in Britain during the 1860s. Until repealed in 1911, Queensland’s Act required female sex workers to undergo fortnightly medical examinations and be incarcerated in Lock Hospitals if diseased9. The repressive regime it established increased the visibility of the colony’s sex workers, encouraging them to develop a greater sense of defiant community than places with no such law10. This arguably had a knock-on effect on Queensland prostitutes’ dress. It perhaps induced a greater proportion of them to express their outcast status through an audaciously streetwise style. A man working in one of Brisbane’s furniture factories at the turn of the century certainly suggested this was the case. Late in life, he recalled that prostitutes in Albert Street had made an occasion out of their compulsory medical tests. When it came time for their appointments these women ‘went up flash’, he said. They ordered hansom cabs to take them to the doctor’s and entered them dressed in the showiest of styles11.
A journalist visiting a Salvation Army gathering for Brisbane’s ‘fallen women’ vividly evoked their flash street style. Those present were dressed ‘in all manner of ways’, he wrote:
“from elephant’s-breath costumes of the latest cut, to tawdry, ill-fitting gowns of the cheapest and most glaring stuff; one in a yellow patterned smoking cap; many in a maze of ill-matched skirts, jackets, capes, hats, and jewellery, picked up haphazard; in furs and cottons; all with rings and most with short hair”12.
This description makes it clear that a resourceful eclecticism was the guiding principle of the flash look. In other words, flash women made a virtue out of necessity by developing a thrown-together aesthetic. They reveled in the audacity of combining unexpected items in a way that anticipated the aficionados of street style today. It was flash to combine a fur with a plain skirt; flash, too, to team an old yellow-patterned smoking cap with a fashionable dress in the greyish shade of lavender known as ‘elephant’s breath’13. In the early 1900s, flash Brisbane women even threw kimonos and belts covered in Chinese characters into the mix, presumably sourcing them from shops in the Chinese districts located in lower Albert Street and Fortitude Valley14. They combined these with items acquired from pawnshops, secondhand markets, through theft, hand-sewing, and the occasional purchase from milliner’s or dressmaker’s shops15.
Experimenting with hair was an easy way for a woman to achieve a flash look. One sees this in the case of Madame Charles with her ‘wealth of peroxided hair’ in 1903; also in the case of a woman wearing her hair ‘very much crimped’ in 1893. Described as ‘having the appearance of a flash prostitute’, she was suspected of pickpocketing a man on the Brisbane ferry16. Fascinatingly, police gazettes from the late nineteenth century also frequently refer to prostitutes with ‘hair cut short’17. Some of these may have had lice-ridden tresses removed by staff at the Salvation Army home or similar institutions; some too might have sold their hair for wigs when in need of cash. While there were practical inducements for such women to shear off their locks, however, the cropped look was also embraced as a vogue. Illustrated in an image from the Queensland Figaro (see below), a shorn-off style circulated in flash circles in all Australian cities during the 1880s – with perhaps an extra incentive offered by the humid climate to those in Brisbane.
If short hair offered an inexpensive way for a prostitute to achieve a flash look, so too did tattoos. Following in the tradition of convicts transported to Australia early in the century, it was common for flash women to have symbols or messages such as ‘I love Joe McDonald’ tattooed on their arms in this period18. According to the 1903 Fortitude Valley Gaol register, prostitute Mary Ann Sullivan’s tattoos included a cross, a chain and a male figure, and the legend ‘Brisbane, 1877’ on her right arm. This likely commemorated her arrival to the city from Ireland aboard the Indus19. Though the prison register did not mention what Sullivan wore, one can imagine her teaming her tattoo with shorn hair, an oversized hat, a moth-eaten fur, and a secondhand skirt in violently-tinted satin. More than a fine gown dripping with lace and gold chains, this disparate ensemble would have captured the essence of flash feminine style in turn-of-the-century Brisbane.
Published in Issue 5, on October 22, 2013.