Madeleine King

Tropical Fashion: mid-century modern style in the sunshine state

Queensland Fashion in Tropical Hues

“Tahiti rose, coral pink, oasis green, clipper green, palm beige, Manila cascade”, The Courier Mail reported in 1938, were the brave new colours taking hold in London fashion.1 Impressions of sand, sea and rainforest abounded in this 1930s colour palette. Browns, purples and greens found unusual harmonies, as did light and dark green paired with tomato red. Other popular matches were “chartreuse green and pageant purple, grey and scarlet, blue and burgundy, and sun gold and brown”.2 In the absence of colour pictures, these colour names contained evocative and precise descriptions, enabling women around Queensland to match the season’s daring ‘tropical’ look.

From the 1930s onwards, Queensland was awake to the visual potential of its tropical identity. Queensland Tourism promoted the golden beaches of the South East and the colourful reef of the Far North, tapping into the post-war taste for luxury, travel, romance and the exotic. The tropical look that was sweeping fashion internationally in the mid-20th century was readily adopted in Queensland by pleasure-seeking holiday-makers. In this formative moment, the popular international tropical motifs and colour palettes, being eminently suitable for Queensland’s lifestyle, environment and climate, became lastingly associated with Queensland style. In the process of modernising, Queensland rejected the British colonial tropical garb3, and replaced it with the brightly-coloured, revealing, and relaxed clothing that is still worn today.

The Bare Look

In the mid-20th century, as ever, fashion-conscious beach-goers in Queensland were tuned in to emerging trends from abroad. In 1945 The Courier Mail attributed the controversial ‘bare look’ on Queensland beaches to an American designer. Tina Leser created a popular, and distinctly American, style of sportswear and swimwear from her Honolulu shop, influenced by her surrounds. Her ‘brief sun clothes’ were comfortable, bright and patterned, and took from “Oriental inspiration, such as the sarong, and the draped, side-wrapped skirt, and of hand painting and hand-painted effects”.4

The ‘oriental’ influence was abundant in American and European fashion at this time, not just at the beach. The term was used to encompass a sweeping range of non-Western aesthetics, including those of Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific and Central and South America—anywhere that captured the imagination as being ‘exotic’. Imagery from any of these diverse regions could be melded together, stylised and reinterpreted to announce a look suggestive of the new possibilities afforded by modern travel.

South Sea Island motifs were hugely popular. Leis or garlands were incorporated into frock trims in the 1930s and 40s, sometimes in subtle ways through draping and ruching around the neckline. After World War II, a new American fad for ‘tiki’—a kitsch or pop Polynesian decorative style that cropped up on anything from raffia-lined bar décor to Hawaiian shirts— took off, and seemed a perfect match for Queensland tastes.

Fancy Swimsuits

In the 1940s the arrival of fashion-conscious swimsuits, made by dressmakers using elaborate trims, left many bemused—they were a sharp contrast to the androgynous and practical body-fitted swimwear that preceded them. In Surfers Paradise, Paula Stafford, credited with introducing the bikini to Australia, was leading the way for the fashionable swimsuit, while also holding up the Gold Coast’s reputation for sex and controversy. Her two-piece designs sat well below the navel, and caused infamous scenes with the local beach authorities. She used bright and daring colour palettes, and a range of novel fabrics (initially table cloths due to war rationing, but later, unusual materials such as carpet made an appearance in her ranges). The popularity of designers like Stafford in the 1950s caused the Sunday Mail to wryly suggest that the conspicuous expense of swimsuits and accessories earned the Queensland holiday destination its name, the ‘Gold Coast’.5

By this time, the Gold Coast had come to resemble something of Miami, with new luxury resorts, built in the ultra-modern style, lining the beaches. Similarly, fashion for the beach more or less followed the Florida holiday look. A 1952 article in The Courier Mail noted the strong influence of Hawaiian imagery and ‘daring colour combinations’ inspired by tropical palettes in the beach fashions on Queensland’s South Coast. In this department, the “men are way ahead of the women”, wearing ‘startling shirts’ to both the beach and parties.6

Reef Motifs

Of course, the glamorous South Coast look was not appropriate for all Queensland tourist hotspots in the mid-20th century. A holiday at the Great Barrier Reef, boasting romance and adventure, called for stylish yet sensible attire. Fashion advice columnists, such as in the The Australian Women’s Weekly, cautioned Reef-goers to consider the sun and terrain, and opt for a practical holiday wardrobe consisting of drill pants and overalls for ladies, comfortable shoes, and wet-weather gear (and perhaps an elegant frock for the evenings).

Textiles designer, Olive Ashworth, had the Barrier Reef in mind for garments that would embrace glamour, practicality and the Queensland natural environment. Sea-grass floating on the Reef was the inspiration behind her prize-winning entry at the Leroy-Arcorso Textile Design Competition in 1954. The design became a best-seller; not a favourite with the judges, who ranked her in the top nine, but hugely popular with consumers. The tropical notes of Queensland were fixtures of her designs, with tropical fish, coral, foliage, and frangipani depicted repeatedly in her work. She was a studious observer of the natural environment, and spent a great deal of time documenting the Reef from the underwater observatory.

Naming her label ‘Indigenous Designs of Australia’7, Ashworth firmly believed that “Australian motifs should be more widely used in textile designs”.8 She was not alone. Prominent Brisbane-based art critic, Gertrude Langer, had complained that the textile designs on display at the Australia’s 100 Best Textile Designs for 1954 exhibition at Lennon’s Hotel (which drew from the Leroy-Arcorso competition) lacked Australian motifs: “It is amazing how very little use has been made of specifically Australian motifs. Surely our unique fauna and flora, as well as aboriginal art, could provide a designer with tons of ideas which also would be of greater interest abroad than designs which reflect continental ideas”.9

Mistaken Identity?

The influence of overseas styles was thoroughly entangled with Queensland’s visual identity. In the case of Ashworth, for example, her stylised prints drew almost exclusively on native flora and fauna, while the cut of her garments tended to resemble European and American styles. In fact, the wrap-skirts and other casual beach garments she produced for Queensland, using her own colourful Reef-inspired prints, took a similar approach to the hand-painted beachwear Tina Leser developed in Hawaii.

The tropical mode developed in mid-20th century Queensland was a confluence of local and international motifs. Designers looked to styles established abroad, in particular, the international holiday destinations that shared Queensland’s climate, lifestyle and modern aspirations, to forge a distinctly Queensland aesthetic. Whatever their origin, much of the imagery, colour palettes, and garment silhouettes that were associated with Queensland during this period have stuck in the popular imagination. Daring colour combinations, fashionable swimwear, a leisurely attitude, and indeed, the ‘bare look’, for better or worse, remain to this day synonymous with Queensland style.

World's Premier Wonderland, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland...Australia. Painted design featuring underwater reef scene, ca. 1939
World's Premier Wonderland, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland...Australia. Painted design featuring underwater reef scene, ca. 1939The State of Queensland (DTESB) is the owner and responsible public agency of the artistic work. Crown Copyright has expired. QSA. Digital Image ID 1641430
Illustrated front cover from The Queenslander, November 27, 1930
Illustrated front cover from The Queenslander, November 27, 1930John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 503905
Queensland Government Tourist Bureau 'Holiday Shop' at the Brisbane Exhibition, 1954
Queensland Government Tourist Bureau 'Holiday Shop' at the Brisbane Exhibition, 1954John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 159895
Tri-City Suncoast Festival queen Rita Mathies at Tiki Gardens: Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, 1962
Tri-City Suncoast Festival queen Rita Mathies at Tiki Gardens: Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, 1962State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
Raffia bar, with a meal being served by two waitresses, Gold Coast, ca. 1950s
Raffia bar, with a meal being served by two waitresses, Gold Coast, ca. 1950sJeff Carter, National Library of Australia, vn3913144
Paula Stafford with a bikini model, Gold Coast, ca. 1950s
Paula Stafford with a bikini model, Gold Coast, ca. 1950sJeff Carter, National Library of Australia, vn3913141
John Paterson applies Mutton Bird oil as a sun tanning aid to a bather on the Gold Coast, 1957
John Paterson applies Mutton Bird oil as a sun tanning aid to a bather on the Gold Coast, 1957Jeff Carter, National Library of Australia, vn3103906
For a Different Holiday, Great Barrier Reef. Painted design featuring a woman sitting on a branch with other people and a beach landscape in the background, ca. 1939
For a Different Holiday, Great Barrier Reef. Painted design featuring a woman sitting on a branch with other people and a beach landscape in the background, ca. 1939Artist Percival Albert Trompf. The State of Queensland (DTESB) is the owner and responsible public agency of the artistic work. Crown Copyright has expired. QSA. Digital Image ID 22132
Family caravan and camping holiday, Queensland,1938
Family caravan and camping holiday, Queensland,1938John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 200423
Olive Ashworth, selection of tropical designs, undated
Olive Ashworth, selection of tropical designs, undatedJohn Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
The age of ignorance, Gold Coast, 1963
The age of ignorance, Gold Coast, 1963Jeff Carter, National Library of Australia, vn4406961
South Queensland Surfing Resorts. The Beaches are Calling! Painted design featuring a beach scene with people, ca. 1939
South Queensland Surfing Resorts. The Beaches are Calling! Painted design featuring a beach scene with people, ca. 1939Artist M. Anderson. The State of Queensland (DTESB) is the owner and responsible public agency of the artistic work. Crown Copyright has expired. QSA. Digital Image ID 22140
11938 ‘FASHION FADS IN COLOURS.’, The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 14 September, p. 7, viewed 13 November, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article38704429
21939 ‘GOSSIP.’, Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld. : 1885 – 1954), 16 September, p. 8, viewed 10 November, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article62448691
3 Typically, white pyjama suits and pith helmets for men, and light-coloured gowns worn with broad-brim hats for women.
41945 ‘HOME AND SOCIAL INTERESTS.’, The Courier-Mail(Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 24 September, p. 4, viewed 10 November, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article50258664
51954 ‘COAST BEACH WEAR WORTH THOUSANDS.’, Sunday Mail (Brisbane) (Qld. : 1926 – 1954), 26 December, p. 8, viewed 13 November, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article97949442
61952 ‘HOLIDAY FASHION PARADE.’, The Courier-Mail(Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 30 December, p. 6, viewed 10 November, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article50524441
7Evidently, Ashworth used the term Indigenous to signal that her aesthetic was original to Australia. She did not necessarily appropriate from Aboriginal culture, however at this time, artists such as Margaret Preston did advocate the use of Aboriginal imagery and motifs in order to advance a new Australian style in design and art. The practice of White Australians appropriating Indigenous culture is now considered to be highly problematic.
81954 ‘WON PRIZE FOR TEXTILE DESIGN.’, Sunday Mail(Brisbane) (Qld. : 1926 – 1954), 20 June, p. 12, viewed 6 November, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article101720884
91954 ‘NEW TALENT SEEN IN TEXTILE DESIGN SHOW.’, The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 21 June, p. 7, viewed 6 November, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article50589507
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Published in , on November 19, 2013.