Central West Queensland is a vast yet sparsely populated region of the state, which to its far west borders with both the Northern Territory and South Australia. The region covers around 400,000 square kilometres occupied by roughly 12,500 people. Its largest town is Longreach (population 3000), with other towns including Winton, Birdsville, Blackall, Barcaldine, Boulia and Muttaburra.
The area is best known for its agricultural resources, but has also become a tourist destination in more recent years. Sections of Central West Queensland are part of the Channel Country Bioregion, known for its intertwined rivulets and geological basins. The area is also recognised for its rich gem and dinosaur-fossil deposits; the discovery of the latter has continued to fuel tourism in towns like Winton.
Central West Queensland is inextricably linked to pervasive concepts of state and national identity. The region is associated with some of the most iconic figures attached to such national narratives. One of the clearest examples of this is the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’, now viewed as an ‘unofficial national anthem’, which was written by famous Australian poet Banjo Paterson in 1895 while staying at a homestead just outside of Winton. The town now has a ‘Waltzing Matilda Centre’ dedicated to the mythology and history surrounding the ballad. The ‘pioneering spirit’ of early white Queenslanders in this region is also celebrated at Longreach’s Stockman’s Hall of Fame, and Barcaldine’s Australian Workers Heritage Centre.
The harsh conditions and remoteness of the region resulted in clothing that was largely geared towards work and climate, rather than a concern for keeping up with fashion. However, surviving photographs taken in the first half of the 20th century reveal a more formal side of Central West Queensland wardrobes on show at social events and occasions.
Places to Shop
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the towns of Central West Queensland relied heavily on horse-drawn coach and motor vehicle services to connect them with wider Queensland. All manner of supplies could be delivered; travelling salesmen provided vital services and products; and people could travel from smaller to larger towns. The advent of rail expanded these possibilities further. In addition, the majority of towns had a general store or merchant who often also included outfitters, drapers, boot-makers and milliners. Larger towns like Longreach and Winton had stand-alone drapers and tailors, and by the 1920s there were more than one of these types of clothing businesses operating in each town.
One example of a prominent general store that sold a wide variety of stock, including drapery goods, was Corfield and Fitzmaurice, of Winton. The store was also an agency for mail-order goods, which it delivered in partnership with Cobb & Co to remote pastoralists who relied heavily on such services. A testament to its necessity and loyal clientele, the store was run from the same location in central Winton for over a century. The building still stands, and retains its original façade and signage, but now houses a fossil museum.
Thomas Lynett was another longstanding Winton general store that had millinery, boot, and shoe departments. C. Webber was an early example of a stand-alone Winton drapery, operating as early as the 1890s, while E. Mellick was one of the largest drapers in Winton in the 1920s and 30s before succumbing to a devastating fire in the heart of town in 1938. Capell & Co. were popular in the 1940s.
Brisbane tailors Grimes and Petty are just one example of retailers from other towns and cities that provided the Central West with a travelling salesman to meet their clothing needs in the remotest areas. From the late 19th century until the mid 20th century, Longreach’s Eagle Street hosted a number of drapers and tailors, including P.J. Ryan and J.W Power, respectively.
However, it was the ‘Big Store’, Solley’s, which dominated retail in the town in the 20th century. A two-storey building with large show windows, built in the 1910s, Solley’s Department Store brought a sense of grandeur to the town in its heyday. In 1930 Solley’s hosted the first mannequin parade to be seen in Longreach. It featured over sixty items of women’s clothing on display, with subsequent parades taking place regularly in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Owned and operated by the Solleys family until the 1980s, the store was still run as a department store until 2009. It has since been restored and repurposed to house boutique retail and accommodation.
Design, Manufacture, and Production
The wool industry has been key to Central West Queensland since its white settlement, with water from the Great Artesian Basin key to its long-standing success. While the industry has declined, and long periods of drought have taken their toll, sheep farming remains an important industry across a vast swathe of Queensland.
One of the industry’s most beloved figures is connected to the Central West Queensland town of Blackall and its wool production history. Jack ‘Jackie’ Howe became a legend in his own time by breaking the daily and weekly records for shearing sheep in 1892 at Alice Downs Station, outside of Blackall. In a single day Howe shore 321 sheep in 7 hours and 40 minutes. Remarkably, his record was not broken until 1950, and was only done so with the advent of machine operated clippers. Memorabilia relating to Jackie Howe is now keenly sought by Australian museums. In October 2013, the National Museum of Australia acquired a pair of Howe’s shears for $38,000.
Howe remains a national legend, and is a significant figure for dress historians; a common garment still worn by Australian men is a navy blue singlet, which is colloquially known as a ‘Jackie Howe’ due to its close association with him (legend has it that this is the style Howe wore when the record was made). Key themes of national symbolism around the outback, hard work, and the underdog are thus tied to this item of clothing.
Almost every town in Central Queensland had numerous wool sheds, boiling and scouring plants for washing and processing the wool. The Blackall Woolscour was operated (by steam) from 1908 to 1978, and remains today as an historic site; it is the only complete example of its kind left in Australia.
Despite a small population, Central West Queenslanders have been kept busy since the late 19th century with a well-attended spread of picture theatres, regular shows, sporting events, dances, charity and debutante balls, and races. From the 1930s to the 1950s, mannequin parades and other fashion events were held at larger stores in the towns of Longreach and Winton. These events were noted in detail in local newspapers, with ample space given to describing the outfits on display.
Similarly, the reporting of charity and debutante balls included several lines devoted to dress details, such as this listing from a Longreach ‘deb ball’ in 1933: “Miss Eunice Thurecht wore a frock of white crinkly crepe falling in folds from a shaped yoke. Miss Alice Slade chose white silk lace for her frock made with cape sleeves. Miss Grace Swan’s white crepe frock showed long fitting sleeves.”
Picnic races at Winton, Longreach, and Birdsville provided regular social outings for locals, with men generally sporting three piece suits and hats (boaters, pith helmets and fedoras), while women wore a smart day frock or suit with gloves and a pretty hat. The Birdsville races are some of the longest running in the country, established in 1882 and now a major tourist event in the small, sparsely populated town.
Popular movie theatres in the region included the Olympic in Winton, Lyric Pictures in Longreach, the Radio Theatre at Barcaldine, and Winton’s outdoor theatre, the Royal. Both the Royal and the Radio are still operating, making the Royal one of the few operating open-air picture theatres left in Australia.
- 1898 'Mesers, Grimes and Petty.', The Queenslander(Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 - 1939), 13 August, p. 331 Supplement: Unknown, viewed 22 January, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article21451504
- 1906 'THE UP-TO-DATE DRAPERS.', Morning Post (Cairns, Qld. : 1897 - 1907), 11 December, p. 2, viewed 20 January, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article44433980
- 1927 'Winton.', The Longreach Leader (Qld. : 1923 - 1954), 9 December, p. 9 Supplement: SUPPLEMENT, viewed 20 January, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article37339134
- 1930 'LONGREACH MANNEQUINS.', The Longreach Leader(Qld. : 1923 - 1954), 19 September, p. 3, viewed 22 January, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article37218681
- 1933 'DANCE AT LONGREACH.', Sunday Mail (Brisbane) (Qld. : 1926 - 1954), 6 August, p. 14, viewed 28 January, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article97705539
- 1934 '[ENTERTAINING PROGRAMME MANNEQUIN PARADE ARRANGED BY MRS. J. MELLICK.', The Longreach Leader (Qld. : 1923 - 1954), 8 December, p. 18, viewed 20 January, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page4336882
- 1936 'CORFIELD & FITZMAURICE.', The Longreach Leader(Qld. : 1923 - 1954), 2 December, p. 67, viewed 22 January, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article37357591
- 1940 '[No heading].', The Longreach Leader (Qld. : 1923 - 1954), 4 December, p. 19, viewed 20 January, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page10337926
- 1940 'ALL NIGHT BALL.', Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 - 1954), 4 January, p. 3, viewed 28 January, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article56146062
- Carter, D. 2010. Imagination: How People have Imagined Queensland. Queensland Historical Atlas. http://www.qhatlas.com.au/essay/imagination-how-people-have-imagined-queensland
- Queensland Places, "Blackall and Blackall Shire" http://www.queenslandplaces.com.au/blackall-and-blackall-shire
- Queensland Places, "Longreach" http://www.queenslandplaces.com.au/longreach
- Queensland Places, "Winton" http://www.queenslandplaces.com.au/winton
Published in Issue 9, on February 25, 2014.