The Darling Downs, with its cool climate and rich pastures, has been known as the ‘Garden of Queensland’. Indeed, the fertile soils on the western slopes of Great Dividing Range have made it one of the state’s most productive agricultural regions. Pioneer Patrick Leslie was the first European settler on the Downs in 1840, opening a sheep station there in 1846, and the lure of bountiful grazing land proved strong for squatters, who profited well from pastoral activities and established a number of impressive homesteads. Gold was discovered in the mid 19th century, but it was always agricultural industries, including wool and cotton, that carried the region’s wealth.
Its commercial centre and largest city, Toowoomba, lies just over 130km west of Brisbane. Other major towns include Stanthorpe—known for its apples and dairy produce—Warwick, Roma, Oakey, Chinchilla, Dalby and Goondiwindi. The region is well connected to the coastal centres along the east of Australia, with the Queensland Rail network and three major highways on the national link running through the Downs.
The lush and picturesque environs of the Darling Downs have long provided a romantic scene for tourism, art and literature. This natural beauty, coupled with attractive and thriving towns, have made the Downs a vibrant backdrop for local fashion.
Places to Shop
The major towns of the Darling Downs offered some exemplary shopping experiences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Two department stores are standouts of this period, and some of the most successful in Queensland’s retail history: Pigott & Co. in Toowoomba and Barnes & Co. in Warwick.
Barnes & Co. was among Queensland’s largest and most established general merchants of its time, and was a household name. Trading since 1880 as a produce firm, the company opened its ‘Emporium’ in 1883, containing numerous specialised departments that sold everything from “a needle to an anchor”. The clothing and drapery department offered a diverse range of fashion goods, including a large selection of ready-to-wear clothing, hosiery and accessories, the latest in imported dress fabrics and haberdashery, as well as made-to-order millinery. One newspaper reporting on shopping in Warwick described Barnes & Co. in great detail, and noted that “select, high-class styles, excellent taste, and very moderate prices are the leading features of the dressmaking department”.1 Other reports focused on the quality of the Emporium building: among the ‘superior’ shop-fittings described in one newspaper article was a ‘roomy little caboose’ made of glass for showcasing millinery.2 This was later trumped by the Barnes & Co. ‘Trade Palace’—an even more luxurious department store that opened in 1911 on the corner of Palmerin and King Streets in Warwick. The building is a good model of Australian department store architecture of the period, boasting a large glass frontage, impressive electrical lighting, elevators, and custom-fitted counters made from a variety of Queensland woods.
Pigott & Co. was a fixture of Darling Downs retail for 87 years. Having established a drapery store in Brisbane close to a decade prior M.D. Pigott opened his first store in Toowoomba on Russell Street in 1896 and relocated to Ruthven Street the following year. Growth and expansion was a key feature of the Pigott business: the Toowoomba store doubled in size in 1910, following a fire that tragically destroyed the recently remodelled store in 1909, and new stores were established in the Queensland towns of Boonah, Beaudesert, Chinchilla, Pittsworth, Dalby and Warwick. Other country towns were able to access the store’s extensive mail-order service—it was one of the largest in Australia and provided free postage to any railway station.
The Toowoomba and Warwick branches of Pigott & Co. boasted some of the largest retail premises outside the metropolis. Pigott’s ‘The Model Store’ in Warwick advertised direct imports of Japanese silks and French muslins, a great variety and quality of men’s and women’s clothing, a reputable milliner, and a well-staffed tailoring department that made use of tailors and facilities in the larger Toowoomba store. The Pigott Christmas window displays were a major spectacle, and delighted passersby in Toowoomba and Warwick.
In 1962, the Toowoomba store met with competition from new arrival, Myer, and added significant extensions to the premises (including a new food hall to rival the Myer cafeteria). Metropolitan influence eventually won out to this successfully provincial business, however; in 1983, Pigotts in Toowoomba was sold to the Brisbane department store McDonnell and East.
Design, Manufacture & Production
Sheep farming has been central to the development of the Darling Downs. The early European settlers set up sheep stations in many parts of the region. In particular, the Downs built a reputation for producing high-quality merino wool—a soft and fine variety used widely in textiles.
For a short time, the Leslie family property at Canning Downs saw the introduction of llamas in 1857. This was a response to the reduced value of wool at auction, and the comparative success of other fibres like mohair on the European market. Ultimately however, the llama never beat the tried and tested success of the merino.
Cotton has been another highly successful crop of the fertile Downs, and its export potential was recognised early on in the region’s settlement.
The relationship between agriculture and fashion in the Darling Downs doesn’t start and end with textiles manufacture. Indeed, the region has cultivated a poetic association between what is grown and what is worn.
In the 1930s, the Courier Mail was quick to pick up on the symbiotic relationship between floral flocks and floral scenery in its numerous reports on fashion at the Toowoomba races. Fashion parades were an annual New Year’s Day event at Clifford Park racecourse, and attracted Brisbane and country visitors alike. Reports of the events suggest that the display of dahlias, roses, chrysanthemums and carnations provided inspiration for many of the garments on show. Toowoomba’s annual Carnival of Flowers (running since 1949) has also provided a vibrant backdrop for swimsuit fashion parades.
Stanthorpe’s famous apple orchards were similarly inspiration for local style. In the 1950s, the town’s Apple Blossom Ball crowned the Miss Apple Blossom Queen ‘Miss Orchardist’.
An opinion piece appearing in Queensland Country Life in 1940 urged the Australian Wool Board to consider Toowoomba and Warwick as sites for staging wool publicity events, such as fashion parades. The piece argued that Toowoomba and Warwick shouldn’t be made to suffer from the Board’s blanket exclusion of country venues for shows and displays, because they are important social hotspots as well as significant centres of wool production. Highlighting the Darling Down’s fashionable assets, including a ‘brisk climate’, abounding tourist attractions and carnival atmosphere, the writer persuades that “there does not seem any good reason why Toowoomba, for instance, should not be the mecca, at least once a year, for the dictators and followers of fashion in all the eastern states”. 3
- 1905 'PIGOTT & CO.', Warwick Examiner and Times (Qld. : 1867 - 1919), 13 December, p. 6, viewed 18 October, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article82252729
- 1906 'BARNES & CO.', Warwick Examiner and Times (Qld. : 1867 - 1919), 15 December, p. 3, viewed 16 October, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article82261666
- 1907 'BARNES & CO'S NEW BRISBANE PREMISES.', Warwick Examiner and Times (Qld. : 1867 - 1919), 25 September, p. 3, viewed 16 October, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article82291551
- 1911 'BARNES' NEW TRADE PALACE.', Warwick Examiner and Times (Qld. : 1867 - 1919), 6 February, p. 5, viewed 21 October, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article82200882
- 1932 'TOOWOOMBA SOCIAL.', Sunday Mail (Brisbane) (Qld. : 1926 - 1954), 1 May, p. 17, viewed 16 October, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article97930475
- 1936 'TOOWOOMBA RACES.', The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 - 1954), 2 January, p. 16, viewed 16 October, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article36786595
- 1937 'Colourful Fashion Parade At Toowoomba Races.', The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 - 1954), 2 January, p. 20, viewed 16 October, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article36896152
- 1950 'Dance in street.', The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 - 1954), 24 October, p. 8, viewed 16 October, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article50042150
- French, Maurice. 2010. ‘Darling Downs’. Queensland Historical Atlas. http://www.qhatlas.com.au/content/darling-downs
- Hall, Thomas. 1925. The Early History of Warwick District and Pioneers of the Darling Downs. espace.library.uq.edu.au/eserv/UQ:216522/AU4001_Warwick_District_and_Pioneers.pdf
- K. G. T. Waller, 'Leslie, Patrick (1815–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leslie-patrick-2351/text3073, accessed 16 October 2013.
- Toowoomba Regional Council. 2013. ‘Pigott & Co.’. http://www.toowoombarc.qld.gov.au/facilities-and-recreation/libraries/local-history-library/7876-pigotts
- Queensland Government. 2013. 'Barnes & Co. Trading Place'. Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. https://heritage-register.ehp.qld.gov.au/placeDetail.html?siteId=15731
Published in Issue 5, on October 22, 2013.