Far North Queensland

TFA’s People & Places is your road-map to the key sites, figures, and scenes that have shaped fashion in Queensland from the late 19th century onwards. In Issue Three we take you to Far North Queensland.

Three women on board a cruise ship bound for The Great Barrier Reef, ca. 1933John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 204589

Far North Queensland, or FNQ, represents the northernmost tip of Queensland. The region, though not formally defined, typically encompasses the towns of Innisfail, Cooktown, Weipa, Mossman, Yarrabah, Atherton, Mourilyan, the Torres Strait Islands, and Cairns; a populous and significant regional center. Boasting some spectacular examples of Australia’s rainforests and beaches, including the Great Barrier Reef and the unspoilt wilderness of the Cape York Peninsula, Queensland’s ‘tropical north’ has long been promoted for national and international tourism. Since the early 20th century, its identity as a popular resort destination has leant the region an occasionally glamorous reputation. Ironically, however, it is the less glamorous industries of farming, agriculture, and mining that are historically responsible for the region’s flourishing business districts and markets for fashion.

Places to shop

In the late 19th century the major towns of the Far North offered high-quality fashion retail, with a number of independent dressmakers, tailors, drapers as well as some well-appointed department stores housed in grand colonial buildings.

The Palmer River gold rush of the 1870s created a sudden influx of wealth to Far North Queensland, and led to the rapid growth of small towns like Cooktown. 1 As a supply port for the gold fields, Cooktown had access to a great range of imported goods, including garments and textiles. At the height of the gold rush, it had a vibrant hub of retail, and attracted dressmakers and milliners to clothe prospectors visiting from America, Europe, China and all around Australia.

A 1946 article in the Cairns Post reminisced about the thriving businesses of 1870s Cooktown, and among those remembered were the town’s prominent drapers, tailors, dressmakers, and milliners: “One of the big stores was that of Power, Thomas and Madden … The firm sold all the commodities needed by a thriving community. Cabbage tree hats and hats of felt, trousers of tweed, moleskin, duck drill; blucher boots from six shillings and sixpence upwards—elastic sides were dearer. For the ladies there were calicoes, white and grey, velvets and velveteens, silks, satins, muslins and fancy dress materials … Miss Timoney was a milliner of the first decade in Cooktown. Her regular advertisement used to say, ‘Leaving Cooktown, selling off all stock,’ but Miss Timoney and her drapery, laces and millinery continued doing business even when the town was on the down grade … James Dick, the ‘Little Wonder Store,’ near the Police barracks, featured all manner of ware: “Ladies’ elastic-side boots, seven shillings a pair; lamp glasses, sixpence each”. Charles Watson was an opposition seller of boots and shoes. Solomon and Emanuel, wholesale and retail grocers, styled their business the Great Northern Stores. Tailors and Men’s Outfitters found representation in Edward D’Arcy, and Palmer Bros. specialised in Pompadour prints, dresses and cords”. 2

Cairns had a similarly diverse range of fashion retail on offer at around this time, and like Cooktown, would have supplied smaller towns in the region through mail order shopping. In the early twentieth century there were some large drapers and department stores that had franchises in a number of Far North Queensland towns, and often advertised that they welcomed ‘country’ shoppers. Mellicks (Drapery, Clothing, Mercery, Boots and Shoes) had stores in Cairns, Irvinebank, Cooktown, and Geraldton (now Innisfail), and there was an Armstrong, Ledlie and Stillman’s department store in both Cairns and Atherton. The town of Mossman gained commercial prominence in the early twentieth century through farming, and a draper was amongst an early wave of new merchants in the area.

In 1887 The House of Bolands (later known as the Bolands Centre) opened in Cairns, signaling the arrival of a major department store to the Far North. In 1914 Bolands expanded into a grand three-story development that remains an important marker of both the region’s architecture and early commercial expansion. Drive-in shopping centres reached Cairns in the 1980s (Earlville in 1980 and Smithfield in 1986), offering a range of shopping experiences to neighbouring towns. Cairns’ largest shopping centre, Cairns Central, opened in 1997 with a Myer and Target.

Design, Manufacture and Production

In the early 20th century, Brisbane-based dressmakers and tailors, including representatives from Patrick Woulfe and Sons and McDonnell and East, would make temporary visits to towns of Far North Queensland, often setting up in hotels to display and sell their latest wares. There were also many prominent tailors and dressmakers local to Far North Queensland, such as ‘stylish’ tailor John Dan in Cairns, who in the first few decades of the 20th century ran a reputable establishment with a large staff. John Dan promised a well-finished suit at a day’s notice, and was known to travel around the region, offering his services to other Far North Queensland towns.

Textiles were not produced locally, and instead were typically imported from Europe, Asia and other Australian cities, and sold in drapers as well as general merchants advertising mercery (cloth or haberdashery). The Far North has been a fertile region for farming and agriculture in Queensland, but its wet tropical climate is poorly suited for cotton growing. There have been experiments in cotton nonetheless: a short-lived cotton plantation (Hop Wah) was established in 1882 in land around Cairns and Cooktown by a Chinese syndicate, but its failure meant that the land was quickly turned over to sugar cane.

Since the 1930s, crocodiles have been hunted commercially in Far North Queensland for their leather. Saltwaters are now protected, but continued international demand for crocodile leather products to this day has promoted crocodile farming across Far North Queensland, including in Cairns, Palm Cove, Innisfail, & Mareeba.

Pearling has been a major industry in the Far North, from the late 19th century to the late 20th century, particularly in the Torres Strait Islands. Jewellery, textiles and weaving are important traditional crafts in the Torres Strait Islands and there are well-established Indigenous craft groups in Erub (Darnley), Moa, and Thursday Islands operating today that produce both traditional and contemporary textile crafts.

Fashion Scenes

With its laid-back lifestyle, extreme wet and dry seasons, and rural setting, Far North Queensland hasn’t been typically associated with high fashion. However, throughout the history of the region, there have been a number of important social events that called for refinement and elegance in dress. In the late 19th century through to the mid 20th century, charity and debutante balls were major social occasions in a number of Far North Queensland towns, and local newspapers reported in great detail on what was worn. The Cairns Aquatic Club Hall was a popular ball venue, and Innisfail hosted a number of Peace Balls in the interwar period that offered prizes for best dressed ladies, gentlemen and couples.

In the early-to-mid twentieth century, southern holidaymakers brought an element of style to the region, with cruises to the Great Barrier Reef being promoted as a glamorous mode of travel. The North Coast Railway, or ‘Sunshine Route’, to Cairns, which opened in 1924 was also an attractive way to take in the sights and attractions of the Far North. The train trip would have been a great draw-card for southern tourists at the time, marrying the jazz age’s love for locomotive speed with romantic tropical scenery.

The glamour of Far North tourism reappeared in the 1980s, when Christopher Skase gained permission from the Bjelke-Petersen government for his 2.5km beach-front development in Port Douglas. The Mirage Resort, which opened in 1985, paved the way for other apartment, hotel and motel developments in the area, and revived the Far North’s reputation as a sought-after resort destination for well-heeled tourists from around Australia and the world.

Charlotte Street in Cooktown, ca. 1880 (Power, Thomas and Madden visible on right)
Charlotte Street in Cooktown, ca. 1880 (Power, Thomas and Madden visible on right)John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 234508
Staff of Atherton firm, Armstrong, Ledlie & Stillman, ca. 1918
Staff of Atherton firm, Armstrong, Ledlie & Stillman, ca. 1918John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 142877
Premises of Armstrong Ledlie and Stillman Ltd. Cairns Queensland ca. 1929
Premises of Armstrong Ledlie and Stillman Ltd. Cairns Queensland ca. 1929John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 142253
Armstrong, Ledlie and Stillman drapery shop in Cairns, 1948
Armstrong, Ledlie and Stillman drapery shop in Cairns, 1948John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 67381
Armstrong, Ledlie and Stillman's premises in Atherton,1948
Armstrong, Ledlie and Stillman's premises in Atherton,1948John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 67379
Bolands Limited in Cairns, ca. 1928
Bolands Limited in Cairns, ca. 1928John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 27731
Men having a chat in Edith Street Innisfail, 1930 (Mercery visible on right)
Men having a chat in Edith Street Innisfail, 1930 (Mercery visible on right)John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 258857
Abbott Street Cairns, ca. 1910. John Dan's tailoring business premises is on the left hand side of the street and was established in 1896
Abbott Street Cairns, ca. 1910. John Dan's tailoring business premises is on the left hand side of the street and was established in 1896 John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 203295
John Dan's tailor, draper and mercer in Babinda, ca. 1900-1918
John Dan's tailor, draper and mercer in Babinda, ca. 1900-1918John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 593060
Chinese canegrowers planting sugar cane near Cairns, ca. 1878. Caption references Hop Wah plantation, may also be Hambledon. The Hop Wah syndicate consisted of Chinese workers who grew cane, cotton and other crops on a plantation of 600 acres selected by Andrew Leon, a prominent Chinese business man.
Chinese canegrowers planting sugar cane near Cairns, ca. 1878. Caption references Hop Wah plantation, may also be Hambledon. The Hop Wah syndicate consisted of Chinese workers who grew cane, cotton and other crops on a plantation of 600 acres selected by Andrew Leon, a prominent Chinese business man.Queensland State Archives Item ID1098175, Photographic material
Prospector William Lakeland and family from Neville Creek near Laura, North Queensland, 1905
Prospector William Lakeland and family from Neville Creek near Laura, North Queensland, 1905John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 31662
Illustrated front cover from The Queenslander, July 5,1934
Illustrated front cover from The Queenslander, July 5,1934John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 505094
Grand Central Hotel Innisfail, ca. 1951
Grand Central Hotel Innisfail, ca. 1951John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 38791
1 With the gold in the Palmer exhausted by the early twentieth century, however, Cooktown went into a period of decline until its revival in the 1980s through tourism.
21946 ‘A SEAPORT FAMED IN STORY.’, Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 – 1954), 2 February, p. 7, viewed 21 September, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42481588
The Fashion Archives' Reading List:
  • 1926 'Advertising.', Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 - 1954), 14 April, p. 2, viewed 21 September, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article40531466
  • 1931 'Advertising.', Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 - 1954), 31 January, p. 2, viewed 21 September, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article41115640
  • 1932 'INNISFAIL PEACE BALL.', Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 - 1954), 25 June, p. 3, viewed 23 September, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article41159090
  • 1946 'A SEAPORT FAMED IN STORY.', Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 - 1954), 2 February, p. 7, viewed 21 September, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42481588
  • Bolton, G. C. and Kathryn Cronin. 1974. “Leon, Andrew (1841–1920)”. Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leon-andrew-4012/text6359, accessed 21 September 2013.
  • Brennan, Claire. 2013. “Crocodile Hunting”. Queensland Historical Atlas. http://www.qhatlas.com.au/crocodile-hunting
  • McGregor, Russell. 2013. “Rainforests of North Queensland”. Queensland Historical Atlas. http://www.qhatlas.com.au/rainforests-north-queensland
  • Queensland Places. “Cairns”. http://queenslandplaces.com.au/cairns
  • Queensland Places. “Cooktown”. http://queenslandplaces.com.au/cooktown
  • Queensland Places. “Mossman”. http://queenslandplaces.com.au/mossman
  • Queensland Places. “Port Douglas”. http://queenslandplaces.com.au/port-douglas
  • Stell, Marion. 2010. “Pleasure: how people enjoy the landscape”. Queensland Historical Atlas. http://www.qhatlas.com.au/essay/pleasure-how-people-enjoy-landscape

Published in , on September 24, 2013.