Gwen Gillam

Gwen Gillam was regarded as Queensland’s leading dressmaker in the 1950s and 1960s, revered for her glamorous style and use of couture techniques.

Gwen Gillam, detail of a dress with detachable beaded collar, ca. 1960sQueensland Museum

Who: Gwen Gillam (1917-2001).

What: A leading Brisbane dressmaker and couturier who ran a prominent and stylish boutique for 46 years.

When: Gwen Gillam ran her business from 1936 to 1983, but was best known for her work in the 1950s and 1960s.

Where: Gillam opened her first shop in Queen Street in 1937 at age 20, and then moved to the Brisbane Arcade following World War II, where she remained up until the 1960s. In 1958, she established a second store in the Metro Building in Albert Street, which she relocated to prestigious Grand Central Arcade in Queen Street, from 1965 until her retirement in 1983.

Why: Gwen Gillam brought luxury and glamorous European style to the Queensland fashion market for a large part of the 20th century. Her boutique in the Brisbane Arcade was often described as offering something of a Hollywood experience to downtown Brisbane, with fresh flowers and designer furniture completing the atmosphere. She made gowns primarily for formal occasions, including for brides, balls and debuts. Her clientele were often highly loyal, and enjoyed the exclusivity of Gillam’s expensive made-to-measure service.

At the height of her career, Gillam was often regarded as Queensland’s direct line to Parisian trends. Gillam was highly attuned to international fashion, with designers like Chanel cited as inspiration, and she and her team used many of the time-consuming hand-sewing techniques typically employed by French couturiers, such as herringbone stitch for wool and invisible hemming. Though she was known to provide a personal touch, her workshop and salon upstairs at the Brisbane Arcade was well staffed with a number of shop-assistants, dressmakers and apprentices.

Gwen Gillam had been working as a dressmaker since the mid 1930s and continued through the tumultuous wartime period, but it was the post-war era of the 1950s and 1960s that is considered to be the peak of her career. With her use of rich beaded or embroidered embellishments, and an eye for elegant and sometimes flamboyant prints and colour palettes, Gillam captured the early 1960s fondness for sparkle and decadence. She used expensive fabrics, mostly silks, wools and linens, sourced from Europe and Hong Kong. In addition to the exquisite ribbons and laces supplied by Brisbane’s Gardams Fabrics, she constructed her own trims to meet 1960s tastes, with rouleau (a cloth piping used to make decorative appliqué or loops for buttons) being one example of what was in vogue. Gillam also drew on the popular silhouettes of this period, such as shift and empire-waist dresses, and made them sumptuous with glittering beaded collars, lace overlays, eye-catching bows, and piped borders. Simpler dress styles were often paired with voluminous coats or short boxy jackets made up in expensive eveningwear fabrics.

Gillam was undoubtedly a glamorous member of Brisbane’s social elite, though she was raised in a working class suburb in inner Brisbane. She is fondly remembered as an eccentric character who managed to create a successful fashion business in a conservative period of Queensland’s history.

Gwen Gillam was the subject of a popular exhibition at the Queensland Museum, Dressed by the Best: Fashion, Glamour and Gwen Gillam, curated by Michael Marendy. The show focused on the designer’s 1950s and 1960s period with a collection of 41 garments, objects and ephemera from this time. Gillam’s work set the scene for a broader exploration of Brisbane’s social history with photographs and oral histories offering a glimpse into the glamorous side of Queensland’s capital in the mid 20th century. Some of Gwen Gillam’s work is held at the National Museum of Australia and the Queensland Museum.

Gwen Gillam, silk organza cocktail dress, ca. late 1960s
Gwen Gillam, silk organza cocktail dress, ca. late 1960sQueensland Museum
Gwen Gillam, cocktail dress with opera coat, ca. 1960s
Gwen Gillam, cocktail dress with opera coat, ca. 1960sQueensland Museum
Gwen Gillam, spotted dress, ca. 1960s
Gwen Gillam, spotted dress, ca. 1960sQueensland Museum
Gwen Gillam, detail of a bridesmaid's dress featuring a lace overlay, ca. 1960s
Gwen Gillam, detail of a bridesmaid's dress featuring a lace overlay, ca. 1960sQueensland Museum
Detail of a Gwen Gillam gown, ca. 1960s
Detail of a Gwen Gillam gown, ca. 1960sQueensland Museum
Gwen Gillam, tiered cocktail dress, ca. 1960s
Gwen Gillam, tiered cocktail dress, ca. 1960sQueensland Museum
Detail of a beaded Gwen Gillam shift dress, ca. 1960s
Detail of a beaded Gwen Gillam shift dress, ca. 1960sQueensland Museum
Gwen Gillam, black dress in French silk taffeta with three-tiered skirt and self-tie belt. Theatre jacket in black and pale apricot silk brocade featuring dolman sleeves and a curved front opening, ca. 1960s
Gwen Gillam, black dress in French silk taffeta with three-tiered skirt and self-tie belt. Theatre jacket in black and pale apricot silk brocade featuring dolman sleeves and a curved front opening, ca. 1960sQueensland Museum
Gwen Gillam (right) pictured in the Courier Mail, 1937
Gwen Gillam (right) pictured in the Courier Mail, 1937
Gwen Gillam exhibition opening, Queensland Museum, 2012
Gwen Gillam exhibition opening, Queensland Museum, 2012Queensland Museum
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Published in , on October 8, 2013.