Who: Harvey Graham (1924?-1993).
What: A well-loved mid-century Brisbane fashion designer specialising in womenswear at the upper end of the market.
Where: Graham established a boutique in the Brisbane Arcade from 1963 until the 1980s, at shop 21. Prior to this, in the 1950s, he had workrooms in Stanley Street, South Brisbane. Graham also had other stockists in Queensland.
When: Designing from the 1950s until the 1980s.
Why: Harvey Graham was self-styled as Brisbane’s own couturier. He specialised in high fashion, modelling his designs on the prominent French designers of his time, such as Dior.
A recent discovery of some of Graham’s garments, from the estate of his former personal assistant Mrs Vilma Parker, coincided with the 90 year anniversary of the Brisbane Arcade, and reignited public interest in the work of Harvey Graham. Despite this interest, and his long career, little information on the designer has been recorded.
The garments that were uncovered dated from the 1960s and ’70s, made in colourful printed textiles that were popular in that period. Bold floral motifs featured strongly. However, the garments that remain aren’t necessarily representative of his full career and aspirations. Indeed, it was an earlier period that saw his high fashion design sensibility more strongly expressed.
In the early 1950s, Graham was working from his workshop at 280 Stanley Street, South Brisbane. It was situated in the former shipping and commercial district now known as South Bank. Classified ads looking for sewing machinists requested experience with ‘high class frocks’, and noted ‘ideal conditions’ for staff.
Around this same time, the social pages of local newspapers commented on his movements, owing to his membership of a fashionable ‘younger set’ in Brisbane.
In 1954, the fashion supplement of The Courier Mail featured a collaboration between Harvey Graham and respected Brisbane milliner Patrick Ogilvie. Their ensembles were said to create the perfect wardrobe for the opening of the Jacob Epstien and Walter Sickert exhibition at the Queensland National Art Gallery (now Queensland Art Gallery). The richly illustrated editorial depicts models interacting with paintings in the exhibition, making a strong alignment between Graham and Ogilvie’s designs and the perceived ‘high culture’ value of the European artists. Relying on a strict grey and white monochrome palette, the dresses were described as using fabrics that were ‘new and exciting for Brisbane’, including Egyptian satin and interesting textures of wools, silks, and lace. Mirroring international trends, the gowns featured “the latest, push-up sleeves, pleated pockets that stand out from the hips, and either very slim or very full skirts. The hats are all tiny and worn well forward”1.
This European-influenced style was punctuated by Patrick Ogilvie’s exquisite hats, which were said to interpret some of Dior’s latest work. A savvy stockist, Judith Ann’s in Rockhampton, later advertised that they were selling the Harvey Graham frocks that had been featured in the piece.
In this same year, The Courier Mail credited a young Harvey Graham with bringing Dior’s new ‘H-Line’ silhouette to Brisbane. The look had debuted in Paris in July of that year, but it wasn’t until December that it made its appearance in Queensland. It was also know as the ‘French Bean’ or ‘Flat Look’, evoking the dropped-waist, small-busted boyish cut of 1920s flapper fashion. Graham’s designs were said to include some modifications that responded both to Brisbane’s climate and women’s complaints that Dior’s silhouette was too unshapely. Graham’s reinterpretation was described as a success: elegant, sophisticated, and ‘high fashion’.
“Certainly it will look best on slim people — there must be a straight flat look from above the waist through to the hips, where it floats out with skirt fullness, usually from a cuffed band. Mr. Graham, who has created a Parisienne night time look for Brisbane’s summer, has used a wide variety of fabrics — from cotton as crisp as organdie to a brilliant sequinned lace which is made for night lights”2.
In the early 1960s, the designer set up his own boutique in the fashionable Brisbane Arcade. For a brief time, he may have neighboured another prominent Brisbane designer, Gwen Gillam (she left the Arcade in the 1960s). Signalling his success and status in this decade, The Australian Women’s Weekly ran a feature on Graham’s chic Spanish-style ‘bachelor home’ in Surfers Paradise in 1969.
Graham remained in the Arcade until the 1980s. Though he retained ‘Harvey Graham Couturier’ as his trading name, images of his boutique at in the 1980s, showing pretty day dresses in the window, suggest his garments had become more accessible by this time. These dresses, and the ones that were recently uncovered, sport an unfussy sash or rope belt in keeping with a contemporary casual look.
- 1951 'Bachelors go gay.', The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 - 1954), 11 August, p. 5, viewed 28 March, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article50240693
- 1953 'Advertising.', The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 - 1954), 8 October, p. 13, viewed 28 March, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article51071118
- 1954 'Advertising.', The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 - 1954), 24 June, p. 12, viewed 28 March, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article50603968
- 1954 'Advertising.', Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 - 1954), 14 May, p. 6, viewed 28 March, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article57318866
Published in Issue 12, on April 8, 2014.