Janet Walker

Janet Walker was an inventive business-woman who ran a successful and respected eponymous dress-making label in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and even influenced the work of couturiers like Madame Paquin and Charles Worth.

View of Edward Street above the intersection of Adelaide Street looking east, Brisbane, ca. 1889John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 100086

Who: Janet Walker, (1850-1940).

What: Prominent dressmaker known for exquisite gowns who ran an innovative and long-standing business in Brisbane city.

When: Janet Walker migrated to Queensland from Scotland with her family in 1863, aged 13. She commenced her working life as a teacher at the age of 22, before marrying James Laughland Walker, a draper who was also Scottish born, in 1876. She started her dressmaking business in 1882, and continued working up until 1938, aged 88.

Where: She occupied a number of locations in the centre of Brisbane, her first premises located on Queen Street, Brisbane. She moved to Adelaide Street in 1886, and back to Queen Street in 1918. For a short time she ran a major emporium on Adelaide Street, near the corner of Edward Street, as well as another business in the Courier Building, Queen Street.

Why: Janet Walker was responsible for operating the most significant private dressmaking business of her time, and was a remarkable leader within Brisbane’s fledgling fashion industry. She was an innovative and savvy professional who had a well-founded reputation for exquisite quality and design prowess; dressing some of the most prominent women of the city, state, and country. She was particularly admired for her dresses and gowns, worn to countless receptions, balls, official events and weddings, and known for their luxurious fabrics and finishes.

Walker was a contemporary to another respected dressmaker, Miss Margaret Scott, and also partnered for a time with Brisbane milliner Miss Margaret Caldwell. The partnership of Walker and Caldwell led to the establishment of a successful but relatively short-lived enterprise, the ‘Ladies’ Emporium’, on Adelaide Street. Here Brisbane women were able to access a plentiful array of goods and services, including custom dressmaking and ready-to-wear garments, as well as millinery, hoisery, corsetry, drapery and haberdashery departments. Hence Janet Walker and Margaret Caldwell inventively combined the services of larger department stores and draperies with the atelier services of private dressmakers and designers, and in doing so also challenged the gender imbalances in the industry at the time.

Along with her high level of workmanship and ambition, Walker was known for providing outstanding conditions for her staff (which numbered 120 by 1898), including overtime; a rare practice in this era.

The Ladies’ Emporium closed in 1900, despite its popularity with Brisbane women. Janet Walker opted not to renew the lease, and instead moved upstairs in the same building and went back to her focus on bespoke garment making. In 1904 she again proved her penchant for cutting-edge techniques and approaches, successfully securing a patent on a design for a customised dressmaker’s stand. It was called the ‘plastic bust’ and was designed to produce a close facsimile of a client’s body, thus allowing for highly personalised garment making. This unique invention was written about in detail by newspapers at the time, and touted as a convenient way for clients to streamline the dressmaking process (once Janet Walker’s atelier had their measurements, garments could be made with precision without repeated visits). The design was in fact so specialised that other local and international dressmakers and designers began to utilise it, including important couturiers like Madame Paquin of Paris, and the House of Worth 1.

Remarkably, Walker continued to work in to her 80s, and managed to survive despite the massive changes to fashion consumption and production in the first quarter of the 20th Century. This long-term success speaks to her ingrained reputation, specialised skills and flair for innovation.

Though little of Walker’s extensive output has survived, some of her garments have been conserved in collections throughout Australia, including the Queensland Museum, and Powerhouse Museum. Brisbane clothing and textiles conservator Dr Michael Marendy is responsible for a significant amount of research on Walker’s life and work, and the acquisition of several garments for the Queensland Museum’s collection. He displayed her garments in the exhibition In Fashion, held at the Museum of Brisbane in 2009.

Janet Walker ball gown, designed and made for Mrs. Barbara Drury, ca. 1892
Janet Walker ball gown, designed and made for Mrs. Barbara Drury, ca. 1892Queensland Museum
Interior detail of a Janet Walker garment featuring her label
Interior detail of a Janet Walker garment featuring her labelQueensland Museum
Sketch of the Courier Building in Brisbane ca 1887
Sketch of the Courier Building in Brisbane ca 1887John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 258389
Courier Building on the corner of Queen and Edward Streets, ca. 1919
Courier Building on the corner of Queen and Edward Streets, ca. 1919John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 257725
1In 1895 Walker had also secured a patent for a design for a ‘folding apparatus’ she had created to assist with folding heavy fabrics.
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Published in , on October 22, 2013.