Who: Paula Stafford (b.1920)
What: Fashion designer best known for swimwear and leisurewear; in particular the introduction of the bikini to Australia.
Where: Founded on the Gold Coast, with retailers nationally and internationally.
Why: Paula Stafford is one of the most famous Queensland fashion designers of the 20th century. Best known for introducing the bikini to Gold Coast beaches in the 1950s, Stafford designs became synonymous with the Queensland lifestyle of surf, sand, and sun.
The ‘invention’ of the bikini—a two piece swimsuit with briefs cut well below the navel—is usually credited to Frenchmen Jacques Heim and Louis Réard, in 1946. The bikini thus differs from earlier two-piece bathing suits, which well and truly pre-dated Réard’s design, but featured briefs cut up to the waist, covering the navel. Paula Stafford is believed to have been among the first to introduce the navel-exposing design to Australia, making exceptionally scant bikinis, and also pioneering the use of unusual fabrics, backless bikini tops, and reversible garments.
Although she was born in Melbourne, Stafford has spent the majority of her life in Queensland. In the late 1930s she completed a three-year dress design course at the Emily McPherson School of Domestic Economy, located within Melbourne Technical College. Soon after, at the beginning of World War Two, she came to Queensland, stationed as a nurse in Toowoomba. It was during this time she met her husband, Beverly ‘Bev’ Stafford, recovering from war injuries. The two married and moved to Bev’s hometown, the ‘South Coast’, as it was then known, today we call it the Gold Coast.
The couple lived right on Main Beach, occupying an old kiosk near the beach’s Bathing Pavilion. Here Paula and Beverly Stafford had four children. While he ran a beach hire and massage business she made her own clothes to wear to the beach, including one and two piece swimsuits, as well as outfits for the children, and simple beach shirts for Beverly.
It wasn’t long before people began asking Paula Stafford to make clothes for them, but with her hands full as a young mother, she initially resisted. Eventually though, she started making garments from her beachfront home, and her business got its start. Given that this was not long after the war, fabric was still scarce and Stafford often re-used tea towels, tablecloths, and curtains to make her cleverly reversible bikinis and jackets. She continued to experiment with fabric choices throughout her career, and always made her garments reversible.
In 1949, Beverly and Paula bought a block of land on Cavill Avenue, Surfers Paradise. Here they built a house and apartments, and she had a workroom in the attic. The building was called ‘Fiesta’. In the early 1950s, they built a shop front, and she had a machinist to help her sew in the attic. Business expanded rapidly.
Paula Stafford was an astute businesswoman who understood her market. In 1952 a model wearing one of Stafford’s bikinis, Ann Ferguson, paraded on the beach at Surfers Paradise, and she was soon asked to leave for her ‘indecent’ attire. The event caused such a stir that Stafford’s bikinis quickly became notorious and in huge demand.
By the mid 1950s Stafford’s store had several signs. The original ‘Fiesta’ building sign was joined by ‘Tog Shop’ and ‘Bikini Bar’ signs. Stafford began importing Swiss cottons and had a vast range of fabrics available in store, displayed as rows of colourful bolts for customers to choose from. She offered a 24-hour design service, meaning a customer could come in to the store on a Monday morning, be measured, choose her fabrics and designs, and collect the garment to wear to the beach the following morning. This service was perfect for a transient tourist market, which Stafford tapped directly in to. Her designs were particularly popular among Sydney and Melbourne holidaymakers, who flocked to Stafford’s store for their vacation attire. Mail order also flourished. To keep up with the scale of orders, several of the Fiesta apartments were transformed into more workroom space, and Stafford oversaw a staff of 30.
By the late 1950s Paula Stafford designs were being stocked in Southern department stores, including Georges in Melbourne and David Jones in Sydney. In 1956, she held the first ‘Bikini Fashion Parade; it was held at Sydney Town Hall to promote the Gold Coast. This parade led the way for others throughout Australia, and overseas. She would later begin her own modelling agency, Golden Girls, primarily to showcase her own designs, and continued to hold fashion parades throughout the country well in to the 1970s.
Stafford continued to design children’s wear, and also menswear, including boardshorts, from the early 1950s. One of her most famous menswear clients was Sammy Davis Jr., who visited her Cavill Avenue store and bought up big for himself and his friends.
The Stafford family were part of the business, with Beverly leaving his own ventures to develop menswear opportunities for Paula, while her daughters Susan, Frances, and Sybil were all heavily involved in the design, retail, and production of Paula Stafford garments.
By the 1960s Paula Stafford designs could be found in the world’s leading department stores, including Selfridges and Liberty of London. She had hundreds of stockists and a staff of 65 at her peak. Frances Stafford opened a stand-alone store in Sydney. Paula Stafford travelled the world in the 1960s and ‘70s, showcasing her work at international trade shows in Canada, the United States, Fiji, and Japan.
Paula Stafford retained her success in the notoriously changeable fashion industry over multiple decades. The styles, fabrics, and functionality of her garments continued to draw on a beach lifestyle for their appeal, and consequently saw little stylistic variation. In addition to her fashion prowess, Stafford continued to develop business opportunities in other areas, opening hotels, developing property, and establishing art galleries with her husband.
After forty years of success, Paula Stafford retired from the helm of her label in 1985. Her daughter, Sybil, continued to work in fashion, running a business known as the ‘House of Stafford’ in to the 1990s.
In 1993, Paula Stafford was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in the General Division for service to the fashion industry. In 2010 she published her autobiography, and in 2013 was inducted in to the Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame. Examples of her work are held in national and local collections, including the Queensland Museum, and Gold Coast and Hinterland Historical Society.
- Campbell, Janet. 2008. Interview with Paula Stafford in Brisbane Modern, Issue 3. Viewed 17 March, 2014, http://www.brisbanemodern.com.au/issue3-article.html.
- Hicks, Sara. 2008 'The Mother of All Cheeky Bikinis', ABC Gold Coast, viewed 17 March, 2014, http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2008/05/19/2249403.htm
- Moore, Tony. 2013 'Queensland icons added to Business Leaders' Hall of Fame', Brisbane Times, 26 July, viewed 17 March, 2014, http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/queensland-icons-added-to-business-leaders-hall-of-fame-20130725-2qney.html#ixzz2wCLKYGaW
- Schmidt, Christine. 2010. "Against the Grain: Australia and the Swimsuit." In Australian Fashion Unstitched : The Last 60 Years, edited by Bonnie English and Liliana Pomazan, 153 - 173. Port Melbourne, Vic.: Cambridge University Press.
- Stoltz, Greg. 2010 'Bikini Queen turns 90', The Courier Mail, June 10, viewed 17 March, 2014, http://www.couriermail.com.au/lifestyle/fashion/bikini-queen-paula-stafford-turns-90/story-e6frer4o-1225878133378
- 1974 'Fashion's flowing cover-up.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 25 February, p. 8, viewed 17 March, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article110763098
- 1974 'CANBERRA SHOW.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 22 February, p. 12, viewed 17 March, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article110762726
- 1975 'Gold Coast on Parade.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 6 August, p. 3, viewed 17 March, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article110651087
- 1980 'From bikinis to beans.', The Australian Women's Weekly (1933 - 1982), 24 December, p. 29, viewed 17 March, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article43740314
Published in Issue 11, on March 25, 2014.