Sallyanne Atkinson AO was Lord Mayor of Brisbane from 1985 to 1991, and the first woman to hold this position. Before moving in to politics, she worked as a journalist for various newspapers, including the Brisbane Telegraph and Courier Mail. She currently holds the positions of President of the University of Queensland’s Women’s College, Chair of the Museum of Brisbane Board, and Chair of the Queensland Brain Institute Advisory Board.
In this interview, recorded in Sallyanne’s Brisbane home, she reflects on the relationship between fashion and politics, particularly for women. She also recalls her youth, growing up in Southport (wearing Paula Stafford bikinis), before moving to Brisbane to study and attend UQ’s Women’s College. Moving swiftly from this academic start, she took a job at the Brisbane Telegraph, covering ‘women’s news’, including fashion. It was the era of youth fashion and the mini-skirt, as well as hats and gloves for older women. Sallyanne recalls that in Brisbane, the most stylish women went to Gwen Gillam for a dress or gown, finished with a hat from Patrick Ogilvie.
In 1979 Sallyanne entered politics, elected as Alderman of Indooroopilly. She was in her mid-thirties, and had five young children. She remembers the importance of clothing on her public persona, and the level of scrutiny as a woman in politics. This escalated in 1985 when she was elected Lord Mayor. Brisbane designers Keri Craig and Barbara Battalini helped define her public image.
During her time as Lord Mayor, Sallyanne oversaw World Expo ’88, a large-scale world’s fair that had a transformative effect on Brisbane, attracting over 15 million people during its six month duration. It was also the largest event held as part of Australia’s 1988 Bicentennial celebrations. It was a conspicuous time for the development of Queensland’s contemporary image.
While Sallyanne observes that political roles have expanded for women in recent decades, she points out that the challenges and tone of commentary levelled at women in these roles remains much the same. She cites Governor General Quentin Bryce as a prominent female who has developed an individual personal style within the confines of politics. Her secret, Sallyanne believes, is her consistent and authentic style, developed prior to public life. Indeed, she remembers ‘ducking behind the cornflakes’ at the supermarket when she would spot Quentin, at that time a stylish young mother that made others, like Sallyanne, feel hopelessly daggy by comparison.
Published in Issue 11, on March 25, 2014.