In Surfers Paradise, the Gold Coast and Hinterland Historical Society collection tells the story of an internationally famous holiday destination. The region's history is of course more extensive than its post-war reputation for beaches and resorts, and the collection features records and objects dating back to the earliest periods of European settlement. In their museum space, a passionate and knowledgeable team of volunteers have put together a series of displays that chart the rise of industry, agriculture, transport, and urban development in the region. However, the rise of the tourist market is of particular interest to The Fashion Archives as it brought with it some interesting developments in fashion.
We've selected five fascinating examples of garments and ephemera in the collection, dating from the early to late 20th century, that explore the Gold Coast's reputation for glamour, leisure, and controversy. With some nationally significant fashion treasures, such as the Paula Stafford collection, the Gold Coast & Hinterland Historical Society is the custodian of an important piece of Queensland's sartorial past. Celebrating 80 years since the area was renamed 'Surfers Paradise', it's a good time look at the colourful history of this region.
Samaritans in gold bikinis
When in 1964, parking meters were introduced to the Gold Coast, local businesses felt they needed to combat the impact this might have on tourists. They responded with a novel idea. In an incredibly savvy gesture of hospitality and marketing, entrepreneur Bernie Elsley assembled a team of bikini-clad young women to pay the parking meters, and unburden visitors from the threat of a fine. Fifty years on, the 'Meter Maids' are still seen rescuing tourists, and remain a strong and recognisable feature of Surfers Paradise's image.
The costume has changed over the decades, with variations on one-piece and two-piece swimsuits and a range of accessories, such as tiaras, akubra hats, and jackets. Nonetheless, it has mostly remained loyal to some iconic features: it must be gold (originally lamé, now lycra), skimpy, and complete with a sash to denote the official capacity of the maids. The Gold Coast collection showcases the full gamut of styles worn over the years, including a relatively modest earlier model with a gold lace overcoat, as well as a risque later version that barely covers the display mannequin. Pictured here as part of the display are some of the fascinating photos of Meter Maids, probably taken in the late 1960s, some of the original gold lamé fabric, and a matching gold purse.
Two piece innovation
Paula Stafford is best known for having introduced the bikini to Australia. The bikini was in fact a French invention attributed to mechanical engineer Louis Réard, who had set out to produce the 'world's smallest swimsuit'. With the briefs sitting scandalously below the navel, the bikini was distinguished from earlier two-piece swimsuit designs. In conservative 1940s Queensland, this revealing style was bound to cause a stir. Indeed, Stafford's business began with commissions from passersby intrigued by the home-made bikini design she wore on Surfers Paradise beaches. By the 1950s, her small home business became an international success, with a thriving boutique in the Gold Coast and a number of stockists in England and around Australia.
Stafford was not only famous for the bikini: she also produced a range of brightly-coloured leisurewear that was well suited to Queensland’s coastal lifestyle and climate, and skilfully marketed to moneyed tourists seeking glamorous holiday wear. She used a great variety of textiles, prints and trims in her swimming costumes. Some of her embellishments, such as sequins, made her swimsuits resemble evening-wear. Matching jackets, wrap skirts, hats and bags would often complete a Paula Stafford swimsuit ensemble, and brought a high-fashion sensibility to the beach.
A glossy image
The reason Paula Stafford has such an enduring association with the Gold Coast is partly due to her savvy approach to marketing and strong use of visual imagery. The Gold Coast & Hinterland Historical Society holds some incredible ephemera that showcase Stafford's flair for print publicity. Pictured here are two excellent examples of her style. On the left is a nifty look-book with a very novel feature: it's a flip book that allows you to mix and match bikini tops with briefs and skirts. The book also contains order forms, and in a sign of the times, the form requests customers flag any known 'body problems' for a perfect fit.
On the right is an ad for the Paula Stafford boutique in Surfers Paradise found in the 'Official Gold Coast Holiday Passport', a clever tourist booklet from the 1970s (the cover is shown on our first slide). Her striking use of colour, composition, and exposed bodies made for bold advertising.
Scandal was an important ingredient in Stafford's marketing success. In one notorious story, Sydney model Ann Ferguson, wearing one of Stafford’s brief designs, was moved on from Surfers Paradise beach by its first official lifeguard. In what seems like a very contemporary marketing plan, Stafford organized a group of girls to wear her bikinis to the beach the following day, attracting the attention of the media, police and a local Catholic priest.
Before bikinis, and in fact before the South Coast recieved its name the 'Gold Coast' in the 1950s, this region had already developed a reputation as a tourist destination, particularly with nearby residents of Brisbane. There were hotels and tourist accommodation in the South Coast in the late 19th century, and access by rail and car dramatically improved visitation to the region at the start of the 20th century.
The Gold Coast collection houses some high-quality art deco evening wear that has been donated by Gold Coast residents over the years. Not much is known about these particular garments, their provenance, or their owners, however among them are some good examples of the beautiful decorative styles found in 1920s and 1930s garments. The styles are very much in keeping with international trends of the 'Jazz Age' and suggest that a fashionable, well-heeled, set may have been residing in or visiting the region for some time.
This image shows a detail of some of the intricate beading found on an exquisite black drop-waisted evening gown, and a velvet opera coat embellished with a burnout effect—a technique that was both novel and popular at this time.
Star of the seas
With its significant Paula Stafford collection, the museum has explored other examples of swimwear worn in Queensland. The one-piece swimsuit shown here is in the style worn by Australian swimwear legend, Annette Kellerman. A star of vaudeville, film and a professional swimmer, Kellerman was a fascinating and inimitable figure. Born in 1886, in New South Wales, she is considered to be the first woman to wear the one-piece bathing suit; a costume that was, in the early 1900s, just as scandalous as Stafford's bikini decades later. The standard swimming attire for women at this time was heavy costume comprised of a woolen dress and pants. The one-piece was a much more streamlined and athletic model, and greatly expanded the possibility of movement for women. For this reason, Kellerman, a strong and talented swimmer, was a passionate advocate for the one-piece; so much so that in 1907 she was arrested for indecency at a Massachusetts beach.
Shown here is a particularly striking example of a 1920s one-piece swimsuit. The aqua colour is bright and daring, the form closely fitted to the body, and the geometric pattern on the chest symbolic of the speed of the modern one-piece design. As was typical at this time, the swimsuit is constructed from a woollen knit, which seems unthinkably hot and heavy for swimming by today's standards. However it wasn't until the late 1950s that the stretchy spandex fibre was introduced and further liberated swimmers from the drag of bulky costumes.
Published in Issue 8, on December 3, 2013.