Queensland in wartime
Through its collection and exhibits, the MacArthur Museum in Brisbane charts life in Queensland during World War II. It is named after American General Douglas MacArthur, who used the current museum site—formerly the AMP building, and now the MacArthur Chambers—as his secretive General Headquarters during the war, and in the process cemented Queensland as an unlikely, but nonetheless important, site for the Allied forces. The MacArthur Museum has a great collection of wartime objects and ephemera that provide both official and personal accounts of this period. The Fashion Archives uncovered five special items that tell surprising stories of romance, thrift and innovation in Queensland during a period of great upheaval and loss.
Wartime communications weren't just about battle logistics. Personal letters sent between soldiers and civilians carried messages of love, hope and sorrow. The sheer weight of such correspondence meant that a lighter system of communication was needed. Enter the V-Mail, a light and compact format stored on microfilm that eased the burden on a crippled Trans-Pacific shipping service.
The picture here shows a decorative V-Mail, which would have been produced for special occasions. We might imagine that this pre-printed love-letter helped newlywed Private First Class Lewis E. Hughes express personal sentiment to his wife Mrs Jean Hughes, and let her know of his welfare. The poem reminds his beloved of the Private’s patriotic duty, and points to a conceit of the V-mail: censorship. According Karen Nunan from the MacArthur Museum, strict censorship laws prevented armed forces personnel from being able to “to say where they were or to give any information such as weather, descriptions of flowers or animals, names of landmarks which might give this information away. This made it difficult for men to fill the page with news, and they might not write for a few weeks, which made the families at home very anxious about their welfare”.
Along with this V-Mail, a wedding dress and other items belonging to Mrs Jean Hughes are featured in the War Brides permanent exhibit of the MacArthur Museum.
War-time austerity meant tight restrictions on all goods and the effects on dress have been well documented. There were official regulations on many aspects of mens’ and womens’ wartime garb, including limits on the quantity of pockets and pleats in a garment and the stipulation of shorter hems. Rationing meant that at various periods during and immediately after World War II fabrics and new garments were near impossible to source. It was a time of ‘make-do and mend’.
The brooch pictured here is a great example of some of the thrift and innovation that wartime restrictions gave rise to. This dress accessory makes use of the availability of Perspex (acrylic glass), which was used to repair aircraft shot in combat. Karen Nunan tells us about the use of this material during WWII: “Sheets of Perspex were manufactured in the US and shipped to Australia. Here they were cut and shaped to fit aircraft, and local women were hired to polish them. Workers were allowed to take the offcuts and make items for personal use or sale”.
The MacArthur Museum has a few pieces of sweetheart jewellery made from Perspex, and we were particularly drawn to this one made from a post card. The back shows that the decorative image has been repurposed from an unused post card, and uses a common safety-pin for fastening. We imagine that the brilliant reds would have helped lift an austere outfit.
As luck would have it
This is another item that belonged to newlywed Jean Hughes. Karen Nunan explains that Mrs Hughes made this horseshoe using silk ribbon and decorative wax flowers to match her dress for her wedding day on 8 August 1945, “just two days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It was too soon for her to know that this and the subsequent bombing of Nagasaki the next day would end the war and release her husband from his military obligation, and allow her to sail to the US as a war bride”. The horseshoe is a traditional wedding accessory to be carried by the bride down the aisle. Mrs Hughes could not have imagined just how well this symbol of good luck would serve her!
In May 1942, Australia introduced the Control of Clothing Order to restrict the sale of garments during World War II. With limitations on the import of fabrics from Europe and Japan, clothing was in short supply. The Order led to panic buying in retail stores, until Australia introduced a ration card, or coupon, system in June 1942 (the US, on the other hand, had restrictions on clothing sales but never rationing). In the interests of fairness, control of supply and avoiding price fluctuations, the ration cards issued all civilians a yearly quota of new clothing purchases. A shopper needed to have a combination of coupons and money to make a purchase.
Karen Nunan explains that the rationing was also part of a wider economic strategy during the war. She says it was hoped that “by curbing the amount a person could spend on clothes, more money would go into savings, particularly in war bonds”. The clothing ration cards featured here, donated by Barry Farrell, show that these restrictions were felt almost three years after the end of WWII. It wasn’t until June 1948 that the clothing rations were lifted.
Red Ryder cape
Nurses were integral to the war effort. Mary Kathleen Willett served in the Australian Army Nursing Service during Word War II, and this picture shows a detail of the red woollen cape that was a distinguished part of her uniform. The cape features epaulettes that indicate her rank in bronze pips, and also in bronze, the word ‘Australia’. A simple construction, the cape is fastened at the neck with the ‘Rising Sun’ or General Service Badge of the Australian Army.
The garment label reads ‘Tailors Fred Ryder Pty. Brisbane’, a reputable garment manufacturer located in Brisbane’s CBD. Though little is known of this local company, newspaper records from the time indicate that they offered mens’ and womens’ tailoring in the interwar period.
Miss Willett married during the war and became Mrs O'Brien. The cape was donated to the MacArthur Museum by her niece.
Published in Issue 2, on September 10, 2013.