I have been head down doing the work, not reporting on the work of late. Have not managed the promised steady stream of updates. But doing the work is after all the most important bit, right? Of course it is.
We now have 115 fabulous pieces available on Victorian Collections. It is sooooo hard to stop at 100! The more we spend time with the collection, the more we find of value. Great stories, great pieces, great characters of Brighton, Melbourne, Australia and beyond. But we must be strong and carry on with our mission as decreed!
I want to share with you some of my personal favourites. Favourites are always personal and variable. For me a favourite is chosen for how this item illustrates an aspect of social history that I connect with.
Here is a selection of some of my favourite pieces from the journey so far.
c1890 Evening Pelerine – A pelerine is a short cape commonly made of dress fabric, velvet, fur or lace and worn over a dress. It sits lightly on the shoulder, often with long points at the centre front and at this time frequently worn with a dress featuring a sleeve with an enlarged shoulder head. Black and red were common colour choices, with black being prevalent due to strict social conventions regarding appropriate dress during periods of mourning following the death of family members. The established conventions varied depending upon the relationship of the wearer to the relative, and passed through several stages each with its own decreed dress regulations.
Here is a simple table from Wikipedia taken from Manners and Rules of Good Society, or, Solecisms to be Avoided (London, Frederick Warne & Co., 1887)
c1917 – 1919 Afternoon dress – This dress typifies the simplicity and notion of “Less is more” popular at this time. A move away from heavily corseted restrictive clothing towards more athletic, free moving clothing and lighter underwear. The first modern style bra was patented in New York in 1913 by socialite Mary Phelps Jacob. In the years to come clothing would become more relaxed and boyish but considerably more flamboyant as illustrated by the iconic “flapper” dresses of the mid 1920’s prior to the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression era.
Late 1800 – early1900s Riding Habit – For a start the idea of riding a horse side saddle seems absolutely crazy to my modern mind. The strain on a woman spine and hips completely impractical and downright cruel. Of course she would already be in a very restrictive corset and so the natural condition of her torso somewhat compromised but supported by the corset. I find it remarkable that they managed to stay in the saddle. Then there is the issue of covering her legs with a skirt so that she was “modest”, because to see that a woman has two legs and a groin would be “shocking”! This particular skirt features an elastic strap securing it to the riders leg to avoid it flapping and upsetting both horse and rider.
c1895 George and George Ltd, Federal Emporium, Melbourne Evening Gown. – Later Georges Department store, Collins Street Melbourne, a Melbournian icon that despite its sad closing in the 1990s remains in the heart of many Melbournian’s today. Store motto as published upon the re-opening of the store in 1888 “Quod facimus, Valde facimus” – “What we do, we do well”.
They went on to say:
"We wish it to be distinctly understood that while we shall endeavour to secure the patronage of the elite of Australia we shall aim to make our business attractive to all ranks of society. In the Federal Emporium will be found a stock of goods unprecedented in variety, unsurpassed in novelty. And a variety of accommodation to customers that has never yet been witnessed in the Southern Hemisphere." Advertisement 11 September 1883
First opened in 1880, Georges occupied a difficult retail site on the hill of Collins St perched between churches and away from the centre of the retail hub. A small department store or a large boutique, Georges was a destination of its own and those in the know dressed appropriately to enter its hallowed chambers.
When Georges finally closed in 1995, I was working just up the hill at the Princess Theatre. I made my way into the packed building for the final auction of fixtures and fittings. I remember marble statues and paintings being sold off, it was heart breaking. Georges didn’t manage to adapt to the times but I do wonder if an era might be coming when a store like Georges with a focus on only stocking the best of things, not necessarily the most expensive, and a no rush, high customer service approach might just be re dawning. Where the experience of the purchase is well thought through with long lasting results.
c.1970 JOT coat – Youth culture makes its way to upper end boutiques such as JOT Toorak, of Toorak Road, Melbourne. This coat’s styling reflects the mid to late 1960’s influences of space exploration in metallic, synthetic fabrics and bold, optical art textile design. Bright, bold and optimistic, in this coat you could not help but be noticed.
c.1909 Acidic yellow and lime green evening gown – This stunning dress belonged to Clara Miller, first wife of Septimus Miller and daughter in law of Henry ‘Money” Miller, financier, politician and reputedly one of Australia’s wealthiest people in his time.
In 1889 Clara and Septimus moved to their new home Cantala, Dandenong Road, Caulfield. Images of Cantala can be found on the Glen Eira Historical Societies page of Victorian Collections website. Throughout his life Septimus Miller was a key figure in Victorian horse racing circles and the Victorian Racing Commission’s Cantala Stakes is named in his honour. Prominent, wealthy members of Melbourne society I love this dress as it speaks to me of another of my interests, Melbourne’s lost east end theatre precinct. This time was the height of activity with The Theatre Royal, The Mechanics Institute (now the Athenaeum theatre), The Queen’s Theatre Royal, The Princess Theatre, The New Opera House, The Melbourne Town Hall, The Bijou and The Gaiety, and The Alexandra Theatre all in operation, only The Princess, Town Hall and Athenaeum remain. Whilst I do not know if Clara and Septimus ever attended any theatrical performances, this dress would have been appropriate to wear on such occasions. Clara died young, in 1910 aged 43 and Septimus remarried. Septimus lies in Brighton Cemetery’s grandest and most impressive grave, a Gothic style vault.
Another aspect of this dress which fascinates me is its colour. In more recent times yellow and lime green clothing is quite uncommon but it was extremely fashionable and prevalent at that time. In the mid 1800’s Picric acid was combined with Indigo to create a new synthetic dye, creating this colour. Whilst many dyes at the time were highly toxic to the wearer, I do not know if this dress or picric dye in clothing is harmful. However in the early 1800s many textile and millinery workers and some fashionable ladies suffered horrific death and disease from the prevalence of arsenic to produce vivid greens. Even into the 1920’s a distaste for green at the fashion House of Coco Chanel was a hangover from the colour’s association with poison. Hence I am wondering if the lack of prevalence of this colour in more recent decades has any similar historical roots.
1911 “Dolly Varden” Fancy Dress Costume – Fancy Dress parties and balls were a popular past time in the 19th century (and remain today). Party goers entertained themselves with elaborate costumes referencing historical figures, literary and theatrical characters and exotic cultures. The ‘Dolly Varden” character from Charles Dicken’s literary work “Barnaby Rudge” was a particularly popular figure at this time. The book was published in 1841 but set in 1780 hence the character’s “shepherdess” style of looped up polonaise skirt over a quilted underskirt. This particular costume’s history is perfectly typical, worn by Ida Burn, aged 21 at a costume party aboard ship en-route to China. Sea voyages were long and finding entertaining ways to pass time a necessity.
1930s Bridge Jacket – Various forms of Bridge or Whist were hugely popular games at this time. As I cannot find any information to suggest why the owner of this jacket reputedly wore this jacket “for Bridge” I suspect it is more to do with being considered her lucky jacket as opposed to any specific function or ritual of the jacket. Many of us have tendencies towards regarding certain objects or concepts as lucky or unlucky and it would seem Mrs Elsie Law was no different. Regardless it is also a lovely example of Art Deco, Asian inspired fashion of the 1930s.
1950s Circle Skirt – The invention of the teenager is typified in this playful full circle skirt with patch pockets and modernistic textile design. Worn with a crisp, fitted collared shirt or form fitting knit and petticoats this playful, youthful design shows the legs and swings with the body. The textile design speaks strongly of the period with similar aesthetics featured in popular modern materials such as Laminex and Linoleum.
c1960 – 70s Armadillo Handbag – There is nothing new about the use of animal skins for our clothing and accessories, but somehow the act seems so much more brutal when we see the whole animal. The trade in exotic animals such as armadillos became illegal internationally in the mid 1970s. Being in Australia, and Armadillos being native to North and South America, they are not a common sight. This little thing all curled up and clutching onto itself seems so sweet and charming until I think about what I’m actually looking at. Fashion can be a little grotesque.
c1860 Child’s Shoes – Wooden soled, horse shoe clad and made of very thick upper leather, WWIII would likely erupt if a modern parent attempted to adorn her child in such shoes. Judging by the size of the shoes the child would be of approximately 3 – 4 years of age. Can you imagine the sound the poor thing would have made if indeed it was able to run and play?
c1880 – 1900 Victorian (Australia) Gold Rush Shoes -J.T. Morris was a shoe store located at 306 Sturt Street, Ballarat. Ballarat is a town, north west of Melbourne in country Victoria, Australia at the centre of the Victorian goldfields. Ballarat was largely built on gold in the 1850s – 1860s and has remained an important centre of commerce and society since this time.
Francis Jago in the 1866 Burgess Roll as a bootmaker in Skipton St, Ballarat. In 1887 he was listed in The Australasian Federal Directory as a boot and shoemaker at 46 Sturt St. Advertising material is available until 1905. It is likely these shoes date from the later part of the 19th century to the early part of the 20th. As a Victorian, the discovery of gold has had a direct impact on my home city of Melbourne and State of Victoria. Gold either directly or indirectly funded our buildings, built our political system, fostered educational institutions and the arts. Footwear to me is the most fundamental item of clothing. It is the ultimate article of protection from our environment, and its degree of strength and comfort has a direct impact on our health and well being. I would like to know more about the owner of these shoes. As the old idiom goes “Before you judge a (wo)man, walk a mile in (her)his shoes”. The times these shoes hail from were exciting but tough.
1920s Assuit shawl – The discovery of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter sparked great interest in all things Egyptian. Assuit is an Egyptian textile style constructed by passing thread through metal and flattening the metal creating patterns such as plants, people, camels and pyramids. The effect of this textile is shimmering and reptilian, weighted yet floaty. Whilst the fabric production dates back to ancient times its prevalence in the 19th century is due to its popularity as a tourist art for European and American travellers, reaching great heights during the Egyptomania of the 1920s. In this section of shawl you can identify plant forms and people typical of these designs.
As we move to our next section of work, it is sad to leave the process of photographing and cataloguing these wonderful pieces. However I hope that our work will allow greater access to the collection and perhaps in future further support for work to be done.
Please go to Brighton Historical Society on Victorian Collections to view more.