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From couturiers like Janet Walker, and retail giants like Finney Isles & Co, to iconic exports such as Paula Stafford and Easton Pearson, Queensland has had a dynamic fashion industry that often led the way in Australia and brought the fashionable identity of our sunshine state to the world.
In early Australia, if you needed something that was made-to-measure, or was fit for a parlour, you might go to see a draper for fabric and then a dressmaker. As a result, dressmaking was an incredibly sought-after skill and a thriving industry for many Queensland women.
Janet Walker demonstrates the importance of dressmaking as one of the few reputable means of employment and income for women. At the height of her business Walker had large workrooms at Adelaide St, employing 120 women to create, “all that is good and fashionable in dress and style” (The Queenslander, 1897). Walker even invented a plastic bust that assisted with sizing accuracy. It was so popular it was exported overseas and used by dressmakers at the illustrious House of Worth (Brisbane Courier 1904, Buick and King, 2015). While Janet Walker was perhaps the most well-known name in fashion circles due to the success of her operation, many dressmakers were working in Queensland at this time, demonstrating a market for up-to-date fashions.
Answering this call, drapers began expanding, and department stores started to populate the retail landscape in the 1890s. One could stock up on drapery and haberdashery, employ dressmakers, tailors, and milliners to create the outfit, and even stop for a spot of tea. Finney Isles & Co, established in 1864, was one such draper-to-department store success story and employed as many as 50 women in their dressmaking department (Hindsight, 2012). “Finneys” traded for 90 years on Adelaide St. McWhirters, another department store icon of early Brisbane, opened in 1898 and attracted customers with innovations like elevators, the novelty of unassisted browsing, and an open plan design (Buick and King, 2015). Whether shopping with a dressmaker or department store, design in Queensland leaned heavily on its European roots, but by the mid-20th century Queensland began to establish its own fashion identity.
By the 50s and 60s Queensland was being marketed as a tropical tourist destination and we had the outfits to match. Gold Coast designer, Paula Stafford, was credited with bringing the bikini to Australia with her novel reversible design. The bikini, invented in France, immediately drew the ire of conservatives yet was celebrated by some as an act of defiance and women’s liberation (Four Corners, 1961). Stafford manufactured and sold from Paula Stafford’s Tog Shop on Cavill Avenue, Surfer’s Paradise, eventually selling in stores as far away as Melbourne and London. Stafford claimed, “There are more bikinis worn in Surfers Paradise than anywhere else in Australia…It is recognised now as a testing ground for holiday fashion” (RetroFocus, Unknown).
From tourism posters to fashion, Olive Ashworth did her bit to sell the Queensland lifestyle to the world from the 50s to the 80s. Trained as an illustrator, Ashworth was known for designing her own fabric, with vibrant, Queensland-inspired patterns that became popular with locals and tourists alike.
It was not only holiday fashions that had mid-century Australian fashionistas buzzing. Gwen Gillam left school at 13, to become a self-made businesswoman, which set her apart in the 40s and 50s. From rooms in the Brisbane Arcade, she specialised in formal and bridal wear, with many customers travelling especially to Brisbane just to have a garment made by Gillam. In business for 46 years, Gillam’s longevity and enduring legacy is a testament to her design prowess and entrepreneurial skill.
Harvey Graham, couture designer and fashionable local icon, also had a store in the Brisbane Arcade from 1963. He was credited with bringing the Dior H-line to Brisbane and collaborated with celebrated Brisbane milliner Patrick Ogilvie (Courier Mail, 1954). Another label, Marsha Mayne, was an equally popular choice for day wear or wedding dresses. Initially based in Queen Street, the manufacturer, United Fashions, expanded rapidly shipping dresses across Australia. Rather than just follow international trends, local designers realised the power of expressing their own ideas to create homegrown fashions that represented Queensland from the beach to the runway.
Contemporary Queensland designers use fashion to represent their identity and ideals. The early 90s saw the emergence of Mark Wilson of the Hairy Dog label in Brisbane, who made colourful and eye catching garments, popular with the queer nightclub scene, at a time when it was not encouraged or easy to be visible due to prejudice. Labels like Easton Pearson were at the forefront of slow fashion, bringing ethical fashion from Brisbane to boutiques around the world, before it was being actively discussed in the wider community. Contemporary Queensland fashion has also seen the push to elevate First Nations designs with BrisFest 2021 hosting First Nations Fashion: Walking Between Two Worlds spotlighting Queensland Indigenous owned and run fashion labels such as Jarawee and Magpie Goose.
Queensland fashion now looks to contribute its identities to the national and global fashion conversation. There is a strong history of fashion design and manufacture in Queensland with our own expressive and colourful twist. As Queensland becomes stronger in its inclusive identity and innovation, our fashion industry continues to reap the benefits.
“At last – the H-LINE in Brisbane,” The Courier-Mail, 3 December 1954, page 11. Trove, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article50627073
“A Stitch in Time: Dressmaking in Australia” ABC Radio National, 2012 Hindsight. https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/hindsight/a-stitch-in-time/4058632
“Bikini “a little bit short”.” The Daily Telegraph, 1 September 1953, p 11. Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/248759907?searchTerm=anne%20ferguson%20bikini
Clare Press, “Easton Pearson – Slow Fashion in a Fast Fashion World”, Wardrobe Crisis. Ep 62. 20 November 2018. https://thewardrobecrisis.com/podcast/2018/11/19/podcast-ep-62-easton-pearson-slow-fashion-in-a-fast-fashion-world
Hicks, Sara. “The mother of all cheeky bikinis”, 2008 ABC Local. Accessed 15 June 2022, https://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2008/05/19/2249403.htm
Gardam, Caroline. “The Brisbane Arcade: the crux of Queensland couture.” Brisbane Arcade, 1 July 2022, https://brisbanearcade.com.au/history-of-brisbane-arcade-fashion-designers/
“GREYS and WHITES for Autumn Nights…”, The Courier-Mail, Friday 14 May 1954, page 10. Trove, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article50594718
“Iconic bikini designer Paula Stafford” ABC Australia, Date Unknown. RetroFocus. Accessed 24 June 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdrXO5Z8RmM
“Mrs. Janet Walker.” The Queenslander, 25 December 1897, p 1231. Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/24472896/2347347
“Mrs. Janet Walker’s Christmas Show.” The Queenslander, 24 December 1898, p. 1197. Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/20854565/2361762
“Should the bikini be banned?” ABC News In-depth, 1961 Four Corners. Accessed 24 June 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-m4w_mAxWA
“Woman’s World: A Useful Invention.” The Brisbane Courier, 2 February 1904, p 6. Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/19263566?searchTerm=janet%20walker%20plastic%20bust