An unexpected bequest

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to look at daguerreotypes of nineteenth-century Australian women in their hats and heavy, long dresses without wondering how they managed to wear all those clothes in the summer heat. Or when enduring a heavy period or a hot flush. Poor things.

The standard daywear of an elegant, upper middle-class Victorian lady consisted of laced petticoats, high stiff collars, padding, boned lining, frills, bows, buttons, bonnets, veils and corsets: attire that would have required daily stoicism and self-control to tolerate.

By 1923, a graceful flapper on the cover of the Australian Women’s Weekly is described in the cover line as ‘uninhibited and unfettered’. She wears a loose, straight dress that falls to her knees. We can see glimmers of our own age in that image and description. We applaud our modern sisters for liberating themselves from Victorian furbelows and strictures. Aren’t 1920s frocks gorgeous?

‘Events don’t happen: things emerge,’ Emeritus Professor Jill Matthews told me in conversation. Those cumbersome, confining crinolines were gradually supplanted by the softer silhouette on the cover of the Weekly for many reasons, as intricately interwoven as lace. Surprisingly perhaps, the terrible events of the war had far-reaching implications for petticoats.

Privilege does not give way easily or graciously. The ‘new woman’ who emerged in the 1920s endured relentless derision from cartoonists and commentators, and it is possible the snarky tone in the popular press echoed all the variations of ‘you’re not going out like that’ voiced in scandalised homes around the nation. Girls were only working to nab an unsuspecting husband. They were determined to make spectacles of themselves with their outrageous, unladylike behaviour. They lived only for the fugitive gaiety of the moment. While these women were celebrated as carefree, healthy, youthful and athletic, for anxious moral guardians they were a symbol of the meretricious elements of modernism.

But still – this did not deter the shop girls and business girls from buying new dresses, silk stockings, rouge and a cornucopia of other consumer goods. Why? Glamour and fun. The move from the private to the public sphere for women of all social classes meant that life could be much more interesting; it is exciting to wear something new. All the alluring appurtenances of fashion contain a promise of transforming the wearer into someone else. For all our sophisticated understanding today of how marketing exerts its power, we participate in the ever-renewed pleasures of shopping and dressing. For the young women who were active economic agents for the first time, this must have been exhilarating.

Young people are more influenced by their peers and idols than their families or the custodians of civilisation, so the girls were wearing what their friends were wearing, and they were all wearing variations of what movie stars and models in popular magazines were wearing.

There was no day zero to mark the beginning of modernism: things emerge. These social changes – women entering the workforce, hemlines creeping up, morals relaxing – were underway before the terrible caesura of the Great War. Had it not happened, they would have continued. The war restricted the pursuit of glamour and pleasure, but once it was over the efforts of modernism redoubled. The pace quickened.

THE WAR ITSELF was a contributor to innovation and social change in unforeseen ways. Some of these were practical and technological. For example, the machinery developed to manufacture army uniforms was repurposed in the mass-production of clothes for the fashion industry. And one new product appeared whose significance for these modern girls cannot be overemphasised: disposable sanitary napkins.

During the war, resourceful army nurses used absorbent bandages as napkins. After hostilities had ceased, American company Kimberly-Clark furthered this ingenuity by turning its surplus bandaging into disposable napkins for the retail market. They were a hit. By the mid-1920s, a great many such sanitary napkins were available everywhere, including Australia, and contributed immeasurably to women’s increased freedom of movement. It was not just a question of offering greater security from embarrassment when playing tennis ‘in the sheerest of frocks’ (as an advertisement for the British pad Menex expressed it); they enabled women’s move into the workplace – young factory girls were more willing to leave home and move into dormitories, for example, now that they had a discreet option for quietly managing their periods.

The Great War and its horrible epilogue of the influenza epidemic also brought about less quantifiable changes in perspective throughout society. The world order that Australia so gallantly entered the fray to preserve was destroyed and imperial relationships had shifted in those four years of death and disfigurement, as Joan Beaumont wrote in Broken Nation (Allen & Unwin, 2013). By the time of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the Dominions viewed the imperial powers through wary, jaundiced eyes. Prime Minister Billy Hughes showed himself to be a single-minded and tenacious negotiator; he had no faith that the British would represent Australia’s interests. The legitimacy of the old authoritarian structures had been compromised and power relations were on a new footing.

Australian society was not as profoundly altered as many European societies, but this tectonic shift in relation to authority and power echoed all the way down to the stenographers and waitresses, even if they were unaware of it. These girls were a different generation from those who had served as nurses. And the terrible burden of battle did not affect all families equally: not everyone lost a father or brother. The war was a long way in the distance by the mid-1920s. Even so, the high-spirited energy of this era of fast living – the quest for novelty, distraction and fun – may reflect some manic energy finding its expression after the horror of conflict.

VICTORIAN DRESS MAKES us uneasy. It is comforting for us to see 1920s dresses as liberating: ‘You go, girl!’ We adore the narrative of the downtrodden little woman coming into her own. And we have a tendency to mythologise the clothes and the manners of the 1920s as reassuring representations of our own preoccupations with self-expression and freedom. It was not like living in a jazzy Baz Luhrmann film. Living standards were low. By 1921, women might have constituted just over a fifth of the workforce, but their lives were still circumscribed in ways that would make us aghast. Their aspirations were not honoured, and more meaningful equality lay far ahead as a consequence of the struggles of second-wave feminism. Moreover, the high degree of visibility they began to enjoy ushered in complicated new pressures: to regulate the body through diet and exercise, to achieve idealised standards of beauty and to be subjected to critical appraisal of their appearance – thoroughly modern anxieties.

We owe these postwar women a debt of gratitude for the radical new ways they adopted. All the repeated, small actions of buying and wearing new fashions contributed to ways of dressing we can take for granted. While there were other modes of dress in the 1920s beyond the waistless frock and cropped hair of the flapper, and older women would continue to cling to their longer dresses for years, the break with absolute Victorian womanhood was complete. A new concept of authority and power emerged from the ashes from the Great War. All was changed utterly. Modern girls increasingly refused to listen to the wowsers. The conditions of society had been remade. People’s fundamental view of the world had shifted and, after the next world war, this lead to contemporary assertions of the universal human right to full participation and dignity. It is a profound legacy.





Conor, L 2004, The Spectacular Modern Woman, Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana.

Matthews, J 2005, Dance Hall & Picture Palace: Sydney’s Romance with Modernity, Currency Press, Sydney.

Maynard, M 2007, ‘Lady Be Beautiful: Selling Corsets in the 1920s’, Journal of Australian Studies, no. 91, pp. 145–153.

Rodrigues, J 1989, ‘The Debate over Women’s Clothing: “Rational” or Lady-like Dress’, The Student Historical Journal, no. 21, Loloya University, New Orleans, Louisiana.


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