|Wedding dress designed and made by Beril Jents 1952|
Photo: John Hearder
|Blue silk dress by Germaine Rocher 1955|
|Long pink evening dress by Hall Ludlow 1954|
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As Riley (a dress historian at the State Library of NSW) says: “Dressmaking and fashion are portable trades, and with the great waves of migration around the world over the past century, if someone had skill in a certain area, it was embraced no matter where they were.” And Australia is no exception, particularly with the influx of European migrants in the 1950s that saw a boom in dressmaking. Along with European food and culture came couture, or at least a version of it.
During the 20th century, workers and dressmakers came to Australia and set up fashion businesses, with fabrics and patterns brought from Europe. Two women, Paulette Pellier and Germaine Rocher, are widely noted as integral to establishing a couture industry in Australia. Pellier, previously a Paris-based dressmaker, migrated to Australia during World War I and set up her own studio in Sydney offering pin-tucked, hand-embroidered blouses, which she also sold out of a Brisbane hotel room through the 1920s in a similar format to French houses’ salon shows. The 1930s saw Rocher and her husband escape Bolshevik Russia and arrive in Sydney with two French seamstresses, with whom she created a workroom in the elegant St James Trust Building. Rocher travelled to Paris every year where “she had relationships with the couturiers and was friendly with Balenciaga,” says Riley. “She was very stylish and was noted for the beautiful clothing she offered.”
Jones believes Australians suffered something of a cultural cringe as a result of the great distance between them and Europe. This was to be a contributing factor in our love of magazines, seen as a connection to the rest of the world. In 1946, the Australian Women’s Weekly sent its fashion editor, Mary Ursula Hordern, to Paris to report on the haute couture collections. There, she put together a collection of over 100 pieces for a Sydney-based fashion show and, while Australians couldn’t purchase from the collection, it stimulated fervent shopping and kick-started Australia’s garment industry following the war’s depression.
“It really hit a nerve with Australians, seeing the whole package: haute couture on French models,” says Riley, explaining the sheer saturation it achieved as a newsreel of the show was screened in every Australian cinema. So successful was it that European houses began to identify Australia as a viable market for their goods and so licensing agreements were established between the likes of Christian Dior and department store David Jones. Pierre Balmain, another famous French couturier, visited Australia in 1947, creating a collection exclusively for David Jones. A decade later, rival store Myer brought the first all-Dior fashion parade to Australia, making the French couturier a household name.
However, as Katie Somerville, curator of Australian fashion and textiles at the National Gallery of Victoria, points out, Australian fashion hasn’t always been about what was made overseas. “Labels and dressmakers developed in their own right and were very much a product of Australia,” she says, noting the cascade effect of French haute couture that inspired many Australian fashion houses to offer a couture service. Jones agrees with Somerville, noting the likes of Chris Jacovides, Hall Ludlow and Beril Jents as key initiators in Australia establishing its own identity for couture. Jents had originally visited the fashion shows in Paris in the 1940s, having been asked to copy the patterns for the local market, but later set up her own studio and began creating clothes under her own name.
“There were some very wealthy women who wanted to look good for the ball season’s social scene,” says
Jones. “They loved fashion and getting dressed up.” Of course, much of the high glamour subsided with the informality of the 1960s but couture remained an integral part of the Australian fashion industry.
I would love to hear from anyone with their stories on Australian fashion