Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Canvas threads and haute couture

Fashion has been an important aspect of Sydney society from very early in the colonial period. Fashionable attire was highly sought after, and early in the colonial period, was used to control behaviour. 

“In order to prevent, if possible, the practice of thieving, which at times was very frequent, an order was given, directing that no convict, who should in future be found guilty of theft, should be supplied with any other clothing than a canvas frock and trousers.” Collins, D. An Account of the English Colony of NSW Vol 1 – London, 1795.
After the first few years of hardship and want, the new colony offered opportunities for social mobility not even dreamed of in England. Fortunes were to be made in the developing economy and those prudent enough to establish themselves in business were easily capable of achieving a lifestyle unheard of in the crowded industrial cities of Britain.

Detail from Felipe Bauza’s 1793 image ‘Convicts in New Holland’, showing a convict couple. It’s interesting that fashions worn by convicts and the military were very similar as early as 1793.

Detail from Felipe Bauza’s 1793 image, ‘The English in New Holland’, showing an officer and his wife.

Perhaps one of the most effective ways for newly emancipated convicts to stamp a claim on a new respectability was dress. Fashionable dress was in demand and there was money to be made servicing these desires. A quote attributed top Sarah Bird, who established the Three Jolly Settlers, one of the first public houses in The Rocks, shows the value placed on fashion items from the beginning of the colonial period.

“I did a little trade in the passage here in a number of small articles such as sugar, tea, tobacco, snuff, thread, needles and everything that I could get anything by ... I have sold my petticoats at two guineas each, and my long black coat at ten guineas, which shows that black silk sells well here; the edging that I gave 1s.8d. per yard for in England, I got 5s. for it here. I have sold all the worst of my cloaths, as wearing apparel brings a good price.”

Berzins, B. The coming of strangers: life in Australia 1788-1822 – Collins (in association with State Library of NSW) 1988.

Detail from Juan Ravenet’s 1793 image, ‘Reception of Spanish Officers in Botany Bay’. Interestingly, this image features the Governor’s House in George Street along with fashionable citizens, many of whom would have been convicts.

William Nicholas’ 1848 publication, The Heads of the People has left us with some wonderful street style images. The image below shows a few dashing colonials at a popular melodrama or opera. The slightly cynical caption, ‘The critics and The Stage Box’, suggests a sense of cultural superiority on behalf of the illustrator.

Nicholas, W. ‘The critics and The Stage Box’, 1848.

Three years after Nicholas’ book, and shortly after the discovery of gold in Bathurst, Sydney reporter, Charles Adam Corbyn, published Sydney Revels of Bacchus, Cupid and Momus. Hawksley & Williamson 1854. The collection of articles from 1851-54 offer delightful tongue in cheek descriptions of a variety of defendants appearing in the Sydney courts. The colourful snapshots include descriptions of dress such as:

“A pretty little fashionably dressed young female, apparently just arrived at sweet seventeen, was charge(d) with stealing three gold rings...”
“A showily dressed young man named John Howard...”
“A little squinting, cock-nosed female, arrayed in her best, answered to the name of Anne Callaghan…”

“Elizabeth M’Gregor, a pretty faced girl about seventeen, with her bonnet trimmed with an astounding quantity of pink ribbons, was called on behalf of Mrs. O’Brien (complainant) and stated that the podgy femaile (sic) opposite threw a stone which took effect on Mrs. O’brien’s leg...”

The really interesting thing about the majority of these articles is that the well dressed, attractive parties all seem to be triumphant in the court whereas, the shabbily dressed, less attractive specimens seem to come out second best an almost every occasion. It seems that fashion and external appearances were capable of affecting the court systems of Sydney around the mid 19th century.

R.E.N Twopeny’s accounts of the colonies contains numerous, less than complimentary descriptions of life in Australian cities. Many of these however, indicate that the average Australian was very fashion conscious. This description of servant attitudes is a great example.

‘’The greater part of the high wages which servants get is spent on dress. If ever they condescend to wear their mistress's left-off clothes, it is only for work in the house; but the trouble they take to copy the exact fashion and cut of their mistress's clothes is very amusing. One girl we had frankly asked my wife to allow her to take a dress she admired to her dressmaker, in order that she might have one made up like it. Whilst girls in the upper and middle classes are very handy with their fingers, and often make up their own hats and dresses, the servant-class despise to do this, and almost invariably employ milliners, who often cheat them dreadfully, knowing that they appreciate a hat or a dress much according to the price they have paid for it, and the amount of show it makes. In hats and bonnets this is specially noticeable; I have often seen our servants with hats or bonnets on, which cannot have cost them less than three or four pounds.’’ R. E. N. Twopeny, Town Life in Australia – London, Elliot Stock, 1883.

“The city men are more careful of their personal appearance, and have kept up the shadow and image of London. They wear shiny frock-coats and the worst-brushed and most odd-shaped of top-hats, and imagine they are well-dressed; at least I suppose they do, for they seem to have a sort of contempt for the spruce tweed suits and round hats of 'new chums,' and such of the rising generation as have followed their example and adopted that fashion”. R. E. N. Twopeny, Town Life in Australia – London, Elliot Stock, 1883.

Continuing with a crime theme, The Bulletin Magazine lampooned larrikin gangs on a fairly regular basis. These gangs were regular features in Sydney around the turn of the century. In The Rocks, the most notorious was ‘The Rocks Push’.

Banjo Patterson described them as, “Wiry, hard-faced little fellows, for the most part, with scarcely a sizeable man amongst them. They were all clothed in ‘push’ evening dress—black bell-bottomed pants, no waistcoat, very short black paget coat, white shirt with no collar, and a gaudy neckerchief round the bare throat. Their boots were marvels, very high in the heel and picked out with all sorts of colours down the sides.”

Nowadays when we think of a larrikin, we get a picture of a likeable joker or knockabout sort of bloke. The late 19th century reality was far less alluring in action but quite stylish in terms of actions when it came to dress code. They were as sharp as the razors in their pockets.

Image: ‘An ill wind’, GR Ashton, 1893.

Turn of the new century

On initial examination, images of The Rocks taken early in the twentieth century, suggest both men and women were extremely fashion conscious.

This image shows a very dapper street cleaner dressed in the height of fashion.

Cameras were far more conspicuous in 1900 hence, many of the images we have of people in The Rocks are posed, often in their Sunday best, such as the two girls below in Gloucester Street.

Image: Bertie Collection c. 1901 – courtesy of the Bertie Family.

Whilst respectable dress was essential in maintain a respectable public face, the actual standard of living experienced by most in The Rocks at the time was probably more in alignment with the substandard accommodation backdrops of run-down housing we see behind the subjects.

Image: Bertie Collection c. 1901 – courtesy of the Bertie Family .

 Image: Bertie Collection c. 1901 – courtesy of the Bertie Family .