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The Impact of European Fashion on Australian Society.


An individual’s clothing is an intimate extension of their body image, and can be viewed as a very personal outward manifestation of societal values.


1)    we tend to wear only the garments that we deem appropriate for specific situations. eg. we would not generally wear a bikini to a formal ball or a ball gown for swimming in the pool.


“Fashion has been described as being: “the race of the Rich to get away from the Poor, who follow as fast as they can!”


HARPERS MAGAZINE, July 1853, vol. xvi, p. 278.



This was especially true in the nineteenth century when the mass production of fabrics and clothing combined with the rise of a wealthy middle class made fashionable dress accessible to more people than ever before. Consumerism was born and fashionable clothing and accessories were available in different qualities to fit the purse of all but the very poorest people.


Whilst our fashions today are somewhat flexible, wearing the correct attire in Victorian times was imperative if one wished to make ones way in society. Fashionable attire had long been used by the upper classes as a method of excluding those less exalted members of society. Naturally as these less exulted persons gained enough money to dress fashionably, they did, fueling the need for constant change.


1)     As fashionable dress was essentially Parisian it required one to either visit Paris or have access to fashion journals via.

a) An interpreter who had access eg. a dressmaker.

                             b) Subscription to one of the many journals.

                             c) Through a lending service eg. the institute libraries.


2)     Fashionable garments were expensive, because they required many meters of material and intricate trimmings.

3)     They also required the wearer to behave in a certain manner due to the cut of the garment and its underpinnings eg. crinolines, bustles, & trailing skirts.


4)     Fashion was continuously evolving so the wearer needed to keep up with the latest trends in order to remain fashionable.

However the fashionable line did not suddenly change to something totally alien. Fashion evolved like a flower beginning with the first buds of a new style, then the style crystallizing into a definite feature, this feature being exploited to its limits until it is full blown and then another feature coming into bud whilst the old still exists.        (Diagram of overlap.)


This cycle of change could take up to ten years at the beginning of the century, shortening to approximately five years in the 1840s, and becoming as little as three years by the late 1890s.


 Victorians were adept at spotting nuances in dress that could mark the wearer as being unworthy of their society.


The increase in industrialization in England in the 19th century, attracted large numbers of people to urban centers hoping to find work. Most factories were powered by coal-fired steam engines and domestic dwellings relied on coal for heating and cooking, more people meant more fires and more pollution. Air pollution in the urbane centers resulted in fog that damaged clothes.

     Fog was particularly bad in winter.


Marion Sambourne the wife of Linley Sambourne a Punch magazine illustrator describes London as having two kinds of fog, yellow sulpherous, and black fog. This black fog left smuts on clothing and she comments that during the winter of 1886 the black fog was so bad that on numerous occasions she was unable to go out. (P82-83, A Victorian Household).


Most middle class and professional men on the other hand had no choice, they needed to venture outdoors to conduct business.    


From the early 19th century English tailors begun to wrest control of men’s dress from the French. Fashionable attire for men became less flamboyant using less extravagant materials, colours began to change, the quality of material, precise cut and the perfect fit became the dominant status symbols. The English tailors of Saville Row, London were the most adept at achieving this fit. Wool was used almost exclusively for men’s coats as it was the best fabric to achieve the many subtleties of fit.


From The 1830s onwards men’s attire became darker in colour, and by the late 1850s the palate had contracted to, shades of brown, navy, grey and black. Most professional and business men wore black frock coats whilst working, although they may still wear a fancy waistcoat, stock or cravat. White linen or cotton shirts were considered the only colour appropriate for professional and business men and pristine white collars and cuffs became a symbol of gentility and respectability. (Men’s dress.)

Collars and sometimes cuffs were detachable so that they could be replaced with clean ones when needed.


 It is no accident that darker colours became fashionable for men’s wear, as the air quality decreased in the cities.

a)     Woolen suits were not readily washable and dark colours especially black, did not show the dirt as easily as lighter colours.

The disadvantage of this was that men’s attire became limited when wishing to show a families wealth and status within society.


Victorian women on the other hand were seen as existing in a separate sphere from their male counterparts, much of their activities were carried out in the domestic environment of the home. A “good” woman was seen as a calming and civilizing influence upon her family, and it was vitally important that she convey this respectability in her outward appearance.

When venturing into the public sphere fashionable attire was used as a way to convey the status, wealth and respectability of her husband. For the Victorian woman maintaining a respectable reputation was vital if she and her family wished to be accepted within society. Not being accepted meant, social isolation and could have a devastating effect upon a business man who relied upon a social network to carry on his business. In an age without social security, friends and family were an essential safety net in times of trouble.

Depending on her status she would wear varying degrees of fashionable dress.

a)     these degrees usually consisted of following the basic cut and shape of fashionable dress, but varying certain features such as the fabrics and trimmings in accordance with ones wealth, status and activities.

b)    Maintaining ones respectable image required constant maintenance: cleanliness and neatness in a woman’s dress was seen as an outward indication of her ability to be a good housekeeper, wife and mother, conversely slovenliness was condemned because it marked the wearer as being at the least inept and at the worst not quite respectable.


In England, Europe and America technological advancements in the fashion industry made fabric production cheaper and fashionable dress more accessible to the burgeoning middle class.

 Some of these included;

1)    The Vulcanization of rubber in 1839.

a)Elastic was produced and used in boots.

2)    The use of powered looms, jacquard looms.

b) increased the speed of production of cloth and allowed patterns to be woven automatically, in turn making fabric cheaper.

3)    Roller printing.

a) allowed continuous rolls of fabric to be printed instead of block printing every motif by hand.

4)    Advances in dye production.

a) brighter cotton dyes in the 1830s.

gave printed fabrics a new look.

b) the development of coal tar dyes after the discovery of Mauvine by Perkins in 1856 provided brighter and clearer dyes and also made the dying process cheaper.

4)  The production of spring steel.

          a) the development of spring steel in 1856 led to the development of the

            crinoline cage that could support skirts without the need for many


                   1) explode the myth of 14 -36 petticoats, physically impossible to

                                     wear that many CONTEMPORY SOURCES COUNTED EACH

                                     FLOUNCE OF A FLOUNCED PETTICOAT AS A PETTICOAT

                                     IN ITS OWN RIGHT.

5)  Sewing machine.

          Both industrial, around since the beginning of the 19th century in various forms & domestic marketed by Issac singer from 1856? Decreased the time it took to manufacture a garment.

a)    which in turn resulted in the development of attachments such as

      the ruffler foot, & hemming foot that allowed large amounts of finely  

      pleated ruffles to be produced rapidly. The influence of this can be

      seen in the mid 1870s & 80s.

5)    Steam transport.

That made sea and train travel faster and more reliable.


All of these affected garment production and the fashion industry.


One finds fashionable dress wherever western culture traveled throughout the world and we are able to track its movement from France by comparing fashion illustrations from the numerous journals that were produced. As there were limited numbers of coloured and etched plates produced in France for each year, it is possible to see them copied in journals in England and America. These copies of the originals give us the approximate time lag between the fashions debut in France and their travel overseas.


My research suggests that fashion information was readily available throughout the 19th century and plates that were published in French magazines such as Le Journal Des Demoiselles & La mode Illustrée in the early part of the century crossed the channel to England within a month.


Renditions of these plates can be seen in English publications such as Townsend’s Magazine & The Ladies cabinet the following month.


In 1852 Samuel Beeton began publishing the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and from the early 1860s fashion plates that appear in Le Journal Des Demoiselles appear in The Englishwoman’s Domestic magazine the same month. These were sometimes unaltered but at times printed in another colourway.  (Englishwoman’s Domestic & Journal des Demoiselle)


 American magazines such as Peterson’s Ladies National & Godeys Ladies book provided middle class American readers with fashion information however these magazines tended to be between three to six months behind. (Petersons & journal des demoiselle)


In November of 1867 the American magazine Harper's Bazar made its debut. This magazine regularly used reprints of plates used in La Mode Illustrée these appeared in the magazine between 0- 34 days behind the original, and on occasion plates would appear in Harpers Bazar a day before the French magazine, this was because Harpers was sold on a Saturday and La Mode Illustree on a Sunday.  (Harpers & La Mode Illustrée Graph.)

Harpers Bazar, & The Queen Magazine (an English publication) can both be found represented in The Institute library of South Australia during the 19th century. When one allows for traveling time this means that Australians in the second half of the 19th century would have had access to the latest fashion information within six months of its publication in France.


So, did Australians follow the trend and adopt European fashion and if so why?


Engravings, Photographs, diary entries, and existing garments suggest they did, indeed there is some evidence to suggest that Australians were extremely fashion conscious. (Australian Photos Selection)

 As early as January 1800 the master of the packet “The Swallow” an East India vessel visiting Sydney realized that he would gain a far greater profit by selling his fashionable items in Sydney instead of China.

 The drawings of S.T. Gill and William Strutt are useful records of early Australian life, and regularly show people wearing fashionable dress also William Kelly an Irish Magistrate, states that Melbourne adopted European urban dress quite suddenly during the mid 1850s gold rush.[1] (S.T. Gill Collins Street.)


 In February of 1858 the diarist Blanche Mitchell who’s father built Elizabeth Bay house in Sydney, documents a visit from her brother Tommy, she describes him as;


 “ Very sprucely dressed, in black coat, waistcoat, white spotted silk necktie, and lavender kid gloves” he also sported a moustache and whiskers[2]


Until the Crimean war facial hair was decidedly out of fashion but as a sign of support for the troops who could not easily shave, facial hair became popular.

Australians who wished to dress fashionably in the nineteenth century had a number of difficulties to overcome. Firstly; they had to obtain sufficient wealth to support their liking for fashionable attire; most of these items were imported or made from imported materials this meant that they had carriage charges and import duties added on top of the original price. The import duties for South Australia amounted to 25% of the value of the article and duty was payable at each individual colony in Australia. This meant that any item that was landed in Sydney and was then sent to Melbourne incurred two sets of import duties.

Secondly: The infrastructure to supply fashionable attire was limited, prior to the 1850s. A number of colonies suffered a severe economic depression during the 1840s,[3] this meant that the fledgling colonies of Melbourne and Adelaide struggled until the economy recovered sufficiently and the population increased enough to create demand for fashionable attire. The discovery of copper in Burra in 1845 provided this boost for Adelaide, stores such as Harris Scarfe opened in 1850, and other stores like J. Miller Anderson Co. established in 1839 (became Miller Andersons Department store) expanded their range of goods.  Likewise the “gold rush” that began in Victoria in 1851 increased their wealth and population dramatically.


Establishment of drapers such as Buckley, Nunn Farmer & Co and David Jones.


The fact that our Australian seasons are the reverse of Europe was advantageous for importers of fashionable fabrics and trimmings, as this allowed them to buy end of season items at a reduced rate in England and then sell them as new season’s fabrics here in Australia.



Having established that Australian’s were fashion conscious how far did the average Australian dress lag behind Europe?


To establish this I compared dated garments eg. existing wedding dresses and photos with the fashion information that was published in France and found that examples of high fashion garments appeared in Australian cities between six months to two years after the original appeared in France. Country areas may differ somewhat due to their isolation but in general Australians remained fashion conscious and did not tend to wear garments that were more than five years out of date. Many Australian women were excellent needlewomen and were quite capable of altering their garments to remain in fashion. (Wedding dress & fashion plates) (Photo & fashion plates).


In Australia as in Europe fashionable dress was used to denote status and respectability. But in Australia unlike Europe the only prerequisite to possessing it was having enough money to buy it.

Australians unlike the British and Europeans did not have the weight of hundreds of years of tradition, regarding the wearing of fashionable dress by those other than the aristocracy (Sumptuary Laws) & they did not have to worry about being snubbed or victimized for having ideas above their station.


Why then would Australians want to wear the fashions of Europe?


Certainly not because they were fitted to the environment. They were in-fact, most inappropriate for colonial life, being cumbersome restrictive and hot to wear. But it is these very features that set them apart as a status symbol. Wearing a restrictive or cumbersome garment made a statement that the wearer was wealthy and could afford to employ servants to do the drudgery. Others wore these garments whilst in public to identify themselves as a respectable member of society.



-Australians valued their ties with England calling it "Home” and they wished to appear civilized in the world’s eyes, the wearing of socially acceptable garments allowed them to feel a sense of belonging.


-Nostalgia for the old country also played its part;

a large number of colonists arrived in Australia out of necessity due to economic hardship or were forcibly removed as convicts. These colonists felt displaced and homesickness made them try to recreate familiar aspects of their life at home. Dressing in European dress gave them a feeling of security and a link to the old world.


- The specter of convict beginnings loomed largely over all except South Australia and the wearing of fashionable attire allowed Australians to distance themselves from these less than auspicious beginnings.  


 Untrammeled by centuries of aristocratic tradition Australian society developed in a much more egalitarian manner, having ideas above ones station could be seen as a necessity for survival in Australia, and for many English visitors this was both disconcerting and intimidating.

English women frequently wrote back to England describing Australians as dressy and somewhat uncouth.

 Gertrude Gooch a Governess sent to Australia on an assisted passage in 1862 found Australian women indolent and untidy, she writes that they ride like Arabs, love luxury and money, and don’t like governesses teaching English manners as they don’t like to be made to feel inferior.

Miss Barlow also a Governess wrote in 1863 that one had to be adaptable, and be able to teach music to do well in the colonies and the bishop of Sydney’s wife wrote these scathing remarks in a letter in 1868. One cannot help but think that she felt a little threatened by Australians who did not act reverentially and respect her status, as a matter of course.


“…the dress of all classes is absurd. Although the people profess to be as good as one another, it amuses me to see the ridiculous pride so visible on the face of their equality: Laboring people, who would be unpretending people at home, assume such airs here, they call each other Mr. & Mrs. So and so and speak of each other as ladies and gentlemen, the children call their parents papa and mamma. They are very fond of making themselves out to be descended from good families and take the greatest pleasure in bringing down those they feel to be superior”.


 One instance of this behavior occurred when Mrs. Durham refused permission for the Duke of Edinburgh to go shooting at Wambo Station during his visit to Singleton in 1867, she was also heard to comment that “there were three inns in Warkworth, should he need accommodation”.

This kind of free thinking would have been deeply shocking for a cultured English woman who had been brought up to revere and respect Royalty as a matter of course.

Audrey Lady Tennyson the governor of South Australia’s wife was also somewhat bemused when she arrived in Australia and wrote home to her mother in 1899 that;





          “They like the most gaudy dressing with brilliant colours, and my lovely grey, and very smart gowns of Mrs. Durant’s they make no remark about, merely describe them, but my old black evening gown Clark[her ladies maid] did up last winter with turquoise velvet they described as ‘a very handsome gown’, and Mdlle [the governess & companion] who dresses in more colour but very well- they admire very much and they also admire her looks”.

                                        This love of colour is not surprising when one considers the harshness of our Australian light, many of the subtle colourings that would appear rich in soft European light would appear drab and washed out in Australia.


Lady Tennyson  also expresses surprise at the way that “they are so proud of being colonials” and finds it very funny how she is called “your ladyship”, never “my lady”.

This is telling comment regarding the Australian psyche because your ladyship, does not possess the overtones of ownership that is evident in the term “my lady”.

Lady Tennyson observes she can tell an English servant from an Australian because they have such pretty manners and look so superior, “for although these sort of people, colonials, are touchingly kindly and anxious to do anything they can for one and are always very nice and smiling to talk to-they have NOT, the reverential manners of our English servants”. 

The more egalitarian nature of Australian society came about largely because of our isolation from Europe combined with market forces, this meant that workers such as servants could not be treated as dismissively as in England, where servants and workers were expected to take what was offered and not quibble. In Australia the scarcity of good servants meant that they could demand higher wages and more flexible working conditions. Employers who were not willing to pay good wages and be flexible regarding servants commitments found themselves either without staff or with very poor staff. Keeping good female servants in Australia was very difficult, the male population far outweighed the female population, so young women were rapidly snapped up as wives. This lead to a situation where there were many more married servants and day servants than in England. In General workers in Australia were being paid higher wages that allowed them to dress well in their time off.

Australians may have begun wearing fashionable dress to imitate the ways of Europe but in wearing fashionable dress so readily, they created a situation where it was very difficult for visitors from England to distinguish the exact status of the wearer. Prompting complaints that you never knew WHO you were speaking with.


[1] William Kelly an Irish Magistrate, states in his writings that Melbourne adopted European urban dress quite suddenly during the gold rush in the mid 1850s. Ibid. P. 84.

[2] BLANCH AN AUSTRALIAN DIARY 1858-1861, p.28.

[3] The mining booms caused by the discovery of copper at Burra in South Australia in the mid 1840s and the discovery of Gold in Victoria in the mid 1850s boosted the economies of these colonies.  The subsequent increase in wealth and population fuelled a demand for fashionable clothing and other commodities.