Monthly Archives

October 2019

Dressing Sydney

Exhibition Review

Along with documenting the Australian Menswear project’s research, one of my aims for this blog is to draw attention to already-existing research on twentieth-century Australian men’s engagement with clothes.

Unlike other places where a thriving corpus of publications on historical men’s fashion exists, the work in Australia is scattered and thin overall. With this in mind, my colleague Lorinda and I will often post about publications, exhibitions and online commentaries on twentieth-century Australian menswear, hoping to make the disparate more centralised.

I begin with a mention of the Dressing Sydney exhibition at the Sydney Jewish Museum (January 2013-January 2014). I must also mention the stunning hardcover book accompanying it by curator Robyn Sugarman and fashion historian Peter McNeil.

Dressing Sydney charted the impact of Jewish immigrants and their offspring on Sydney’s rag trade, using garments and photographs gifted or loaned by the families and an extraordinary 150 hours of interviews.

Sydney’s Jewish community – including Holocaust survivors – contributed in heavy number to the local clothing and fashion industries. They did so as workers, designers, owner-managers of factories and the founders of companies that included menswear labels Anthony Squires and Whitmont Shirts.

In some cases, Jewish immigrants drew on expertise developed in Europe when they joined the Australian schmatte (rag) trade. In other cases, they were simply responding to the fact that the industry depended on cheap immigrant and female labour and had no formal qualifications for entry.

Dressing Sydney was not the first foray into the history of Jewish input into the Australian clothing trade. The Australian Jewish Museum produced a comparable exhibition focused on Melbourne in 2001. An entry in the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion followed; ditto a memoir evocatively called Schmattes: Stories of Fabulous Frocks, Funky Fashion and Flinders Lane.

Dressing Sydney was distinctive, however, due to its rich grounding in oral history and cavalcade of artefacts, images of advertising and fashion shoots, photographs of hawkers, business owners and lovely candid snaps of workers on the factory floor. McNeil’s essay in the catalogue also remains a standout due to its detail about the development of Sydney’s clothing and textile industries.

Having had the fortune to co-edit a special issue of Fashion Theory and convene an international fashion studies symposium with Peter McNeil, I know firsthand his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history. Given that his Dressing Sydney essay has so much to say about the history of Sydney clothing production, it is excellent that he has made selected pages available via the Open Publications site of his university, UTS. Dressing Sydney is also available for sale from the Sydney Jewish Museum’s online store.


Melissa Bellanta and Peter McNeil, eds, Special Issue on Fashion, Embodiment and the ‘Making Turn’, Fashion Theory, 23 (2019). DOI: 10.1080/1362704X.2019.1603856.

Anna Epstein, ‘Jews in the Melbourne Garment Trade’, in Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, vol. 7, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, ed. Margaret Maynard (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2010), 95-9.

Anna Epstein, ‘Schmatte Business – Jews in the Garment Trade’ (St Kilda, Melbourne: Jewish Museum of Australia, 20 February-31 May 2001).

Peter McNeil, ‘The Beauty of the Everyday’, in Dressing Sydney: The Jewish Fashion Story, eds. Robyn Sugarman and Peter McNeil (Darlinghurst, Sydney: Sydney Jewish Museum, 2013), 93-157.

Lesley Sharon Rosenthal, Schmatters: Stories of Fabulous Frocks, Funky Fashion and Flinders Lane (South Yarra, Melbourne: self-published, 2005).

Robyn Sugarman and Peter McNeil, Dressing Sydney: The Jewish Fashion Story (Darlinghurst, Sydney: Sydney Jewish Museum, 2013).

Robyn Sugarman, Dressing Sydney – A Behind the Scenes Blog of Curating the Exhibition, accessed 1 August 2019.

Working with material sources


In removing the white shirt from its hanging rack, two things become apparent: the sleeves, once long, have been cut then hand-stitched to finish above the elbow; and now-yellowed sweat stains bloom under the arms. I’m looking at a stiff-fronted dress shirt worn by Percy Grainger, composer, arranger and pianist. When worn under his black tailcoat neither of these would be visible. But in looking at the shirt, one of scores in the fascinating collection of the Grainger Museum, I wonder two things: were the sleeves shortened to enhance movement in his arms during performance, and just how much did he sweat playing in concert halls before his adoring audiences?

Faded, frayed, stained or torn clothes might embarrass us when we wear them (or they might instead be deliberately stressed for effect), but for the curator and historian these flaws are marks from the past, an intimate record of wear. This is one of the reasons why clothes worn, and loved, are important to this project. We want to better understand not only why clothes were chosen at a moment in time, but how they were worn, how they felt on the body and the memories that are bundled up in them.

When clothing enters a museum collection, the inside is examined just as closely as the outside. This seems almost counter-intuitive because we’ll never display clothing inside-out – although I think an exhibition like this would surprise and delight many people.

But taking a ‘slow approach to seeing’ can reveal all kinds of hints about a garment’s maker, its wearer, and its life history. I’ve examined clothes heavily mended and cleverly adjusted, with these barely detectable on the visible surfaces; stained with red wine or make up; with stitching strained, elastic stretched, hems frayed or raw edges unfinished. Donors are sometimes hesitant to gift clothing to museums in less-than-perfect condition, but blemishes have much to tell us, especially if we take up Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim’s challenge to be dress detectives.

Perhaps they were worn over long periods of time or by multiple wearers – recycling clothing is nothing new. Maybe they were a party favourite or considered good under the hot sun. Their wearer might have put on weight or been too busy to shorten hems too long. They might have been made quickly in a Bangladeshi factory, or slowly and with love.

In carefully looking at the surfaces of clothing we can begin to better see how fabric holds these markings and memories of the bodies it clothed – and we can start to ‘read’ their material qualities. So each time Melissa and I head into museum collection stores, we’ll be looking out for these messages from the past and alert to what they might tell us.

‘White dress shirts worn by Percy Grainger’, Grainger Museum Collection, University of Melbourne. Courtesy Grainger Museum.

‘Shirt worn by Percy Grainger’, made by Arrow, U.S.A., 04.6894, Grainger Museum Collection, University of Melbourne. Courtesy Grainger Museum


Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim, The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).