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November 2020

Percy Grainger: Collector

Virtuoso, innovator, eccentric – Percy Grainger has been called many things. A complex man who was best known as a pianist and composer, he is of interest to us for his collecting. Alongside the material he gathered relating to the best composers and folk music from around the world, he also kept a huge number of his clothes. They now form part of the collection of the Grainger Museum, located at the University of Melbourne, and comprise the largest single grouping of one man’s clothing in an Australian museum.

There are formal suits he wore while performing: black wool tails and trousers finely-made by New York tailors M. B. Guildford of Fifth Avenue. Paired with stiff-fronted dress shirts and bow ties, also in the collection, Grainger must have cut a dashing figure – every part the charismatic star that he was.

But there’s also an impressive range of everyday clothes that he wore around the home, on the street or when travelling: work shirts and checked suits, white cotton trousers and towelling cloth outfits (these deserve a post of their own!). Plus, there’s underwear and sleepwear, swimsuits, collars, hats and shoes. Together, they form an astounding sartorial picture of one man.

Grainger kept his clothes as they frayed at the cuffs, as lining tore, or as they stained with sweat or blood. Some are heavily repaired with darns, mends and patches. Others are faded from the sun and constant wear. Others still show signs of being adapted to suit Grainger’s preferences: many of his sleeves are shortened, for example, by a hand-stitched tuck above the elbow.

Intriguingly, some are accompanied by Grainger’s hand-written notes, explaining when and where he wore his clothes, or what they meant to him. With a grey wool summer suit Grainger’s label reads:

“No doubt chosen by mother (maybe PG chosing [sic] also). After mother’s death I was so keen to match this suit but could get no stuff (at Guildford) in 1923. Have worn this suit roughing it at home (White Plains) sleeping in it in ‘day coaches’ on trains etc.”

‘Underpants worn by Percy Grainger’ [detail], made by Pepperell with hand-stitched adjustments by Percy Grainger, 01.3338b, Grainger Museum Collection, University of Melbourne. Courtesy Grainger Museum.

It seems nothing was too small to comment on. With two pairs of white cotton underpants Grainger noted:

“Samples of PG’s sewing Kensington, Adelaide, S.A. Jan 1935. 2 underpants lengthened and widened by PG (a) his handiwork (b) the same bettered by maid who did washing at Globe Hotel Kensington.”

Grainger has hand-stitched additional fabric to the hem so that the legs extend further down the thigh – with one leg now longer than the other – and at the side seams to make them a looser, fuller fit.

Grainger began collecting for his museum early, focusing on manuscripts, musical sketches, letters, articles, and other documents that would expose his Australian visitors to the best composers and folk music from around the world. You can read his aims here. His collection was also deeply intimate and autobiographical, and Grainger always intended that his clothing be displayed – in fact, he had a life-size wood and papier-mâché mannequin of himself made for that very purpose.

A visit to the Grainger Museum today reveals that his intent remains central to the exhibitions. On my visit, his colourful towelling clothes and army uniform were on display. I was eager to read in the exhibition text Grainger’s fascinating resolve:

“It would seem to me a good procedure if the visitor could get an impression of the taste & habits of the composer from looking at his clothes DISPLAYED ON SOME VAGUELY LIKE FIGURE & look at the photo alongside for likeness details.”

I couldn’t agree more.

‘Clothing and Character display with Percy and Ella Grainger’s towelling clothes’, Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne. Courtesy Grainger Museum.

Thanks to curator Heather Gaunt for facilitating access to the collection and sharing her insights.


‘Clothing and Character’ exhibition text, Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne.

Bryony Dawkes, ‘’Percy Grainger, Towelling Costume’, in Chris McAuliffe and Peter Yule (eds), Treasures: Highlights of the Cultural Collections of the University of Melbourne (Carlton: Miegunyah Press, 2003), 144.

Kay Dreyfus, ‘Grainger, George Percy (1882–1961)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 8 August 2019.

Kay Dreyfus (ed), The Farthest North of Humanness: Letters of Percy Grainger 1901-14 (South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1985).

Robert Simon, Percy Grainger: The Pictorial Biography (New York: Whitston Publishing Company, 1983).

Robyn Healy, Male Order: Addressing Menswear (Parkville: Grainger Museum, 1999).

Sharon Peoples, ‘Dress, Moral Reform and Masculinity in Australia’, Grainger Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 1 (2011): 115-135.

Thomas C. Slattery, Percy Grainger: The Inveterate Innovator (Evanston: The Instumentalist Co., 1974).

Wilfrid Mellers, Percy Grainger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Rayon: ‘artificial silk’

In 1950, photographer Wolfgang Sievers travelled to Bruck Mills in the Victorian town of Wangaratta. The mills produced rayon, a fabric likened to silk that was in fact made from chemically treated cellulose. Sievers took a series of black and white photographs of the mills’ workers in action. His photographs, dramatically lit with striking industrial lines, echo the photography for which he became best known.

Wolfgang Sievers (photographer), Bruck Mills, Wangaratta, Vic., producing rayon fabric, photographs: gelatin silver; 17 x 25 cm approx., State Library Victoria, H2003.100/22.

Executives from Montreal-based Bruck Silk Mills had travelled to Australia in 1945 to consider where they would establish a new rayon weaving mill. They intended that Canadian rayon experts would come to Australia to train a local workforce, initially 500 strong, importing the necessary machinery and equipment. Newcastle was flagged as a potential site, though when the announcement was made by John Dedman (who features in my earlier posts), Minister for Post-War Reconstruction, in March 1946 it was the Government-owned Wangaratta aluminium rolling mills that had been selected for rayon production.

This was exciting news for the town’s residents. It promised to increase employment and attract new workers. Victoria’s Premier, John Cain (senior – not to be confused with his son of the same name, who served as premier between 1982 and 1990), pledged state government co-operation, noting that 250 new houses would be needed. Public interest was significant, but as Australia had imported rayon before the war there seemed some uncertainty about what it actually was.

Melbourne’s Argus newspaper aimed to alleviate any confusion, explaining it in simple terms as:

a synthetic yarn made from wood pulp chemically treated and extruded through fine holes or nozzles. It is a continuous fibre the size or denier of which can be determined by the size of the fine holes through which it is extruded.

Wolfgang Sievers (photographer), Bruck Mills, Wangaratta, Vic., producing rayon fabric, photographs: gelatin silver; 17 x 25 cm approx., State Library Victoria, H2003.100/22.

Rayon, also known as artificial silk, art silk or imitation silk, had been patented in France in 1885, but its manufacture flourished during and after First World War and in the Second World War when silk supplies were limited – Australia’s major supplier was Japan.

Australia’s large rayon imports were second only to the amount of cotton and linen being imported into the country in 1939, so the post-war establishment of an Australian mill was especially welcome. So too was the potential for the use of rayon in clothing. It could be dyed vivid colours and had good draping qualities. On a more practical level it was soft but durable, with a long life. As technology improved, it could be made cheaply.

Rayon was closely linked to women’s fashions, but not exclusively. In the early 1950s, the popular Australian magazine Man alerted its readers to a new trend for casual printed shirts for weekend wear. Made from rayon, the magazine explained how African, Hawaiian and Calypso motifs were popular.  Rayon gaberdine blends were stylish, too, with the benefits of being ‘fadeless, launder[ing] like new, and will last quite a long time.’ 

Rayon could also be combined with woollen yarn, making a high-quality fabric used for men’s suits. Following the trend in America, Man explained in 1952 how:

The new rayon materials combine the best features of suiting: durable, non-shiny, fray-resisting, they offer warmth, smoothness and light weigh, all in the one package. They hold their shape and creases, too.

Six years after Sievers captured rayon production at the mills, he photographed the newly opened Bruck Mills showroom at 118 Flinders Lane, in the heart of Melbourne’s ragtrade. His photographs document the showroom’s modern design and sharp lines, and its reference back to the Wangaratta mills: an image of spools of thread runs dramatically from floor to ceiling across the length of the back wall.


‘Business Men Back with Plans for New Industries’, Sun (Sydney), 27 October 1945, 2.

‘Country Industry Needs More Houses’, Argus (Melbourne), 15 March 1946, 14.

‘Imports’, The Textile Journal of Australia, 15 April 1939, 91.

Donald Coleman, ‘Man-Made Fibres Before 1945’, The Cambridge History of Western Textiles Vol. 2, ed. David Jenkins, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, 933-947.

‘Newcastle May Get New Textile Mills’, Newcastle Sun, 27 October 1945, 2.

‘Rayon Factory for Victoria’, Sun (Sydney), 13 March 1946, 3.

‘Rayon—Its Source, Properties, and Manufacture’, Argus (Melbourne), 28 March 1946, 9.

Jane Schneider, ‘In and Out of Polyester: Desire, Disdain and Global Fibre Competitions’, Anthropology Today 10, no. 4 (August 1994): 2-10.

Kassia St Clair, ‘Workers in the Factory: Rayon’s Dark Past’, in The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History, John Murray, London, 2018, 201-221.

‘Wangaratta Factory for Bruck’, Argus (Melbourne), 14 March 1946, 12.

‘Why Not Make Rayon?’, The Textile Journal of Australia, 15 July 1939, 210.

‘Your Clothes’, Man, September 1951, 70.

‘Your Clothes’, Man, October 1951, 68.

‘Your Clothes’, Man, January 1952, 68.

‘Your Clothes’, Man, February 1952, 68.