Monthly Archives

December 2020

Safety at night

Those who exercise at dawn or dusk will almost certainly wear sportwear with reflective strips – at the ankle or calf, perhaps down the back or across the wrists. So commonplace are reflective trims that you might not be aware of them at all.

But in December 1947, Australia’s Tailor and Men’s Wear magazine reported with excitement of a new reflective material developed in North America. ‘You Can See It At Night!’, the article’s title exclaimed of the revolutionary cloth which contained ‘millions of tiny glass spheres which reflect back to the sources of light, such as the headlights of an automobile’.

The magazine explained how it was durable and waterproof. It could be washed or dry cleaned. The glass spheres were so small that they could not be pried from the cloth and nor could they be crushed. No difficulties had been reported with sewing the cloth, for example, with needles breaking.

To help its readers better visualise the effect, Tailor and Men’s Wear printed two photographs of a young man wearing a fashionable zip-front sport jacket. In the first he stands with a hand in one pocket. In the second photograph, plunged into darkness, only the reflective strips across the shoulders and at the pockets are visible.

A sports jacket with reflective strips illustrating the article ‘You Can See It At Night!’, Tailor and Men’s Wear, December 1947, 15.

The reflective fabric, Scotchlite, was produced by Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company – the company now know as 3M (you might be familiar with their Post-It notes).

By 1949, Australian newspapers noted how Scotchlite was increasingly used in America for a range of applications: from street signs and hoardings, to policemen’s gloves and pedestrians’ raincoats. ‘This Material Almost Defeats Darkness’, ran one headline. Another less dramatic and more pragmatic noted ‘American Idea is Practical’. A third headline, ‘Glow at Night Like Fireflies’, painted a vivid picture of just how visible a person could be – even on the darkest night – with Scotchlite cloth trims.

Whatever the headline, there were clear applications for the fabric in Australia, particularly for workplace safety. Initially demonstrated for police use, for highway departments, railways and tramways, such reflective fabric was a forerunner to the high-visibility workwear now essential in many Australian industries. 

‘Police Were Impressed’, Advertiser (Adelaide), 22 July 1954, 3.


‘Glow at Night Like Fireflies’, News (Adelaide), 30 July 1949, 9.

‘He Wants to See Police “Lit Up”’, News (Adelaide), 20 July 1954, 15.

‘New Light Reflecting Material’, Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga), 25 January 1949, 6.

‘New Tests on Safety’, The Mail (Adelaide), 24 July 1954, 3.

‘Safety Clothing To Be Tested’, The Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 July 1954, 3.

‘This Material Almost Defeats Darkness’, Border Watch (Mount Gambier), 29 January 1949, 10.

‘You Can See It At Night!’, Tailor and Men’s Wear 2:12, December 1947, 13.

‘Timeline of 3M History’, 3M:

A Short History of the Singlet

Last week, my ‘Friday essay: the singlet — a short history of an Australian icon’ was published by The Conversation. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of being interviewed by a number of radio stations around Australia: from Perth and South West WA, to Adelaide and Melbourne, to Sydney and Central West NSW. One of the interesting questions that has come up is why I began researching the singlet. Surely there’s nothing much to say about such a humble item of clothing?

Though they’re simple in form, singlets can in fact tell us a lot about Australia and Australians, and about identity, class, masculinity and sexuality via their changing place in our wardrobes. Long associated with working-class masculinity, singlets have hugged the hard, toned torsos of generations of shearers, timber cutters, construction workers and others, emphasising their chests and revealing powerful biceps and shoulders.

'Unidentified Miners from the Wenlock Mines, Queensland', c. 1930, State Library of Queensland, 31888.
W. J. Buller, ‘Road Construction of the Kuranda-Smithfield Road’, c. 1930, State Library of Queensland, 6670.

Building on this ready evocation of masculinity, in the 1970s they were adopted by pub rock musicians and, paired with skin-tight jeans in a look that sweep Sydney’s Oxford Street, by gay men – to very different ends.

They’ve clad bodies hard and toned, such as athletes in their moments of victory, just as they been worn by diggers on the goldfields and by our soldiers to war.

‘Six Male Athletes in a Row After the Cross Country Competition, New South Wales’, 21 August 1932, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-160345159.

But there is more still to singlets: visual sources cement their popularity as underwear and outwear, dress and fashion, from infancy to old age; material sources shed light on the intimate, daily practices of how they have been worn. (I’ve written more about this in ‘Rethinking Men’s Dress through Material Sources: The Case Study of a Singlet’ for Australian Historical Studies.)

‘Beach Gathering’, c. 1930, State Library of South Australia, PRG 691/19/4.

You can listen to some of these interviews on the singlet at:

ABC Sydney, Focus with Cassie McCullagh (from 02:10 to 36:00)

ABC Adelaide, Drive with Narelle Graham (from 1:12:30 to 1:22:30)

ABC Perth, Weekends with Andrea Gibbs (from 22:00 to 31:00)

ABC Perth, Afternoons with Gillian O’Shaughnessy (from 1:39:15 to 1:49:30)

I’ve come away with an enormous appreciation of how widely worn – and loved – singlets are to Australians.