Monthly Archives

November 2021

The rise and rise of denim jeans: Part 2

Yesterday I had a chat to Libbi Gore on her program, This Weekend Life on ABC Radio Melbourne (from 38:20), about the history of denim jeans. I wrote a short post for this blog on jeans earlier this year, but Libbi, I and a number of lovely callers centred our discussion firstly in the 1850s and then a century later in the 1950s.

The 1850s has captured my attention as it’s where I’ve been able to find some of the first references to denim cloth being imported into Australia. In 1853, an auction of the cargo of the American Ship Sooloo was advertised in Melbourne’s Argus and Tasmania’s Colonial Times newspapers. Its cargo included 25 cases of ‘cotton denims’.

‘Cotton denims’ were among ‘the largest assortment of [most] useful merchandise ever landed’. Advertising, Argus, 29 July 1853, 8.

It’s perhaps not surprising that the Sooloo’s American cargo including denim cloth as, although its earlier origins are found in Europe, it was in nineteenth century America that denim became widely used for sturdy, hard-wearing clothing.

The cotton denim in the 1850s was made into trousers when jeans, as we know them, weren’t patented until 1873 by Levi Strauss and Co (Levi Strauss and his partner, tailor Jacob Davis) in San Francisco. Readymade denim trousers, jackets and overalls were advertised in Australia across the following decades. The focus was on these garments as practical and durable. The heavy-weight cloth was strongly sewn. It was also cheap – denim was, in fact, cheaper than other cloths used for workwear such as drill, ‘mole’ or courduroy.

Around 1950, however, denim shifted from a fabric for workwear to something more fashionable, particularly for Australia’s youths. In this post-war period influenced by American culture, music and style, young men and women alike embraced denim jeans.

This included the bodgies and widgies, an Australian youth subculture that incorporated jeans into its styling. John O’Shea’s article for Melbourne’s Herald newspaper in 1951, titled ‘And they call it music!’, reported in slightly-shocked tones of dance halls and night clubs packed with young people who were ‘mostly in their teens or just out of it’. They jived or jitterbugged to bands playing swing and jazz. They were ‘eccentric in hair style and dress’, some wearing jeans and windcheaters with their hair in the popular Cornel Wilde style (Melissa has written more on this hairstyle for our blog in The Cornel Wilde Boys of North Bondi).

‘And they call it music!’, Herald, 5 May 1951, 9.

In 1956, the Argus newspaper was more scandalized as it reported a police chase of a stolen new Holden through the now-leafy Melbourne suburb of Brighton. Inside the car, the police found a ‘jeans-and-sweater clad, 16-year-old “widgie”’. The stolen car was driven by her 17-year-old bodgie boy. They were the new face of Melbourne’s crime, the article suggested, with 65% of crime in the city reportedly ‘committed by folk under 21 years’.

While jeans were a ready symbol of youth and rebellion that decade, in those that followed broad swathes of Australians adopted denim whether for comfort, to express their individuality or to be part of a group.


Advertising, Argus, 29 July 1853, 8.

Advertising, Colonial Times, 14 July 1853, 3.

Geoff Clancy, ‘Police Beat’, Argus, 20 October 1956, 17.

John O’Shea, ‘And they call it music!’, Herald, 5 May 1951, 9.

‘Commonsense comfort’: Dressing for Australia’s climate

In November 1922, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper published a letter written by Emily Bennett, Honorary Secretary for the Women’s Reform League. Why, she asked, were men so hesitant to adopt ‘rational attire’ that was better suited to Australia’s climate and the conditions in which they lived and worked? Bennett mused: ‘Is it because they are self-conscious, and fear being “one of the conspicuous few” to drop formalities and convention for commonsense comfort?’

A month earlier, Fred Wright had written to the paper’s editor explaining the challenges that young men faced when they were expected to ‘look respectable’ by their employers. He felt they could not go without collars and coats, as dress reformers advocated in hot weather, when this was generally considered sloppy and unbusinesslike. In other words, Wright explained, ‘A young man cannot come to work dressed as if he were going to a picnic’.

Ideas of men’s dress reform were not new in the 1920s. Nor were they confined to Australia. Various dress reform movements had existed from the mid to late nineteenth century: those in Britain, for example, where supporters emphasised health and hygiene concerns over constrictive, tight collars and conservative, heavy suits. The aesthetics of men’s dress also came under scrutiny – men’s clothing was considered by reformers to be drab, austere, colourless.   

By the late 1920s, reformers both in Britain (where the Men’s Dress Reform Party [MDRP] was established in 1929) and Australia advocated for different cuts to men’s clothing or swapping certain items with others, cloth weights better suited to the season and introducing more colour. Australian newspapers reported on dress reform with interest, including Secretary of the MDRP, Dr A. C. Jordan’s scathing description of men’s clothing as ‘heavy, thick, ugly, gloomy, uncomfortable and inartistic’.

A range of alternatives were suggested: jackets could be replaced with knitted jumpers; shirts for blouses; stiff collars and ties for looser versions that allowed the neck to move; trousers for shorts; and shoes for sandals. Hats could be dispensed with altogether – unless they served the practical function of protecting their wearer from the sun or rain.

Ray Olson (photographer), ‘Men’s fashion at David Jones. New fashion, 24 January 1939’, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, FL9613651. Courtesy ACP Magazines Ltd.

A wonderful example of the possibilities for this new mode of dressing was captured by photographer Ray Olson, in his shoot for new men’s fashion at David Jones in January 1939. Two men walk side-by-side in outfits that in many ways contrast each other: one in a snappy double-breasted suit, a shirt with tightly knotted tie, hat on a jaunty angle and leather shoes; the other in an open-necked short-sleeved shirt, tailored shorts, long socks and sandals.

It is precisely the look that dress reformers encouraged men to embrace. But does this man look like he’s heading to the office, or as Fred Wright worried, to a picnic?


Barbara Burman, ‘Better and Brighter Clothes: The Men’s Dress Reform Party, 1929-1940’, Journal of Design History 8:4 (1995): 275-290.

‘Dress Reform’, Glen Innes Examiner, 26 October 1929, 7.

Emily Bennett, ‘Dress Reform’, Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 27 November 1922, 4. 

Fred Wright, ‘Dress Reform’, Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 27 October 1922, 4.

Joanna Bourke, ‘The Great Male Renunciation: Men’s Dress Reform in Inter-War Britain’, Journal of Design History 9:1 (1996): 23-33.

Sharon Peoples, ‘Dress, moral reform and masculinity in Australia’, Grainger Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 1 (2011), 115–135.

The Australian scent of tweed

We all know that we feel our clothes – when they’re too tight around the waist, when they itch our skin or when they ride up, demanding constant readjustment. But have you thought about how you smell your clothes? This might be the fresh scent of laundry powder or the reek of sweat, though cloth has also been infused with aroma as part of its manufacture.

In February 1950, Melbourne’s Argus newspaper reported on an astonishing range of new tweed fabrics that smelt of bushland aromas. One was called ‘Mallee’, presumably either after the north-western Victorian region of that name or the distinctive shrubland habitat.

Headline from the Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 19 February 1950, 7.

Mallee tweed was coloured a ‘rich, earthy brown’. It had an ‘elusive polished saddle leather aroma’ that was not intended to be noticed by people on the street. Rather, the manufacturer Godfrey Hirst Mills in Geelong explained, a man would open his wardrobe and find it richly scented. He would be transported ‘to that mist-laden fern gully of [his] memories’, the mill suggested somewhat romantically (especially for men who lived in the dry Mallee region).

Illustration accompanying the ‘Elusive Mallee perfume for gents’ suitings’ article, with the tweed suit’s scent wafting out behind it.

Inspiration for the cloth had been taken from the ‘now-forgotten peaty tang’ of the genuine Harris Tweed – woollen cloth that had been made in the cottages of weavers in the Outer Hebrides islands of Scotland and that was so popular that it was protected from imitation by the name ‘Harris Tweed’ and its Orb trade mark. As another Australian newspaper, Mackay’s Daily Mercury, reminded its readers, Harris Tweeds ‘characteristic odour’ was a result of being dried in lofts heated with peat fires.

The cloth, that would apparently retain its bushland aroma for as long as it was worn, had been two and a half years in development. In 1948, the Argus first published a story altering its readers to Hirst Mills intention to produce the tweed. The mill wanted to hear from people about what they considered the typical Australian aroma – something, the company suggested, that might evoke the bush’s scent of eucalyptus.

Headline from the Argus, 18 December 1948, 7.

The new scented tweeds were displayed at the Australian Fashion Fair at Melbourne’s iconic Exhibition Building for the curious in 1950. Though many newspapers around the country enthusiastically reported on the scented tweed, its public reception received far less fanfare. Was the Australian-scented tweed incorporated into the wardrobes of Australians, or did it remain a novelty?


‘Aroma sought for Aust. Tweed’, Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 20 December 1948, 7.

‘Elusive Mallee perfume for gents’ suitings’, Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 19 February 1950, 7.

‘Bushland aroma for our tweeds’, Tailor and Men’s Wear, March 1950, 23.

‘Harris Tweed’, Daily Mercury (Mackay), 29 October 1952, 10.

‘Harris Tweed in vogue: Crafty imitations, reproducing the peaty odour’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1939, 8.

The Handwoven History of Harris Tweed: Google Arts & Culture:

‘You can have aroma of Mallee’, Argus (Melbourne), 18 February 1950, 3.

‘Who can suggest a smell!, Argus (Melbourne), 18 December 1948, 7.