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May 2024

Mid-Century Youth Fashion, Brisbane ‘Bodgie’ Style 

Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 2 March 1952, 5

'Fashion: Bodgie Styles for Spring', Pix (Sydney), 14 July 1951, 30

In the decades after Brisbane served as a Pacific base for US troops during World War II, plenty of young rock’n’fans emerged in this northeastern Australian city. Dubbed ‘bodgies’ and ‘widgies’ in the local vernacular, these teens and early-twentysomethings dressed in a style similar to the Teds in Britain.  

'Bodgies, Widgies Have Mighty Night—But Def!', Pix (Sydney), 10 March 1951

For the female widgies who frequented Jack Busteeds, a venue in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley where rock’n’roll fans danced to recorded music, the fashion in the ’50s was a skintight skirt worn with t-shirt and high heels. The other favoured skirt was fuller, with multiple colourful petticoats designed for exposure amid hectic jiving on the dance floor.  

Hollywood star Cornel Wilde's hair inspired many an Australian bodgie in the late 1940s and '50. Here he is in The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946), courtesy of Alamy.

For male bodgies, the sharpest look involved suits with wide-shouldered drape jackets and hair long enough on top to be tousled and Bryl-creamed in the manner of a Tony Curtis or Cornel Wilde. In Brisbane, the most daring and coveted of these suits were custom-made by the tailor, Chris Leon, whose menswear store was close to the Rex Theatre in Fortitude Valley. The jackets had wide shoulders and a padded chest fixed by a single button ‘strategically placed between your navel and your best friend’, as former Brisbane bodgie Des Wallace later recalled.  

Wallace detailed his memories of bodgie fashion in 1950s Brisbane in an oral-history interview with the music historian Geoff Walden for his 2003 PhD on Queensland rock’n’roll. Walden interviewed a host of Brisbaneites at the turn of the millennium, and most were remarkable for how well they remembered their favourite bodgie or widgie outfits, sometimes in gorgeous detail. For example: 

  1. The British migrant turned drummer Alan Campbell told Walden of the first pair of trousers he was allowed to wear in Brisbane in 1958; the year he graduated from shorts at the age of sixteen. The trousers were black with green flecks and had very tight cuffs, and he wore them with pointed winkelpicker shoes and an Elvis hairdo. The trousers made him feel ‘great’ and ‘grown up’, Campbell recalled.  
  1. The second-generation Italian migrant Angelo Macaudo remembered spending three-quarters of his wage on his clothes and hair as a teenaged rock-n’roll fan in the 1950s. A good portion of this expense was outlaid at Leon’s menswear store in the Valley. Macuado also recalled the shift in bodgie fashion across the fifties. The fashionable silhouette at first involved pegged trousers (full at the top and knees tapering to tight cuffs at the bottom), but later modulated to stovepipes (narrow all the way down). The favoured look also shifted from colourful fabrics such as the bright yellow and pink curtain materials Leon used for suits earlier in the decade to black suits worn with white t-shirts or black-and-white collared shirts.  
  1. Like Macaudo, Des Wallace remembered spending much of his weekly wage on his clothing. He told Walden that his standard Saturday-night dress in the fifties was a ‘french poplin striped Ivy League-style shirt with a button-down collar’, a drape coat ‘about three inches longer than a traditional sports coat’ and trousers with ‘twenty-six inch knees, two-inch reverse pleats and fourteen-inch bottoms’.  

It is probably unlikely that Wallace’s outfit was quite as mannered as the one worn by a model at the top of this post in a magazine-perfect version of Sydney bodgie style in 1951. Yet the extremely precise set of specifications still suggests how much attention Wallace paid to his dress at this time. I am suddenly seized with bodgie/Teddy boys’ fashion longing: could Chris Leon make make me a suit to Wallace’s specs in hot pink curtain material and with a lassoo-style feature hanging from the belt, please? 


W. Ross Johnston, ‘Bischof, Francis Erich (Frank) (1904-1979)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography (Canberra: Australian National University, 1993). 

Oral history interviews conducted by Geoffrey Walden with Des Wallace, Brian Gagen and Betty McQuade in Brisbane Rock’n’Roll in the 1950s – Oral Histories, 1951-1960, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.  

Bill Osberby, ‘Here Come the Teds’, Museum of Youth Culture, n.d.,  

‘Bodgies, Widgies Have Mighty Night—But Def!’, Pix (Sydney), 10 March 1951

Geoffrey Walden, ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll But I Like It: A History of the Early Days of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Brisbane… As Told by Some of the People Who Were There’, PhD Thesis, Queensland University of Technology, 2003.                   

Harry Guinsberg’s lingerie-look shirts

Born in Carlton, Melbourne, in 1902 and dying in Brisbane in 1972, the Queensland shirtmaker Harry Guinsberg (discussed in this earlier post) operated his shirt factory at 82 Brunswick St, Fortitude Valley, for decades.  

Guinsberg kept his operation afloat in spite of regular appearances in court and the press in the 1940s due to his spectacular betting at the races. He also persisted in spite of the prosecution and gaoling of his older brother Israel for holding stolen rolls of black serge and clan tartan on his behalf shortly after the war. 

In an interview with writer Matthew Condon, veteran Brisbane police reporter Ken Blanch recalled that Guinsberg used to supply nylon shirts to his friend Frank Bischof, the flashily-dressed detective who later became a spectacularly corrupt Queensland Commissioner of Police, in what was likely the late ’50s and early ’60s.  

Bischof would give the shirts to juvenile delinquents as encouragement to start afresh. Nylon was considered an innovation at the time, Blanch said, but in his opinion the shirts were ‘bloody awful’ all the same. 

I don’t know what the shirts that Guinsberg gave Bischof looked like, but Queensland Museum holds a number of unsold Guinsberg shirts probably dating from the early 1960s. These shirts sat for decades in the stockroom of A.S.Mellick’s, a clothing store run by a prominent Lebanese Queensland family in Innisfail. When the Mellick’s shop in this far north Queensland town shut down in the early 1990s, the Museum acquired some of its ageing deadstock.  

Guinsberg’s shirts were made of what appears to have been a kind of cream-coloured nylon milanese, once probably off-white but now as spotted and yellowed with age as an elderly pair of hands:

Milanese knit fabrics are scarcely available today because they are more expensive to produce than other warp knits. Even in the middling decades of the 1900s, fabrics made on milanese knitting machines were usually only used for women’s lingerie, tending toward the sheer and yet still durable.  

Guinsberg’s milanese shirts look as they it were intended as a strange kind of male lingerie. Long-sleeved, with three buttons at the front and sharp-pointed collars, the yellowing fabric with its delicate ribbing is so fine as to be semi-translucent – surely nipples and chest hair showed when it was worn? 

The semi-translucency may explain why these shirts were still unsold decades after the Mellicks acquired them. It does not explain which shirts Bischof used to encourage Brisbane’s youthful offenders to turn over a new leaf, however – nor why Guinsberg was successful enough in his heyday to make extravagant bets at the races and swank about town in gleaming Packard car and diamond ring.  


Birth and death details about Guinsberg sources from 

Matthew Condon, Little Fish Are Sweet (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2016), 49. 

‘Queensland Racing Man Must Keep Ring He Paid £1400 For’, Truth (Brisbane), 9 July 1944, 23. 

‘Guinsberg’s £1000 Car Burned’, Truth (Brisbane), 24 November 1946, 15.