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Lorinda Cramer

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.

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.

‘The Traitor’s Market’: Black Market Clothing During WWII

Clothes are so readily available today – purchased cheaply through chain stores (though recent exposure of labour conditions and wages paid might make us think twice), at high-end designer boutiques, in op-shops or online – that it can be hard to imagine such short supplies that they need to be rationed. But in Australia, pressing shortages resulted in civilian clothes rationing spanning a six-year period between 1942 and 1948. Alongside it, a black market loomed.

Dwindling supplies of cloth and clothing were apparent in 1941. The subsequent rationing of clothing was put in place from May 1942, after which a coupon system was introduced to manage scarcity and ensure equitable distribution. But some still longed for garments now considered a luxury. Others were unwilling to wait months to purchase the clothing which was available. A black market in clothing, and the uncut cloth to make it, began to flourish Australia wide.

In 1943, the Australian Government published a leaflet titled The Black Market is the Traitor’s Market. It sent a clear message: black marketing was ‘one of the most insidious crimes that can be committed against a nation at war’ and buying black market goods not only injured the war effort but was an act of betrayal.

Commonwealth Rationing Commission, The Black Market is the Traitor’s Market:

Clothing materials were stolen after leaving mills, in transit from wharfs or train stations, or in warehouses where they were stored prior to distribution. Those caught were arrested and charged.  For the right price, clothing was sold without the required coupons – though this price was often severely inflated. Material used to make men’s suits were eagerly sought and made up by back-room tailors or sold by door-to-door agents.

But buying from a seller going house to house posed its own problems: those who purchased black-market goods were liable for a fine or gaol time. And for traders, the retribution was swift: by mid-1945 more than 760 prosecutions were recorded.

Normally-sensible tailors fell foul of black-market temptations, as did suburban housewives missing a range of goods and the freedom of choice. Yet the leaflet was clear: ‘The BUYER of black market goods is just as guilty as the SELLER’, and it roused Australians to ‘STRANGLE BLACK MARKETS.’


Big Black Market “Ring” Gets Huge Rake-Off from Clothing’, Sun, 31 May 1945, 3.

‘Blackmarket in Clothing’, Morning Bulletin, 6 June 1945, 6.

‘Brisbane’s Black-Market’, Smith’s Weekly, 22 December 1945, 1.

‘Huge Queensland Black Market in Suitings’, Daily Mercury, 28 May 1947, 1.

Minister for Trade and Customs and the Commonwealth Rationing Commission, The Black Market is the Traitor’s Market (Adelaide: K. M. Stevenson, Government Printer, 1943), 1.

‘Theft of Clothing Materials: Believed Intended for Black Market’, Advocate, 30 May 1946, 3.

‘Finding’ John Dedman’s Victory Suit

Recently I wrote about World War II clothes styling regulations and their impact on men’s suits. As they were ‘streamlined for victory’, suits were stripped of elements that in wartime became superfluous.

The ‘Victory Suit’ – so called because the savings made in fabric and other supplies could be allocated to the nation’s war effort – was far from universally popular. Anticipating this, John Dedman, Minister for War Organisation of Industry, spruiked the first victory suit in a short film for the Australian public.

He outlined how fashionable double-breasted jackets used too much fabric when single-breasted would do. Buttons and buttonholes on sleeves and turned-up trouser cuffs might look stylish, but wasted buttons and thread that could be used for functional purposes elsewhere. Likewise, trims and top-stitching created a tailored finish but could be done without.

‘National Security (General) Regulations: Controlling the Clothing (Male Outerwear) Order’, Commonwealth of Australia Gazelle, no. 209, 31 July 1942, p. 1838.

I watched the film many times with an eye trained on these differences – and each was there on the suit he modelled – but knew that examining a surviving suit might tell me more. But had any been acquired by museums during or after the war, or in the decades to follow?

I suspected this was unlikely either because they had been worn out or unceremoniously disposed of: perhaps as they looked embarrassingly dowdy when clothes styling regulations again lifted, or were an unwelcome reminder of civilian sacrifice during the war years.

The Australian War Memorial’s collection search, however, displayed a tantalisingly brief record:

‘Victory suit’ or ‘Dedman’ economy suit, introduced by Mr Dedman, Minister of War Organisation of Industry during the 1939-1945 war. The suit was designed to reduce wastage.

Intrigued, I arranged a visit. The dark grey suit with its red and white pinstripes brought out of the collection store looked surprisingly familiar. I reasoned this was as it followed Dedman’s regulations outlined in the ‘Control of Clothing (Male Outerwear) Order’ in July 1942 to the letter.

The victory suit was made by Louis & Charles Noble, Melbourne. Victory Suit jacket, Australian War Memorial Collection, REL/00039.001.

But perhaps more surprising was that for all the encouragement over the war years to save fabric – or the often-repeated appeal to ‘make do and mend’ – the suit showed very few signs of wear. Why would a victory suit be made, and the one in front of me was beautifully tailored and hand finished, if not to be worn?

The trousers were made to be worn with braces and could be tightened at the waist with a buckle. Victory Suit trousers, Australian War Memorial Collection, REL/00039.002.

The acquisition documentation provided answers to my questions. This victory suit was the same suit worn by Dedman in his short black and white film to promote the new style – the one in which I had watched him enter his office, sit behind his desk, and gesture to its various features.

It was, in fact, the first sample made according to the new clothes styling restrictions, manufactured for the Department of the War Organisation of Industry to demonstrate the new look that suits would take for the press.

In 1943, the Department contacted the Australian War Memorial to see if the suit might be of historical interest. I, for one, am glad they recognised its significance. The result is that Australia’s first victory suit has a safe, permanent home where researchers like me can see how it was made and consider its importance to Australia’s everyday dress across the twentieth century.

An excellent description of John Dedman’s victory suit, and number of photographs, are now available on the Australian War Memorial’s website.

My thanks to curator Jane Peek at the Australian War Memorial for so kindly facilitating my visit and for discussing John Dedman’s fascinating suit.


Australian War Memorial, ‘Victory Suit’: Mr John J. Dedman, Minister of the Department of War Organisation of Industry, REL/00039.001 & REL/00039.002: /

Australian War Memorial, ‘Aust. “Victory Suit” donated by Dept. of War Organisation of Industry’, File No. 55/3/45/4.

John J. Dedman, ‘National Security (General) Regulations: Control of Clothing (Male Outerwear) Order’, Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, no. 209, 31 July 1942, p. 1838.

The National Films Council of The Department of Information presents A War Organisation of Industry Production, John Dedman in ‘Victory Suit’, 35mm black and white film, directed by Ralph Smart, commentary by Harry Dearth, Australian War Memorial Collection, F01641:

‘Streamlined for Victory’: The Victory Suit

In July 1942, John Dedman, Minister for War Organisation of Industry, appeared at his Sydney office in Australia’s first ‘Victory Suit’. Cloth and clothing shortages had become a serious wartime reality, and clothes rationing using a coupon system had been introduced the month before.

‘Victory’ Suit [with Mr Dedman at left], Lithgow Mercury, 27 July 1942, 4:

Mr Dedman was filmed, somewhat stiffly, modelling his Victory Suit in a short black and white film presented by the War Organisation of Industry (a digitised version of this film can be viewed on the Australian War Memorial’s website). While Mr Dedman’s suit looked ‘just like any other’ there were, in fact, striking differences. Pointing to his suit, Dedman listed where fabric could be saved:

No vest. No trouser turn ups. No buttons on sleeves. That may seem a trivial change, but each of the old-fashioned cuff button holes uses up one extra yard of thread. That means a saving of eight yards on every suit. And no more double-breasted suits will be made.

This was civilian austerity dressing that stripped non-essentials from men’s clothing so that much-needed materials and labour could be directed into the war effort. Style restrictions extended to men’s overcoats, sports jackets, trousers and knitted outwear; women’s and children’s clothing was also ‘streamlined for victory’.

How did the men of Australia respond? Initially, with concern. Removing the waistcoat, in effect reducing the commonly-worn three-piece suit to two pieces, was an unwelcome development. Would men – particularly those in southern states – have a buy a pull-over for warmth, and thereby use their coupons for additional garments, they wondered? And where would they hang their watch-chains? Tailors weighed in to the debate, explaining that removing waistcoats would save little fabric as many bolts of material had already been cut to ‘suit lengths’: the required amount of fabric needed to make a three-piece suit.

Newspapers reported with relish when Mr Dedman appeared in September 1942 wearing a waistcoat – seemingly against his own regulations – although he quickly pointed out that it was from another, older suit and not newly made.

Following months of protest, waistcoats were added to the Victory Suit in December – though the Government maintained this was the result of better stocks of material rather than admitting to public pressure.


Commonwealth of Australia, ‘National Security (General) Regulation: Control of Clothing (Male Outerwear) Order, No. 209’, Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 31 July 1942.

‘“Deadman Wore Waistcoat With Victory Suit!”’, Tweed Daily, 11 September 1942, 1.

The National Films Council of The Department of Information presents A War Organisation of Industry Production, John Dedman in ‘Victory Suit’, 35mm black and white film, directed by Ralph Smart, commentary by Harry Dearth, Australian War Memorial Collection, F01641:

‘Plea for Waistcoats: Making up of Suit Lengths Already in Stock’, Mercury, 31 July 1942, 5.

‘“Victory Suit”: Some Tailors Critical’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July 1942, 4.

‘Victory Suit With Old Waistcoat’, Barrier Miner, 14 September 1942, 3.

‘Waistcoat Ban Opposed’, Evening Advocate, 7 August 1942, 1.

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).