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Research

Suits that ‘Mark the Man’

Our latest article, ‘Clothes Shall Mark the Man’: Wearing Suits in Wartime Australia, 1939–1945, has recently been published by Cultural and Social History.

I’ve written a couple of other posts for our website in researching this article. ‘Finding’ John Dedman’s Victory Suit is one; the other is ‘Streamlined For Victory’: The Victory Suit. To coincide with the article’s publication, I’ve also written a blog post for the UK’s Social History Society.

Ray Olson (photographer), ‘Men’s Fashion at David Jones, New Fashion, 24 January 1939’, Pix Magazine Photographs, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Courtesy ACP Magazines Ltd, ON 388/Box 026/Item 154.

The article takes another step along our path to uncover men’s engagement with clothing and fashion across the twentieth century. In this case, we consider four men’s suits that date from 1939 to 1944.

We begin with a fashionable double-breasted suit photographed just months before the outbreak of war for the popular department store David Jones. We end with a ‘civvy suit’, so named to mark men’s return from war and their transition back to civilian life. In between we look at the ‘victory suit’ – the focus of my earlier posts – and the zoot suit, through the astonishingly flamboyant example worn by a young jitterbug to Sydney’s Trocadero dance hall.

‘De-Kit Store, Civilian Suit Issue, Men in De-Kit store Trying on Hats, c. 1944’, Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library Victoria, H99.201/1592.

Our close examination of these four suits places men’s attentiveness to their dress in the context of Australia’s Second World War home front. This was a location of cloth and workforce shortages, government intervention and patriotic consumption.

The suits, and the discussions around them, reveal both men’s anxieties and desires. Anxieties emerged around shortages, rationing and austerity measures – including the clothes styling regulations the guided the look and shape of men’s suits (but also other men’s, women’s and children’s garments). The ‘victory suit’ set the template for these styling restrictions: only single-breasted fronts were permitted, for example, in an attempt to save cloth.

‘De-Kit Store, Civilian Suit Issue,  Men inside De-Kit store viewing selection of suits and hats, c. 1944’, Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library Victoria, H99.201/1593.

The flagrant waste of cloth in the exaggerated styling of the zoot suit made two years later, with its baggy legged trousers and jacket so long it almost reached the knees, contravened wartime regulations. It revealed a desire for fashion, just as it underscored a moral contract for patriotic consumption – leading to widespread community outrage.

These are just four of the many suits we’ve looked at that were worn across the twentieth century, with so many more rich stories to be told.

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.

References

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?

References

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?

References

‘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: https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/the-handwoven-history-of-harris-tweed-british-fashion-council/-gICDRacUjdSJQ?hl=en

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

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

Smart Suits in White Australia

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Andrew Hasegawa, great grandson of Setsutaro Hasegawa. Japanese-born Setsutaro arrived in Victoria in 1897, four years before the passing of the exclusionary White Australia policy. Initially employed as a domestic worker – or houseboy – in Melbourne, he went on to become the proprietor of Japanese laundries first in Melbourne’s South Yarra then later in Geelong.

Having a coffee with Andrew Hasegawa

Of great interest to us is a rich and rare collection of clothing, photographs, documents and objects owned, worn and used by Setsutaro Hasegawa that Andrew donated to Museums Victoria. Among the items are a number of finely tailored suits and boldly patterned waistcoats. At least some of these were made by South Yarra-based tailor Ichizo Sato.

Trousers, Mottled Brown Wool, worn by Setsutaro Hasegawa, 1930s-1940s
Copyright Museums Victoria / CC BY: https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/articles/3708

Sato landed in Melbourne just months before the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 came into force. With six years’ experience as a tailor in Yokohama and Tokyo prior to emigrating, he had formed part of the growing ranks of tailors charged with outfitting increasing numbers of professions in Japan as the nineteenth century drew to a close. His career as a tailor and dressmaker flourished in South Yarra, where he had a decades-long presence on Toorak Road.

Rose Stereograph Co. (photographer), Toorak Road, South Yarra, Victoria, c. 1920-30 [with Sato’s sign at left]
State Library Victoria, H32492/4985

The suits – in grey wool and tweed – are elegant and styled with clean, sharp lines. There are single-breasted jackets, trousers made to be worn with braces (commonplace in the decades before ‘self-supporting’ trousers) and waistcoats with pockets useful for carrying keys, coins or pencils.

These suits were carefully made to fit Setsutaro Hasegawa. We know this through paying close attention to detail. The trousers feature adjustable straps at the centre back to create a snug fit to the waist. The leg hems were cut shorter at the front while curving down gently at the back to accommodate the fall of the trousers against leather shoes. The result was a perfectly controlled ‘break’ – the crease in the trouser leg just above the shoe – that indicated a painstaking fitting process and the ideal length.

Suit made by I. Sato, Black and White Wool, c. 1930s
Photographer: Taryn Ellis, Source: Museums Victoria
Copyright Museums Victoria / CC BY: https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/items/1556767

But we also know this by looking at the photographs of Setsutaro Hasegawa wearing his suits. One portrait taken around 1908 captures his meticulous presentation, from his beautifully groomed hair and moustache to his clothes: a single-breasted jacket and matching double-breasted waistcoat buttoned high on his chest. His tie is carefully knotted. His watch chain hangs neatly across his chest. His perfectly-starched white collar, worn high to his jaw, reminds us of his skill as a Japanese laundryman.

 Setsutaro Hasegawa, South Yarra, c. 1908
Copyright Museums Victoria / CC BY: https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/items/1557036

I’m so grateful to Andrew for generously sharing details about his great grandfather. Having looked at Setsutaro’s clothing in detail, it’s a privilege to know more about the man who wore it.  

References

‘A Japanese Dressmaker’, Age, 14 June 1906, 7.

‘City of Prahran Rate Book 1900’, City of Prahran [1856-1901], Microfilm Copy of Rate Books, 2344/P, Public Records Office of Victoria.

‘Concentrates’, Prahran Telegraph, 16 July 1910, 5.

‘Dossier of Ichyo [sic] Sato’, National Archives Australia: A367 C69262.

‘I. Sato’ Ladies’ Tailor’, Herald, 24 August 1918, 10.

‘Just arrived!’, Prahran Telegraph, 14 October 1911, 7.

Moya McFadzean, ‘Setsutaro Hasegawa, Japanese Migrant, 1897-circa 1952’, 2009, in Museums Victoria Collections.

‘Public Notice’, Prahran Telegraph, 28 April 1900, 2.

Sands and McDougall Street Directories.

Michelle Stevenson, ‘Ichigo Sato, Japanese Migrant & Tailor, circa 1890s’, 2010, in Museums Victoria Collections.

‘Transcript of evidence of objection by S T Hasegawa, Japanese internee, Tatura 10/2/1942’, National Archives Australia: MP529/3, TRIBUNAL 4/114.

‘Unassisted Inward Passenger Lists (Foreign Ports) 1852-1923’, VPRS 7667, Fiche 347, Public Records Office of Victoria.

The tangled history of the necktie

Māori MP Rawiri Waititi’s refusal to wear a necktie in the debating chamber of New Zealand Parliament a couple of weeks ago made global headlines. Powerfully describing the tie as a “colonial noose”, Mr Waititi argued that he should be permitted to wear a hei tiki – a greenstone pendant – instead as part of “Māori business attire”. Intense debate followed.

American and Australasian Photographic Company, Bank of New South Wales, Gulgong, 1870-1875. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Home and Away 39876.

This strip of fabric worn around the neck and tied at the throat draws diverse – and often passionately conflicting – responses. Some people love them, but many loathe them. Some consider them a symbol of power, a signal of group allegiance or a central part of a uniform (and uniformity), but these might each be viewed in a positive or negative light.

I wrote about the history of neckties in Australia for The Conversation: The politics of the necktie — ‘colonial noose’, masculine marker or silk status symbol? I also enjoyed chatting about neckties with Sarah Macdonald on ABC Sydney Evenings and Sirine Demachkie on ABC Sydney Weekend Evenings.

Office Staff, 1911. State Library Victoria, H92.401/198.

There’s certainly much more to say about neckties than meets the eye.

Will you return to work in more casual clothes post lockdown?

I find the current predictions for more casual dress as we return to the office post lockdown fascinating, especially as we can trace historical parallels.  After WWI and WWII, periods of global crisis and turmoil with massive disruptions to “normal life”, there were calls for more casual clothing – just as there are now.

Sales of athleisure and activewear have boomed during the pandemic as we’ve embraced hoodies, tracksuits, leggings and slippers for working at home. Commentators and experts have suggested that both men and women might continue this styling by wearing more relaxed clothing including looser fit tailoring and lighter or stretch fabrics when lockdowns lift.

Laurie Shea, ‘Dress Reform’, 1947. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy ACP Magazine Limited, ON 388/Box 009/Item 111.

I trace the similarities between now and the calls for men’s “dress reform” in the first half of the twentieth century in The Conversation. I’ve also enjoyed speaking about them on the radio, which you can listen to here:  

ABC Sydney, Breakfast with Robbie Buck and Wendy Harmer (28 January 2021 from 1:26:00 to 1:33:20)

ABC Darwin, Breakfast with Joelene Laverty (28 January 2021 from 46:00 to 53:17)    

ABC Perth, Breakfast with Russell Woolf (29 January 2021 from 1:17:00 to 1:22:50)

ABC Brisbane, Mornings with Cathie Schnitzerling (29 January 2021 from 1:24:00 to 1:29:05)

2GB, Nights with John Stanley and Paul B Kidd

The Rise and Rise of Denim Jeans

Straight leg, skinny, boot or flared. A sharply-pressed rich indigo, or faded to the palest blue and torn at the knee. We wear our denim jeans in many different ways, in styles that go in and out of fashion.

But for many years, denim jeans were simple workwear, stiff and sturdy, made more durable by the rivets reinforcing the pockets and fly. Those made by Levi Strauss – considered by many to be the original denim jeans – were designed for and sold to America’s manual workers.

Russell Lee, ‘Detail of farmer’s blue jeans, boots and spurs, Pie Town, New Mexico’, 1940, LC-USF33- 012733-M2, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington.

Many histories tracing their origins and meteoric rise have been written, emphasising that while they might seem almost too commonplace to consider significant, they are instead deeply important to how we live. Anthropologist Daniel Miller and sociologist Sophie Woodward’s work on the Global Denim Project reveals not just the global reach of denim jeans, nor the huge number of people – from children to the elderly – wearing them at any one moment, but why this is the case and how it came to be.

And in Australia? Tailor and Men’s Wear’s ‘Style Spy’ encouraged menswear retailers to stock cowboy style denim trousers in 1950 for young men taking up the square-dancing craze.

‘… the young bloods of the community’ would find these ‘cow-boy type trousers in blue denim’ appealing. ‘As Seen By Our Style Spy… Square Dancing’, Tailor and Men’s Wear, October 1950, 19.

The popular Man magazine explained for its readers in 1954 that a new type of leisure pant was needed for around the home, for picnics, in the workshop and the garden. Man described and illustrated the ‘latest’ idea: pants made from denim but ‘not cut to look like overalls’. Even better, they were ‘tough and wear well, wash and remain smart for the picnic as for the lawn-mowing that comes before it’.

The Australian manufacturer Amco started making its jeans in the 1950s, and they became the denim jeans of choice by the ‘70s. The company’s branding was catchy: ‘Amco. The name of everyone’s hips’.  In 1960, Amco advertising stressed their jeans’ style, design and ‘long, long life’. By the middle of the decade, this had shifted to emphasise their snug fit and fast fading, so popular that ‘fellows everywhere go for the slim fitting hip clinging Amco jeans’.

‘The new roles of denim for casuals brings about this informal garment which has sports uses outside the home workshop, Man magazine explained. ‘Your Clothes: Head to Toe’, Man, April 1954, 62.

Later that decade, the new Amco Baggy’s were introduced ‘for the man who loves easy action, trim looks and room for comfort’, before Amco Flares, ‘wide at the bottom for freedom and comfort’, were designed. Ever changing, in 1984 customers found a tempting range of ‘up to 20 different styles of Amcos to choose from … Amco Rider, Amco Tabs, super-sophisticated Amco Bagarts, and much, much, more’.

It didn’t hurt their popularity that the jeans manufacturer sponsored the Rugby League Championship from 1974 to 1979, with teams playing for the Amco Cup and the player of the week awarded a pair of Amco jeans. In the final year of rugby league sponsorship, the company was sold to the US-owned Blue Bell, makers of Wrangler jeans, for a massive $12.95 million.

The story of Amco is also one of the rise of off-shore production, coming during a period when Australian clothing manufacturers began to set up overseas factories to take advantage of cheaper labour and costs. Amco established their factory in the Philippines in 1974, and others went to countries including Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan – though into the ‘80s local production still outweighed imported jeans.

Harry Poulsen, ‘Young woman modelling a pair of denim jeans and a checked shirt’, 1952, negative number: 181586, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

But it was the uptake of jeans by teenagers and young adults that had everyone talking. A deliberately-stuffy reflection on ‘Jeanagers’ from Batman (the remarkable social commentator Keith Dunstan) in The Bulletin explained in 1972:

Jeans are the uniform, the absolute badge of a generation and they serve to doubly emphasise the generation gap. Don’t think I haven’t tried to wear them. But it doesn’t work. You can’t get anything into those miserable pockets and there is the terrible discomfort of the way they hang two inches below the navel.

A decade later, statistics for 1981-82 revealed more than 12 million men’s and boys’ jeans had been locally made or imported into Australia – more than double the number made for women and girls which totalled 4.4 million.

Next time you head out, take notice of how many people are in jeans – it’s perhaps more than you think.

References

Batman [Keith Dunstan], ‘Lifestyle: The Jeanagers’, The Bulletin, 19 February 1972, 39-41.

Glennys Bell, ‘Fashion: Why Jeans Keep Bouncing Back’, The Bulletin, 12 June 1984, 78-80.

‘Business and Economics: Amco Holdings announces a 26.4pc lift in profit’, Canberra Times, 27 September 1977, 17.

‘Clothing makers move to Asia’, Canberra Times, 8 February 1974, 6.

Ian Heads, The Night the Music Died (Concord: Stoke Hill Press, 2014).

Daniel Miller, ‘Anthropology in Blue Jeans’, American Ethnologist 37:3 (August 2010): 415-428.

Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward (eds), Global Denim (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2011).

Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward, Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

‘Murray Bros. Amco Jeans’, Cumberland Argus (Parramatta), 18 May 1960, 4.

Fred Wilkinson, My Life in the Ragtrade (Hazelbrook: MoshPit, 2014).

‘The Amco jeans sale … it’ll be the quick or the dead’, Victor Harbor Times, 18 July 1984, 21.

‘The name on everyone’s hips’, The Bulletin, 18 March 1972, 68.

‘Waltons: Get with the new look in jeans’, Canberra Times, 5 April 1968, 3.

‘Young’s: More man on the go styles from Amco’, Canberra Times, 9 December 1965, 8.

‘Your Clothes: Head to Toe’, Man, April 1954, 62.

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.

References

‘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: https://www.3m.com/3M/en_US/company-us/about-3m/history/timeline/

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.