At the recent vintage fair at Williamstown I chanced upon a remarkable frock – a Merivale from the early ’70s constructed patchwork-style from a large collection of original vintage fabrics from the ’30s and ’40s.
Not especially attractive or flattering (the dress is empire style and rather like a maxi-length smock with long blouson sleeves), I could not pass it up. It’s a piece of history, from a rare time.
During the late ’60s and early ’70s, fashion went backwards as much as it went forwards. Inspired by the ’20s to the ’50s, vintage came into vogue for the first time as beautiful (and original) clothing could still be found in the op shops for a pittance. Oh, how the story of these glory days are told often at Circa! Can you imagine finding beaded flapper gowns for a dollar or two?
The House of Merivale was to Australia what Biba and Ossie Clark was to the UK: stylish and sophisticated clothing, now highly collectable. This from The Powerhouse’s site:
Established by John and Merivale Hemmes, the landmark House of Merivale and clothing designed by Merivale revolutionised the Australian fashion scene. John and Merivale Hemmes were mavericks in Australian fashion. Modelled on London’s famous concept boutiques and catering to 18-25 year olds, the House of Merivale was the first specialty fashion boutique in Australia.
The House of Merivale was not just a shop; it was a phenomenon that significantly influenced a generation of young Australian’s attitude to shopping and the fashion experience. The House of Merivale was the place to go to for the latest trends in music, fashion and make-up and was the first store in Australia to sell the mini. The popularity of the boutique was such that teenagers would be lined up outside the door.
If you find a Merivale for a good price, consider picking it up as they’re getting harder to find these days and going up in value. Meanwhile – what of my patchwork dress? It’s a mystery. It was found in a country op shop by a traveller, who brought it to Diamond Dog of Seddon, where the lovely Mellita brought it to the Fair whereupon it caught my eye.
How can I be sure that it’s made of vintage fabrics? Rayons of the sort it uses are fragile creatures when wet and do not stand up to machine washing (I recommend hand washing for most, but dry clean only for crepes) so during the 1950s a new type of rayon was invented that could withstand modern rigours. The fabrics in my dress could only be old because the versions made in the ’60s and ’70s are very different. Not surprisingly, it comes with a “dry clean only” label but all the same, I’m surprised that it has survived. Crepes shrink if washed, as vintage lovers often find out to our detriment.
Here is a sample of the fabrics comprising this incredible frock. In the sixth row you’ll find one of the dress in full – then I’ve added pics of more House of Merivale pieces including a box from The White Shop. Hover your mouse over the images after the fabric swatches, to learn more about it.
Update: I’ve added more HOM.
In 1955 Merivale Hemmes started with making hats, later branching out into other aspects of ladies fashions with her business partner, husband John. The first House of Merivale shop opened in Sydney in 1959 and expanded into a six level Victorian building on Pitt Street in 1970, incorporating a Thai tea cafe. During the ’60s and ’70s, the HOM was the place to be seen and buy the latest in fashions including Prue Acton, Norma Tullo and Merivale’s own designs.
From the Powerhouse Museum’s site: “The House of Merivale promoted fashion that was inspired by London’s boutique culture featuring a fusion of fashion, pop music and art in an atmosphere that was dynamic and fun. The House of Merivale was committed to designing ‘modern clothes for people with a zest for life.’ The House of Merivale revolutionised young people’s fashion and shopping experience.”
At their height, the House of Merivale had three shops in Sydney’s Pitt Street including the White Shop, that specialised in bridal wear, two in Melbourne and one in Canberra.
Over time, the focus of the business moved to hospitality, with a restaurant opening in Potts Point in the early ’90s. The last HOM fashion shop closed in 1996. A large number of establishments currently make up the Merivale stable, run by Justin Hemmes, the son of John and Merivale.
Readers are encouraged to submit photos of HOM garments – all rights remain with the original photographer. Please email for inclusion.