What Women Wore: Fashion at a glance 1820-1960

I’m pleased that the oldest piece in my personal collection is now on display at the City Museum for an exhibition on womens dress.

What: What Women Wore: Fashion at a glance 1820-1960
When: October 2009 – February 2010
Where: City Museum, Treasury Building, Spring Street (top of Collins Street) Melbourne
Cost: Adult $8.50 Concession $5

I acquired this in 1989 from a Sydney private collector, the crimson silk gown dates from the late 1820s – for twenty years I had thought it was the 1830s but when I recently unpacked it from the hundred or so layers of acid-free tissue paper in which I bedded it down in 1991, I looked at it with new eyes. I now consider that it is a bit earlier – it has the very full sleeves of the 1830s but not quite full enough and also a higher waistline and slight bustle at the rear formed by tightly stitched cartridge pleats.

Pre-dating the sewing machine, the entire gown is hand stitched and trimmed with piping. The lining is a fine linen and it secures up the back via hooks and eyes. Apart from a small bit of silverfish damage (which arrived before we met) and a fraying hem (suggesting it was too long for it’s last wearer) it’s in excellent condition. I have a few gowns from around 1860s-1880s and they haven’t fared as well as this one, which I find remarkable. The gown itself is both small and tall for the time – I suspect it was worn by a tall adolescent as it has very little bust shaping, it may have gone on to be worn by a second wearer, who was less tall. It’s currently displayed on a mannequin sized for a five year old child and it’s too small to do up properly at the back.

I’m still stunned to find such an early garment in Australia – even now with the wonders of collecting via the web, these items are hard to find. This is the first time it’s been displayed and I shall be keeping an eye on it – although the exhibition goes for six months, this gown will be evaluated for light fading and may not stay for the whole exhibition.

Next up in the small but striking display is an amazing blue and silver gown from the 1860s – this is from the wonderful collection of Seams Old. I love the strong colours of this one, and the condition is remarkable, almost perfect. It stands in glorious contrast to the simpler gown of the earlier time. Then we have an oyster silk gown from the late bustle era, 1880s. The detailing is wonderful, and it reminds me of the paintings of Tissot – this one too is from Seams Old, as is the 1890s silk mourning gown that you will see next.

In the next room you will see some gowns of the twentieth century – a silk devore from the ’20s (as featured in Love Vintage book) and a hand-embroidered Chinese silk coat. I wore this to the opening of the NGV’s Black in Fashion exhibition last year, where it caught the esteemed eye of Zandra Rhodes.

The 1950s are represented by one of my personal favourites: a couture silk twill polka dot dress from local fashion house Le Louvre. This dress is also featured in Love Vintage and has impressive quality and construction. I suspect it originally came with a matching belt – I love the way that pieces of spotted fabric are centred over buttons, and it has a self-cravat (which can be tied in a small bow or left loose like this).

As for the 1960s, you’ll have to pop down to the City Museum to see what’s in store!

As well as Circa having some gowns on display, the Love Vintage book will be available for sale at the gift shop and I will be doing a couple of talks about vintage – Friday February 19th at 6pm and Thursday February 25th at 1pm. More news about them will follow as details are finalised.


  1. How thrilling to have such a wonderful piece and be able to share it via the exhibit. I commend you for putting it out there!

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