Hello, today I’d like to talk about one of Melbourne – and Australia’s most significant fashion designers – Norma Tullo and her self-named label. I’ll start with some quotes:
“[Norma] was one of Australia’s fashion royal family.” Ragtrader founder Fraser McEwing
“One of the leading designers of her time” RMIT Design Archives
“[She] wore fab hair pieces , she was glam and Temperamental!” Jenny Bannister, fashion designer.
She used to call me up at my vintage clothing shop, and once asked why I was selling her early ’70s dress for so much. “Because Tullo is a great label!” I replied. She spoke often about a book she was writing about her life and work but since her death in 2019, nothing has appeared. I regret not taking her up on the opportunity to go and see her scrapbooks. Thankfully her archive is now in the good hands of the RMIT Design Archives.
Born in 1935, she started her career as a legal secretary in 1956, and soon discovered a difficulty in sourcing the sorts of fashion she and her friends wanted to wear. So she opened a studio in Bourke Street’s Metropole arcade with three sewing machines and worked lunchtimes and after work. Her clientele – and her business soon expanded.
Here is the earliest Tullo that I’ve found: it’s from the mid to late ‘50s so must have been quite early in her career. I’ve seen the same dress made in black silk so perhaps it was a popular style. This one was made of red slubby silk, like a shantung and had the fashionable hourglass silhouette of the time with a side metal zipper. The style is a ‘fit and flare’ with princess seams, no waist seams and a full skirt. There’s a self-tie at the bust. The label was a simple one with her name ‘Norma Tullo’.
The State Library of NSW have a wonderful collection of photos of Norma working in her studio in 1960: they’re a great insight not only into Norma’s work but also the local fashion industry at the time.
Norma is wearing a smart but comfortable suit – her own design – typical of the sporty, young fashions of the time: a girlish version of her mother’s more structured suit. It’s made of a fine houndstooth wool trimmed perhaps in a black velvet piping. Her hair is fashionably bouffanted, and she wears a string of pearls around her neck. The salon is luxurious, denoting the class of her clientele. Her style is not surprising considering that Chanel was her favourite designer and she positioned her quality product at the top end of the market.
In 1962 she married Brian King and they moved to a large home in Toorak. By this stage, Norma’s designs were regularly appearing in magazines like Women’s Weekly. Here’s an example from February ’62:
The National Gallery of Victoria has this classic suit, dated 1964. Her work stands as a good counterpoint to the more lively designs of Prue Acton, operating at the same time. This suit might have been worn by a businesswoman or ladies-who-lunch.
1965 was a big year: as women’s fashions were getting more youth oriented and adventurous, so was Norma, and she won many awards including the ‘Avant-Garde’ in the Australian Wool Board’s awards for this sporty number. It retailed for £28/19/11 (suit) and 8gns (blouse). which was expensive at the time, and about $1.058 in today’s money. So much matchy-matchy.
By now she was also collaborating with Butterick’s sewing patterns and Paton’s knitting patterns so you didn’t need to spend a lot for a little Tullo magic.
I have had a lot of Tullos in my collection, here are some:
In 1966 Norma commenced perhaps her most successful collaboration, with the Japanese department store Isetan. A large fashion parade was staged and was so successful, the entire collection was ordered on the spot, with a three year, multi-million dollar contract to produce clothing. 15,000 garments were made in the first year. Isetan would continue to sell Tullo fashions until the early ’80s, throughout their many stores.
Tullo is well represented in major dress collections in Australia, especially during their ’60s heyday. Here’s a late ’60s cutie from the collection of the Powerhouse/MAAS. Compared to a lot of fashion of the time, it’s very restrained and polite but lovely.
In 1967, Tullo’s ‘signature style’ was the trapeze dress. Here’s an example in a Butterick pattern: note the loose waist, flaring into an above-knee skirt with a demure bow. Bows seem to have been a favourite style element and they feature on many Tullo designs.
Just as skirts were getting increasingly high, so they also started to come down with the introduction of the ‘maxi dress’. This example from ’68 was featured in Vogue magazine and includes a long trapeze dress with matching ensemble jacket, trimmed in black rabbit fur and lined in the same striped silk. Photo by Dieter Muller. It’s a very bold look. I love it!
The Powerhouse also have this wonderful photo of a 1969 style, photographed by Bruno Benini: “Model Marg Hanna wears an ostrich feather hood and a rabbit fur coat by the pioneering Melbourne-based designer Norma Tullo.” To create the look of snow, the photographer’s wife, Elaine bulk-purchased cooking salt from Queen Victoria Markets. I can almost hear it crunching under the model’s white vinyl boots.
You can always tell a top label by the quality of their collaborators: the photographers and models they work with and so it is here, with Tullo’s work worn by one of the greatest of the ’60s models, Verushka. A reminder that although Tullo’s fashions are often well behaved, there was a lot more to this under-valued Australian designer.
By 1970, Tullo’s main boutique was situated in Toorak Road, South Yarra – here’s a pic by Rennie Ellis that shows the upstairs, with a selection of wonderful knee high boots.
Tullo was one of the first labels to embrace the nostalgic return to romanticism in the early ’70s, as you can see by the extravagant Edwardian style bouffants worn by the models in this pic from 1970, where they’re preparing for a fashion parade.
The NGV have this wonderful, romantic bohemian outfit from 1970.
Tullo designed new uniforms for Qantas staff in the early ’70s: you can see the nostalgic style here too, with ’20s-30s style hatwear and ’40s style skirt suits. The floral corsages are a lovely touch and the Tullo bows.
Norma had been working closely with the wool industry ever since the beginning and in 1973 a new collaboration was created with the Peppin brothers to produce a range from their legacy wool, grown from their merinos since 1858. In-house textile designer Shirley Lyle designed the florals. Here’s one from my collection that was on display recently at Villa Alba Kew.
Tullo Peppinellas are extra special and you’ll also find them in the collection of the National Trust (Victoria), the National Gallery of Victoria and the RMIT Design Archive.
Norma closed her fashion label in 1977, although she later designed collections for Fletcher Jones and Sportsgirl. I recently acquired one of her Fletcher Jones dresses, in shades of brown (so big in the late ’70s), from the Lismore vintage clothing collector Dorothy Nichol. Dorothy, I’ll take good care of it.
This post is an abbreviated version of my hour-long presentation on the designer, so I have a lot more material available if it’s of interest to you – get in touch. Tullo is one of the main labels I collect so I’ll update this post later with pics of more from my collection.
I hope the post has provided a good introduction to this most important of designers, whose fashions retain their wearability and value.