Norma Tullo

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.

Her design awards included:
•       a record seven Wool Board Awards
•       a Lyrebird Award (Fashion Industries of Australia trade organisation)
•       a prestigious David Jones Award.
Her work was recognised overseas and she built an export business that ran for nearly 20 years, and was awarded an MBE in 1972. And yet for many, she has been forgotten.

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’.

This dress is another rare example of an early Tullo. The original wearer chose it for her engagement party, probably purchasing at the Myer Geelong store and you can see how she took the hemline up as fashions changed into the ’60s. She particularly liked the wide, flat bow that could be worn either to the front or the rear.
1959 – Collection: Museums Victoria

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:

Source: Trove.

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.

Source: NGV.

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.

Source: Trove.

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.

1965 Pattern from my collection but there are many more available via the Vintage Pattern Wiki.

I have had a lot of Tullos in my collection, here are some:

Mid ’60s wool dress (model Clare St Clare).
Mid ’60s cotton sundress (model Clare St Clare).
Mid ’60s silk pintucked blouse (model Becky Lou).

Here’s another boxy silk blouse, this time with frills trimmed in blue velvet ribbon and deep cuffs: very feminine.

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.

Source: National Archives of Australia Item ID 5900129

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.

Source: MAAS.

1960s wool stripe long sleeved minidress.

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.

Source: MAAS

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.

Source: Rennie Ellis.

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.

Source: NGV.

Mens-style tweed trouser suit, trimmed in dark green suede and half-belt to jacket rear. Slightly flared trousers, c1970.

Circa 1970 orange and brown floral cotton jersey dress with centre front buttons and pockets.

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.

Model: Clare St Clare

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.

1970s floral print cotton fit and flare sundress, with self-covered buttons.

Norma closed her fashion label in 1977, although she later designed collections for Fletcher Jones in 1981 and 1982 and later, 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.

Here’s another I’ve found: an early ’80s salmon-pink (closest to the colour in the close up), a ’30s-inspired ‘secretary dress’ suitable for smart daywear. Like Norma’s earlier designs, it’s good quality although you can see its sheerness necessitates a slip.

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.


  1. My late mother told me that she showed Norma how to draft trousers in the 1950s. Being too young to ask questions, I have wondered how they met and as my mum worked as a book-keeper/office manager for a solicitor in private practice in Richmond, do you know where Norma had been employed as a legal secretary?

  2. Thanks for your comment Joy. No, I haven’t been able to identify the law firm she worked for but here’s the source, an article in the AWW. As her studio was in the Metropole arcade on Bourke St (where the Melbourne Galleria shopping centre is now, corner of Elizabeth St) I would assume it to be nearby, as she sewed clothes in her lunchtimes. That’s still close to the legal end of town where you find the courts etc so there would be many options.

  3. I have the last images, analogue amateur 35 mm colour via a 1957 Zeiss Ikon camera),-of the upstairs studio at Tullo Place, Richmond, after Miss. Tullo had retired. There are the usual ephemera including bolts of cloth and also some archival photos Miss Tullo was discarding along with authentic Peppinella fabric woven labels. Mrs. King, formerly Tullo had two wonderful pets, a Weimaraner with the Japanese named Kumi and a chocolate point Siamese feline named after her favourite French designer: Coco. By mere happenstance in 2012/13 I met with Miss. Tullo’s marketing svengali who in the 1960s promoted Tullo fashion along with the fledgling Trent Nathan. This flamboyant personage gave me a signed photo copy of her & Miss Tullo’s press cuttings, which I treasure to this day.

  4. I just wanted to leave a little note and say thank you for writing such an interesting and well researched post on Tullo, it means a lot, especially as to me she wasn’t Norma, instead just “Gran”. There’s nothing more moving than finding people who still value her work and are so passionate whenever I go to research a Tullo dress I plan to wear! I carry her with me everyday, her MBE hangs in my study and I still wear a Tullo for Fletcher Jones wool Blazer when I go for work interviews for good luck. I’m sure she’d have been thrilled with the love her fashion still receives, it was a truly her life’s work, even after she stopped her fashion label she kept her interest, designing tiny fairy clothes out of leaves and feathers with me as a child. So thank you for providing such a wonderful insight into her work, posted on my birthday 07/07 no less, it feels like she’s still finding ways to shares gifts with me to this day!

  5. Hi Sophie, thank you for your wonderful stories! I’m a big fan of Norma’s work and would like her to be more recognised for her achievements. If you’re interested, I have a talk coming up for Glen Eira libraries, where I’ll shine a spotlight on her label and include many photos of garments from my collection. It’s on August 24th and bookings are now open. It will be presented free and online via Zoom. Details here.

  6. I have a Norma Tullo Pimpinello wool black and white dress for sale if you are interested, available in Melbourne

  7. In around 1972 I spent many weeks salary on a Tullo original, from her shop in Melbourne, it was a one-off evening dress, black jersey fabric, very slim line trimmed in black ostrich feathers at high neck, wrists and hem, the sleeves and hem asymetric – high at sides & pointed at centre front and back (Lily Munster-ish) – I still have it!

  8. My partner just received a long sleeve fluro pink and white floral Tullo maxi dress and it says it’s made in NZ. So I looked up the label and here I am. It’s so interesting and inspiring learning about amazing talented hard working people like Norma. We came across her dress as My partner and I run an online secondhand clothing store in New Zealand called recycle style.

  9. How exciting, David! I’m not familiar with the NZ Tullos: made under licence perhaps? I’ll have to check out your site.

  10. I remember working in Norma Tullo s sample room l think in the late 60s early 70s .
    Building was located in Richmond called Tullo Lane.,
    I was just out of college at the time what an exciting time it was back then the fashion and the buzz in that building , I’m now 72 best time!
    And yes still sewing .

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