Threads of History: Dressing Stonnington through time

Threads of History postcard  

The Stonnington History Centre presented a selection of items from its collection in its exhibition held at Northbrook Pop-up Gallery from 11 November to 10 December 2016. Showing local examples of the work of the seamstress, the tailor and the fashion designer, visitors were encouraged to discover the clothing made and worn in Stonnington since the 1850s. A possum skin cloak, a wedding dress and exquisitely hand-stitched silk pyjamas were among some of our treasures never before seen on display.

Wrapped in Country – The making of a possum skin cloak

Possum skin cloak This cloak is in the City of Stonnington collection and was made during a workshop in November 2014 as part of the City’s Indigenous Reconciliation Program. The primary artist and workshop facilitator, Maree Clarke is a multi-disciplinary artist. Maree is a pivotal figure in the reclamation of southeast Australian Aboriginal art practices, reviving elements of Aboriginal culture that were lost over the period of colonisation. 

In pre-European times, possum-skin cloaks were an intrinsic part of Aboriginal life and death; people were buried in them and were thus ‘wrapped in their Country’. Cloaks were used in daily life to stay warm and dry in the cold climate, for ceremonial purposes and meetings.

Cloaks were made for children with the expectation it would be retained until death. The cloak was enlarged as the child grew, manifesting the person’s life story and marking pivotal events. In this way the cloak became powerfully connected with an individual, a truly biographical object, with marks and symbols added as life unfolded. (Samantha Hamilton, 2015)

Cotton nightdress Ready for bed

Handmade cotton and lace night dress of unknown provenance.


Haute Couture - High fashion

Balencia white gown Spanish born Victoria Cascajo began her dressmaking career at age fourteen in the fashion house of Balenciaga, the famous Spanish Haute Couturier. Victoria migrated to Australia with her husband Mario Cascajo in the early 1960s. After arriving she worked at various fashion houses until establishing her own boutique in Davis Street, South Yarra, naming it Balencia as a tribute to her mentor.

Influenced by fashions in old movies, Victoria created the sketches for her garments and then passed the designs to artist Mrs Lin Phillips for full drawing. A small collection of these drawings are shown in the entry hallway to the gallery.

Victoria’s skill as a tailor ensured the quality of her gowns and ready-to-wear clothing became an instant success. Her first collection from Balencia sold out in a week.

In 1971 Victoria designed the gown that would give her world-wide acclaim. Australian Prime Minister William McMahon saw one of Victoria’s gowns in a fashion parade in Sydney and ordered a replica in white for his wife Sonia. Mrs McMahon caused a sensation when she wore the gown to a state dinner hosted by President Richard Nixon at the U.S. White House. The full-length gown had side splits to the upper thigh and open seams on the bodice and arms, which were crossed with jewelled bands. The gown is now held in Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.

Victoria moved her Balencia boutique to larger premises at 527 Toorak Road, Toorak. Over the years she employed 68 dressmakers. Throughout her career Victoria’s garments were featured regularly in national and international fashion shows and her gowns won many race-day awards for their wearers.

From the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, Victoria created a scrapbook of newspaper and magazine articles featuring Balencia boutique, the winning fashions of the field on race-days and biographical information on her life in fashion. Victoria closed her boutique and retired in December 2010.

Copies of her illustrations are on display in the foyer of Toorak/South Yarra Library, 340 Toorak Road, South Yarra; and Prahran Library, 180 Greville Street, Prahran.

Needle and thread – The finer points of clothing: textiles on the small scale, the handmade and the domestic arts

Pyjamas display Clothing of all types took the household time and effort to purchase, to make and to maintain. Particularly for women, the work of sewing, ironing and washing was, and is, a significant part of everyday life. In an age before department stores and off-the-rack clothing, professional dressmakers were in demand by the wealthier, and a source of employment for the less well off.

The craftsmanship of dressmakers was extraordinary, as shown in a pair of exquisitely hand-stitched 1930s silk pyjamas in our collection, which were owned by Elaine Lewes who lived at ‘Coronal’, Lewes Drive, East Malvern. The household account book of Daisy Lewes from c1930 shows hats, shoes, dresses, an overcoat, and silks, tulle and braid all carefully itemized; while the 1885 accounts book of the dressmaker Jane Taffs reveals a thriving local clothing industry.

In an age when women sewed and mended their own clothes, many hours were spent learning and perfecting the arts of sewing and embroidery. A 1927 student of the Prahran Technical School was photographed learning embroidery.

During the First and Second World Wars, the women of Prahran and Malvern were galvanised to sew and knit clothes for the troops. However the finer points of fashion were not neglected during war time, as demonstrated by our copy of the 1942 edition of the immensely popular Madame Weigel’s Journal of Fashion. Madame Weigel published over 9000 paper patterns over her career.

Laundering, ironing and pegging out clothes to dry in the sun are tasks familiar to us, but the effort involved used to be staggering. The wealthier could afford space and equipment to help with these tasks, as shown in the design of a new laundry for Professor Rivett of 34 Mercer Road, Malvern in 1927; it even included its own ironing room.

The daily work of cleaning and ironing clothes was not only time consuming and hard work, it could also be dangerous, as shown by the tragic death of 53 year old Catherine Saunders. Catherine, a washerwoman, had been doing the ironing at a house in Henry Street in December 1872, when she accidentally set alight a piece of muslin while removing an iron from the fire. In trying to put this out she set her clothes on fire. She was treated at Alfred Hospital but died of her injuries a few days later.

Civic regalia

Civic robes The civic regalia and insignia of local government has basically remained unaltered for centuries. The robes, the mayoral chain and the mace are not intended to glorify the individual, but rather they are a uniform of office and used to respect and honour the position of Mayor. Mayors were elected by and from among the councillors at the annual general meeting of Council, for a yearly term. Some councillors of Malvern and Prahran served multiple terms, although it was unusual for these to be consecutive. 

The red mayoral robe was worn until council amalgamation in 1994. Stonnington's mayors wear a plainer blue and gold robe.

The town clerk - the equivalent of a council secretary or treasurer - was responsible for official council records and public notices, for supervising council elections, and was the point of contact with the local community on a range of issues. This important position was distinguished in earlier times with the wearing of a black robe at official events.

Velvet luxury – A carriage rug

Velvet carriage rug The crushed velvet carriage blanket was owned by former Malvern Mayor, Alexander McKinley. McKinley was a Malvern Councillor from 1885 until 1920.  During this time he served six terms as Mayor. The clock in the Malvern Town Hall was donated by Mr and Mrs McKinley in 1891. The velvet blanket was always used by McKinley to cover his lap as he travelled in his horse-drawn carriage to civic events.  After his death it was passed down through his extended family. 

The last owner of the rug, Bruce Hayman, was McKinley’s great nephew, who used the rug to cover a table, where it remained for many years. Bruce recently donated the rug to the Stonnington History Centre.

The Willis family, c1888

Willis family portrait

William Samuel Willis married Alice Roberts. The couple had seven children: Alicia Agnes born in 1872 and died at two months; Evangeline Alice Jane born 1873; William Organ born 1877; Henry Samuel born 1881; Maude Alice born 1884; Alice Agnes born 1885; and Horace Ernest born 1888.

Photo, from left: Alice; William; Evangeline (Eva); William Samuel Willis; Henry (Harry) (laying); Horace (infant); Alice Willis; and Maud.

William Willis & Co were manufacturers and tinsmiths, producing weighing machines, animal brands and stencil plates, etc. The Willis family lived at Mount Wise, a large two storey house in High Street, Malvern, diagonally opposite the Malvern Town Hall, from 1883 until the late 1880s. Maud and her sister Alice attended Malvern Ladies College. William Organ Willis was killed at Gallipoli in 1915.

Tailor made – The fine art of tailoring the suit

Tailors display Men’s clothing manufacture was as much a specialty as clothing for women, and Stonnington has been well serviced by tailors throughout its history. The earliest photograph of a tailor’s premises in our collection shows Marum’s shop, situated on the west side of Chapel Street adjacent to the Prahran Town Hall in c1861.

The use of unregulated or sweated labour – as well as female labour – was seen as a threat to local tailors in the late nineteenth century. Fearing their replacement by “cheap inexperienced labour”, many local tailors signed a petition sent to the Mayor of Prahran asking for an investigation into sweat shops, hoping the result would “advance the tailoring trade”.

Well-dressed men in the early twentieth century could choose from tailors who set up business as sole traders, or those who worked in drapery stores. The well-known Chapel Street drapers – Fallons’ Drapery, Taylor’s Co-operative Store (William Taylor had formerly worked with Fallon) and Cassells & Co. – all offered tailoring services.

Mr A. Preece conducted his business in Barry Street, Prahran, “on the most modern lines. All the latest fashions are made a complete study, so that with civility, promptness and reliability of cut, customers readily perceive that to deal with Mr Preece is a pleasure easily obtained. The best Australian and imported tweeds and cloths are there to pick from in endless variety, and no one need hesitate visiting the shop merely on that score” (City Of Prahran jubilee history, 1906, p. 147).

Other sole traders in Stonnington included Mr Bolton in Glenferrie Road (whose success necessitated an expansion of his premises, as shown on the copy of the plan included in the display); Andras Berko, owner of Andy’s Personal Tailor shop in Toorak Village; and Hemden in High Street, Armadale (an ongoing concern, now in Malvern Road).

Photographs of well-dressed men in our collection include a group of Prahran Council workers with the Council fleet of cars c1920, and a group of men inspecting the construction of Chadstone Shopping Centre c1960.

Off the rack – The rise of the emporiums, from Chapel Street to Chadstone

Emporiums display Chapel Street has long been considered a “shopper’s paradise”. It was among the first suburban areas to host a number of retail emporiums outside the city centre. Such was the success enjoyed by these early major retailers – The Big Store, Read’s (Moore’s), the Colosseum, and Love and Lewis – they all either extended their existing stores or built new and larger premises prior to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Charles Read’s emporium (established by Read but later taken over by Charles Moore), dominated the Commercial Road intersection. The interior photographs show the womenswear, lingerie and sleepwear, and corset departments. The Big Store, also known by the name Maclellan and Co, was built in 1902, and, following the trend of the day, sent mail-order catalogues to its customers. A fire destroyed the first Colosseum drapery store which had been built in c1905. Only eight months later a larger, more modern Colosseum took its place, later becoming part of the Colosseum-Treadway chain of stores. Love and Lewis, a drapery store specialising in cheaper goods, was established by Dafydd Edward Lewis and Mr Love in a three-storey building on the corner of Wattle and Chapel Streets in 1897, before they built new and larger premises on the same site in 1913.

Glenferrie Road Malvern and High Street Armadale are among Stonnington’s popular retail shopping strips. Drapers Ball & Co. set up a Malvern branch of their flagship Richmond store on the corner of Glenferrie Road and Station Street in 1952. Also known as M. Ball & Sons, the company used a complicated suspension or aerial wire system to convey cash between the staff counters and the cash office, known to its customers as the ‘Zing’ machine. Ball & Sons closed in 1988.

Victoria experienced a retail revolution when the Myer Emporium opened the state’s first drive-in shopping mall in Chadstone in 1960. At various times since, it has earned the title of the largest shopping centre in Australia and/or the southern hemisphere, and calls itself the “fashion capital”. George’s, meanwhile, opened a branch of its iconic Collins Street department store in the renovated Jam Factory complex in 1979; this closed when George’s folded in 1995.

Here comes the bride – The art of the wedding gown

Wedding dress White in its various shades has been the most popular choice for the wedding gowns of Australian brides since Queen Victoria wore white for her wedding to Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1840. Newspaper reports for some of the weddings depicted here describe the clothes and accessories worn by the bride and her attendants; the brides all wore white, and orange blossom – a symbol of fertility – was a popular choice in bouquets or headdresses. Changing gown styles reflect contemporary women’s fashions, or the wedding dresses worn by royalty or film stars.

This wedding dress was worn by Roma Dorothy Reed when she married Cyril Corrigan on 11 February 1939 at the Armadale Presbyterian Church. The framed photograph on display with the dress shows the couple on the church steps after the wedding.

Early wedding gowns Left: The oldest photograph of a wedding in our collection shows William Norford Hunt and his bride Frances Vayer, who were married in January 1857. Right: The individual portrait of a bride in a tight-fitting bodice with lace collar, pearl buttons, elbow-length sleeves and long gloves, is Mary Alice Morrison, who married barrister Henry Bournes Higgins in December 1885.

Early wedding gowns 2 Left: This group of four young women shows bride Jeannie Hope with her three sisters, when she married at the family home in June 1890. They all wear high collars, long sleeves and wrist-length gloves (the two younger girls wear dark-coloured gloves). Jeannie's dress is trimmed with lace, and she has a full-length veil. Right: This early example of a wedding photograph taken outdoors records a wedding held at ‘Myamyn’ in 1895. The female wedding attendants all wear hats. 

Turn of century wedding gowns Left: In this photo of a wedding party c1900, all of the women in the bridal party wear very high or ‘wedding band’ collars on their dresses, and necklaces. The bride’s elaborate dress is less fitted through the bodice, and her veil falls only to her fingertips. The attendants are not in matching dresses. Right: Note the shorter lengths of the loose-fitting dresses and lower necklines, and the bride’s veil, which covers her hair in this photograph of two women and a flower girl record a wedding, c1910.

Early twentieth century wedding gowns Left: This second group of three women was taken in September 1928. All three women have sleeveless dresses and bare arms, while the bridesmaids wear the knee-length dresses and Mary Jane shoes of the flapper period. The bride’s gown features silver lace, while the bridesmaids wear different coloured dresses; three shades of blue (seated bridesmaid) and Iceland poppy (orange). Right: Another wedding party c1930. Note the dropped waists and handkerchief hems of the dresses (including that of the bride), which are shorter in the front revealing the women’s lower legs.

Wartime weddings Left: Due to the rationing of fabric and clothes, during the Second World War it was common for servicemen to wear their uniforms to weddings, while women wore simple frocks, often without veils, or they borrowed wedding dresses from family or friends. This first photograph shows a wedding in March 1941. Right: The bride wears a suit (called a ‘costume’) in lieu of a gown, which she could also wear on future occasions, when she married in 1942. Note her unusual shell-shaped handbag and the lucky horse-shoe keepsake in her hand.

Postwar wedding gowns Left: This photo of five people was taken c1949. The bridal gown, with high lace neckline, is similar to the dresses worn by Elizabeth Taylor in the film Father of the Bride and for her wedding to Conrad Hilton in 1950, but still in the slimmer silhouette favoured by brides of the first half of the twentieth century. The full length veil, meanwhile, brings to mind Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to Prince Philip in November 1947. Right: With the austerity of war well behind them, Margaret Powell wore a full length bridal gown with voluminous skirts when she married in October 1954.

Adrienne Robinson Elvienne: Dressmaker Adrienne (Addie) Mary Robinson (1897-1987), contracted measles while living in England as a child, which stunted her growth to 3’11”, and may have been the impetus for her to specialise in children’s wear. After training with Mrs Rae of South Yarra, Addie went into partnership with Miss Elva Cross, using a combination of both their names to create their business name ‘Elvienne’, c1935. The photograph of three women shows Addie (left) and Elva (right). They initially worked out of a small shop at 19 Toorak Road, South Yarra. Following Elva’s departure in 1944, Addie opened a shop at 1A Grange Road, Toorak, in 1946. The brass name plaque was affixed to the doorway at street level, with the shop itself on the first floor. Addie employed other women to work for her, including Jean Szeles. She kept an exercise book arranged alphabetically, in which she recorded her customers’ measurements. Addie retired from the business in 1967.

Also on display was one of two wedding albums compiled by Margaret Brown. Although Margaret never married, she attended many local weddings and annotated her albums with witty comments along with the details of each wedding. The forthcoming marriage register and marriage certificates from St Matthew’s Church of England/Anglican Church in High Street, Prahran, dated from the 1860s to the 1960s. The register was used to announce forthcoming marriages to the congregation, who were asked on three separate occasions if they had any objections to the marriage. Some entries have been crossed through, suggesting that the wedding did not take place (or at least not in that parish).

Fabrication – The retail and manufacturing of clothing

Fabrication display The clothing industry was, and remains, a major employer and economic contributor to the life of the Stonnington area. There were a huge number of clothing factories, laundries, knitting mills, dyers, embroiderers, pleaters, sweatshops, tanners, milliners … and more. These were industries where new migrants to Australia were often welcome. Prahran and Malvern councils worked hard to regulate these industries to ensure that working conditions were adequate, and mediated between the competing needs of industry and local residents.

Factories could be hidden away in surprising places. A small tie factory operated for nearly 100 years in the back yard of the Kaye family home at 49 Lewisham Road, Prahran. Juxtaposed to this is leather and fur manufacturer Mr Durant who claimed 'to be the sole manufacturer of sheepskin mats in the State'. His shop, at 554 Chapel Street, South Yarra was described as being 'worth a visit'. with 'all kinds of stuffed animals reposing in every conceivable position'. [City of Prahran jubilee history and illustrated handbook, Melbourne: Periodicals Publishing Company, 1906, p.170]

Councils could be caught in the crossfire between competing demands within the clothing industry. As major retailers and employers, drapers were a significant part of the industry. In the early 1890s a royal battle ensued about Council regulations on opening hours for drapers. Drapers usually closed at 7pm, but the owners lobbied for a later 8pm closing time on weekdays and 11pm on Saturdays. This would bring them into line with the operating hours of drapers in the CBD. Shop assistants disagreed. By 1891 long petitions from both parties were sent to Prahran Council; extended trading hours prevailed. One of these drapers was Mrs Ethel May O’Mullane, who is pictured in front of her ladies’ drapers/haberdashery store at 198 Glenferrie Road, Malvern, in 1918.

Local government was kept busy regulating clothing factories and clothing standards … particularly on hot days with a river nearby. The Yarra River was a tempting place to swim and in the early days many boys and men didn’t bother with swimming costumes. There were many attempts to regulate such bathing and by 1909 the City of Prahran had passed by-laws requiring clothing to be worn whilst swimming and regulating what clothing was deemed suitable. This remained a live issue for many years.

By the 1930s standards had changed, and the article “30’s fashion far from washed up” shows Lifesaving Club members wearing “modest, sturdy swimwear”. This range, sold as Black Lance Water Fashions, was made by Peter O’Sullivan in his woollen mill factory in Greville Street, Prahran. Other knitting mills in Stonnington included Leslie Knitting Mills, in Cato Street, Prahran (pictured); while in 1945, Malvern Council permitted the construction of the Marquise Knitwear factory in Illowa Street, Malvern East.

In 1911 Dr Richard Fetherston estimated there were 4500 workers making clothing in Prahran; the suburbs had become more residential by 1962. Still there was a large range of factories at that time. Of the 71 registered factories in the Prahran Council area in 1962, 31 were clothing manufacturers. Of the 317 people employed in these clothing factories, 219 were women. Many more worked in unregistered premises, some in sweat shops.

The factory registration documents for Dominant Lingerie are complemented by a strip of 1910 black embroidered netting. These exquisitely delicate and soft calf skin ladies gloves were made around 1880.

Seven ages of clothing – From infancy to old age


Infant photos Left: Sisters Nita Burland and Inez Blackwell holding Inez’s children Richard and Peter at “Crosby”, 353 Glenferrie Road, c1914.

Right: Babies living at the Methodist Babies Home, 12 Copelen Street, South Yarra, c1930.


Childhood photos Left: Neighbours in Garden Street, South Yarra, c1951 - Elizabeth Rowe, Kathleen Harrison, Narda Rowe, Sandra McPherson, Joan Rowe and Glenys McPherson. 

Right: Trying out the new wading pool in Princes Gardens, 23 December 1924.


Adolescents Left: Students from Malvern (Tooronga Road) Girls High School, 1949 - Joan Hunter, Verna Watson, Joan Dempster, Lynette Hurst, Barbara Fynch. They are wearing their school blazer, V-neck jumper, shirt and school tie, winter skirts (raised to flash their legs), shoes and socks.

Right: Chadstone High School camp, c1979. The group are wearing clothes suitable for hiking.

Working life

Working life photos Top row.

Left: Workers at the “bottle yard” recyclers in Bangs Street, Prahran, c1925.

Right: Servants in the kitchen of Stonington mansion, c1906. The women wear aprons over their blouses and long skirts.

 Bottom row.

Left: Norman McDowell standing outside his motor garage at 1214 High Street, Armadale, at Christmas 1943. He is wearing a tie and vest over his buttoned-up shirt.

Right: Mary Mow at Mow’s market stall in Prahran Market, c1940s.


Married couples Left: David and Mary Jane Ilton of Gertrude Street, Malvern, c1890.

David was a blacksmith with premises on Malvern Road. The couple married in 1868 and lived in Malvern for most of their married life.

Right: Eleanor and David Orange, 1943.

Community life

Community life photos Top row.

Left: A picnic (possibly of staff from the Spring Road School) near the Ranfurlie Estate, Malvern, c1900. Most of the men wear three piece suits, the women are all wearing full length skirts and blouses or dresses with long sleeves. Everyone in the group are wearing a hat, with styles including straw bonnets or boaters, bowler hats or a cloth cap.

Right: Doris Harper, winner of ‘The most appropriately dressed Henley Girl’ competition at the Henley-on-Yarra Regatta, 1933. She is pictured in her winning outfit of white dress trimmed with black lace, summer hat, long gloves, and clutching her handbag. Miss Harper's photograph appeared on the front page of The Sun newspaper, Saturday Evening edition, 25 November 1933.

Bottom row.

Left: Strolling in Prahran on Perambulation Day, 1938. Prahran Council held annual Perambulation Days shortly after the election of the new mayor for the year. The purpose of these days was for councillors to explore their city and visit noteworthy sites, such as those recently upgraded or requiring attention. All men wear their workday attire of three piece suits, ties and hats.

Right: Members of the Darling Road Methodist Church at the Floral Carpet Competition at the Malvern Cricket Ground, 1956, in celebration of Malvern's Centenary. Most of the women wear A-line skirts below the knee, blouses and cardigans. Only one woman wears a hat.

Old age

Old age photos Top row.

Left: William MacLennan and his granddaughter Janet MacLennan, 1920s. William wears a shirt, tie, vest and pants, and lace-up shoes. He appears to be wearing a wristwatch but also a fob watch chain, and holding a pipe in his left hand. His granddaughter, Janet, wears a dress, folded-down socks and shoes.

Right: Harriet Smartt c1907. This photograph was taken not long before she passed away in 1908, aged 85. One of Prahran's early pioneers, Harriet had lived in the municipality since 1853; in her later years at 34 Thomas Street, Windsor.

Here she sits on a wooden seat outdoors, wearing a full length skirt or dress and a bonnet, and is draped in a blanket.

Bottom row: Ludlow Watton (standing, at rear), Mary Connolly, Fanny Watton and Annie French at Fanny’s birthday party, January 1911. The photo was taken in the garden of Dot Sparrow's house, 'Coldblo', in Glenferrie Road. At the time this photograph was taken, Ludlow was 80 years old, Mary was 82, Fanny was 84 and Annie was 86.

Ludlow wears a jacket, vest, shirt and pants, but no hat. The women are in full length dresses or skirts, and wear a hat or bonnet, or in Mary's case, a veil or scarf.


Curator: Ellen Porter

Co-curators: Janet Buick and Simone Sharpe

© Stonnington History Centre, 2016

 All material included in this exhibition is held by the Stonnington History Centre unless stated otherwise.