Whether frock, gown, robe or shift, regalia or rags, our clothes are and have always been culturally significant. We dress ourselves because it is custom, but also for acceptance, for status and out of caprice.
Humans have invented distinctive costume for every condition and occasion, and a well-provenanced garment can reveal a great deal about a person and or place; a narrative, as it were.
The same can be said of Australian clothing, and that within the collections of the Australian Museum of Clothing and Textiles and Grossmann House.
Grossmann House, Maitland, one of two mirror image Victorian Regency properties built side-by-side in 1870-71 for prosperous business partners Isaac Beckett and Samuel Owen and now a National Trust historic house museum for example, was the fortunate recipient of a donation of costumes from the 1850s and 60s by Miss Pat Frith (1928-1987) of Bolwarra (a suburb of Maitland). These costumes, whilst predating the erection of the House, were likely owned and worn by individuals, if not one family, within Maitland or the Hunter region at large (during the mid-nineteenth century Maitland was Australia’s largest inland town, as well as the commercial heart of the region).
Systematic research into provenance and textiles from this region as well as written and oral histories concerning Miss Frith, may result in a vivid local narrative. Similar research can look at Matilda Cant’s 1900 farm bonnet, or the afternoon tea apron and cap of Hilma Ellis’, now central to the Museum of Clothing.
As 2014’s Movable Heritage Fellow, I have the privilege of ‘undressing’ Maitland’s history, one item of clothing at a time. It is envisaged that my research and report will give rise to further strategic collection development and study, as will accompanying this blog and Australian Dress Register entries. Provenance work, comparative studies and other such research will reveal the value of provenanced donations, and the challenges volunteer-run museums such as the Museum of Clothing face.
Miss Frith’s donations comprise a man’s “ten shilling” dressing gown (or banyan) c. 1840, a brown checked taffeta dress c. 1855 and a brown velvet child’s dress and cape c. 1850-60 amongst other things. These and other collected articles of clothing reflect the tastes of wealthy families in the Hunter region, as well as providing insights into the changing nature of the colony as it developed to become a nation. They also show the adaptation of English conventions in dress to Australian conventions, the increasing separation between urban and bush life, differences between the social classes and the ordering of masculine and feminine roles and values. Such movable heritage investigation and interpretation aims to raise awareness of the importance of community collections to not only the local area but also NSW and Australia overall, as donations are representative of colonial trends and developments over the course of the nineteenth century.
It is hoped that the creation of Australian Dress Register entries and significance statements, as well as plumped up records will give rise to the need for an exhibition at a space in Maitland, perhaps the Maitland Regional Art Gallery, if not Grossmann House or the Museum of Clothing.
Through my examination of Maitland’s garments, the social fabric, or composite demographics of the Hunter region –wealth, education levels, employment rates and regional values – as well as the garments’ own narratives shall become clearer, it is hoped, than voile.
Written by Eloise Maree Crossman, Movable Heritage Fellow, 2014