Julia Johnston – a sassy first generation colonial gal

Cotton dress, probably made in Australia and worn by Julia Johnston, Australia, 1836-1840, MAAS Collection, 2015/21/1
Cotton dress, probably made in Australia and worn by Julia Johnston, Australia, 1836-1840, MAAS Collection, 2015/21/1

Frocks may seem rather innocuous but dress was essential in the creation of colonial Australia. In the 19th century, appropriate attire was a marker of respectability and an expression of status, wealth and beliefs.

There are very few surviving garments from the early 19th century in Australia that have a known history of ownership or a history of who wore them. Looking at how a garment was made, the materials used and knowing who wore it helps to put together a picture of the importance of dress to a particular period.

We have quite a few currency lads and lasses represented in the MAAS collection, including a late 1830s dress worn by Julia Johnston (1796-1879). Julia was a fine currency lass, a term used to describe the first generation of colonial born British children. The first child of Jewish first fleet convict, Esther Abrahams, and Lieutenant George Johnston, she would have been a key player in the early social and political life of colonial New South Wales.

This dress was recently transferred from the Illawarra Historical Society last year and had been in their collection since the early 1970s. It’s a terrific addition to the collection as, unlike most historic garments, we know who wore it! This is a rare gem of a frock and extremely important to those who study the history of Australian fashion. Julia’s dress tells us how a currency lass dressed herself in the newly created colony of New South Wales.

Fresh air, sunlight and fresh food meant the first generation of colonial-born British looked remarkably different to their parents. Tall and slender, the currency lads and lasses were heads and shoulders above the rest of the colony. Peter Cunningham-Miller, in his 1827 account Two years in New South Wales describes,

‘our Currency lads and lasses are a fine interesting race, and do honour to the country whence they originated… they grow tall and slender, like the Americans, are generally remarkable for that Gothic peculiarity of fair hair and blue eyes…’

Julia was born at Annandale farm, the Johnston’s property in Sydney in 1796. Lieutenant George Johnston was an officer of Marines who came to Sydney Cove in 1788 with the first fleet of convicts. He was a leader in the Rum Rebellion of 1808, which saw the arrest and imprisonment of Governor William Bligh.

After their Father’s death in 1833, Julia and Blanche (her younger sister) inherited their Father’s estate. Blanche’s husband George Edward Nicholas Weston named the estate ‘Horsley’ after his birthplace in England. Julia lived at ‘Horsley’ until her death in 1879.

This dress is a superb example of late 1830s fashion. It has a fitted bodice, dropped leg-o-mutton full sleeve and full skirt.

Cotton dress, probably made in Australia and worn by Julia Johnston, Australia, 1836-1840, MAAS Collection, 2015/21/1
Cotton dress, probably made in Australia and worn by Julia Johnston, Australia, 1836-1840, MAAS Collection, 2015/21/1

It was probably professionally made due to the fine construction of the dress with piping detail and precise embroidery worked on the skirt.

Skirt detail of cotton dress, probably made in Australia and worn by Julia Johnston, Australia, 1836-1840, MAAS Collection, 2015/21/1
Skirt detail of cotton dress, probably made in Australia and worn by Julia Johnston, Australia, 1836-1840, MAAS Collection, 2015/21/1

Somewhat strange, however, is the lace trim missing from the frill of the left sleeve, which is present on the right sleeve.There isn’t even a single pin hole to suggest that a lace trim was originally attached.  It’s a rather odd detail and I have never seen this before.

Dress sleeve details, probably made in Australia and worn by Julia Johnston, Australia, 1836-1840, MAAS Collection, 2015/21/1
Dress sleeve details, probably made in Australia and worn by Julia Johnston, Australia, 1836-1840, MAAS Collection, 2015/21/1

Perhaps the dress was never completed or worn, or perhaps it’s the result of some strange personal taste of Miss Johnston. Either way it is likely to remain one of those intriguing collection mysteries that curators will speculate about.

Post by Rebecca Evans, Assistant Curator

This is the final post by Rebecca Evans before she takes up her new role as curator of Australian and European Decorative Arts at the Art Gallery of South Australia. We wish her all the best and look forward to reading more from her soon.

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3 responses to “Julia Johnston – a sassy first generation colonial gal

  • What a wonderful read 🙂 I am only sorry to see that I am coming across your wonderful work at MAAS as you are leaving. Your next place of work will be very lucky to have you – you’ve got a spectacular eye for detail. Wishing you all the best with your future role.

    • Thanks for your interest in our blog and your kind words to Rebecca. I’ll pass them onto her in her new role.
      Tilly Boleyn, curator and blog editor

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