From photographs to oral history recordings to advertising, the Library’s collection is full of material that can show you the evolution of Australian fashion over time, and provide personal insights from noteworthy figures.

Strike a pose

Let’s start with the work of an Australian fashion photography pioneer: Athol Shmith (1914–1990). Though he was also well known for his work in theatre, portrait and wedding photography, it was his fashion photography that had the greatest impact and acclaim. Having personally donated hundreds of his prints and negatives to the Library in 1979, the Athol Shmith collection of fashion photographs captures the changing styles of both fashion and photography from the late 1940s to the 1970s.

Two black and white fashion photographs. The photo on the left shows a smiling woman wearing a mid-length, button-up, long sleeve dress and a scarf tucked into the collar leaning on a beam next to a brick wall. The photo on the right shows a woman in a white poncho, headband, dark pants and white boots sitting on stairs looking dramatically into the distance.
Athol Shmith, Model wearing a blouse and pleated skirt with a scarf, approximately 1954, nla.obj-355442659 and Athol Shmith, Fashion model posing in poncho, approximately 1968, nla.obj-325240214

Much of this collection, along with Ellis Rowan’s personal letters and journal, was recently digitised and made available to view online thanks to a generous donation by contemporary fashion designer Nikki Zimmermann following her use of Rowan’s botanical art in the Zimmermann 2021 Spring Collection.

Hot off the press 

Many of Shmith’s photographs appeared in traditional media such as newspapers and magazines, and that’s exactly where we’re going to look next. First published as a stand-alone edition in 1959, Vogue Australia has been a staple in the Australian fashion industry for over half a century. With hundreds of editions and dozens of supplement issues available to be viewed at the Library, they can be used to explore trends, influential figures and the culture of fashion in Australia.

Six covers from the Vogue Australia magazine from between 1959 and 2018 showing how it has changed over time. The first cover is very artistic with a blonde woman on a pink and orange background. The last cover shows four models of different ethnicities posing in front of a pale pink background.
Covers of Vogue Australia over the decades

More Australian fashion magazines and periodicals can be found here in the catalogue.

In the words of a designer 

For a more personal insight into the history of Australian fashion, oral histories are a fantastic resource. Two particularly interesting and informative examples that are available online feature iconic designer Carla Zampatti (1942-2021). The first comes from 25 February 1981, and is a recording of Zampatti addressing the National Press Club and answering their questions after she won the inaugural Australian Business Woman of the Year award in 1980. In her speech, she discusses her journey as both a fashion designer and business owner and how she adapted to changes in the industry and society at large. Early in her address, on the ‘mystique’ that she believes surrounds fashion design, she said:

Fashion designers are catering to people’s fantasies. We all have an image, like Walter Mitty, of different personalities. We’re not always what people see us to be. It’s the fashion designer’s task to cater for both the real persona and our dream of what we would like to be and achieve a harmonious blend between myth and reality... Fashion has a responsibility to take people out of the ordinary, and perhaps therein lies some of its mystery.

The second oral history featuring Zampatti is her interview with Caroline Baum recorded for the Library’s oral history and folklore collection on 25 January 2018. At almost three hours long, this interview provides a very detailed history of Zampatti’s childhood, career and experiences in the industry.

Black anf white photograph of a woman with light, short curly hair looking directly into the camera with a small smile. She's wearing a dark blazer with light, abstract shapes on it and large round earrings
Jacqueline Mitelman, Portrait of Carla Zampatti, 1988,

If you’re interested in hearing from a contemporary fashion designer, listen to Fijian fashion designer Bayvick Lawrance interviewed by Thelma Thomas (MC Trey) for the Pasifika Creatives and Game-Changers oral history project. Key topics of discussion in this interview include how Lawrence first became interested in design, how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted his work, and how his heritage has influenced his designs.

Papers of a model 

From her teenage years in the late 1940s, Patricia ‘Patti’ Morgan Chamoun was a common face in newspapers and magazines for her work as a model, actress, television host and fashion correspondent. Today, clippings of hundreds of these appearances can be explored in six large cuttings albums in the Library’s collection. Organised by date, these albums follow her entire career, from her beginnings in Australia to later in London and Lebanon, as well as much of her personal life. Ultimately, these albums give not only great insight into Patti, but also the fashion of the time and life in the limelight.

Cover of a magazine with a blonde woman in view form the shoulders up. She appears to be leaning around a pink fluffy cushion, and is wearing a red/pink shirt, red nail polish and a diamond ring
Cover of The Australasian Post, 19 September 1946 from the Papers of Patti Chamoun,

Into the world of advertising  

Many of the clippings in these albums are advertisements that Patti modelled in, which takes us to the final medium we'll be looking at: print advertising. Available to be explored in newspapers and magazines, advertising shows both the popular and new styles, and how they were being marketed to consumers. What features or benefits were being promoted? What was the tone or style of the ad? How much did the items cost? How did these things change over time?

Two vintage advertisements for shoes. On the left is an ad showing a woman in a green dress and white boots on a stage, various colourful shoe styles and the text 'War is still tough...but Joyces make it easier on the feet'. The second ad has a woman in a fancy skirt and blazer set with a matching hat, three high heel styles and the text 'Top London mannequins choose Holmes shoes for the Royal Season in Australia'
Advertising, The Australian Women's Weekly, 4 September 1943, and Advertising, The Australian Women's Weekly, 16 January 1952,

Time to strut your stuff 

Now that we’ve had a taste of the different mediums and perspectives that can be used to explore the history of Australian fashion, see what else you can find in the catalogue.  

If this blog piqued your interest about the world of fashion design, learn more the history of great Australian design.