The Politics of Antipodean Dress: Consumer Interests in Nineteenth Century Victoria

Article excerpt

The historiography of dress has not received serious attention until recently. Although pioneering work has been done by historians such as Spufford, Weatherill, Lemire, Benson, Reekie and Maynard,(1) analysis of dress in a historic and social context has been impeded by assumptions concerning its trivial importance as a field of historical inquiry. Thus work in the field has had to establish the validity, the general significance and the particular consequences for historical interpretation of taking dress as a starting point for research.(2) With the advent of a number of authoritative studies on clothing and consumer interests,(3) it now becomes possible to turn attention to aspects of the history of dress in order to establish why it has been ignored as well as to provide more satisfying explanations of social and economic behaviour through attention to the parameters and mechanisms of the clothing trade.

The early history of the colonies of New South Wales and Victoria has been shown repeatedly -- albeit with anecdotal rather than empirical evidence -- to have been moulded by alcohol. It is difficult to understand why alcohol should be intrinsically more important than dress unless we take refuge in the truism that men like to boast about how much drink they can hold and women like to go shopping and buy clothes.(4) The high consumption of alcohol quickly became a source of bonding for many men and thus formed the basis of the myths of male mateship and the bush which have dominated Australian historiography.(5)

It is difficult to imagine how the bustling colony of Victoria, crowned by a sophisticated city which astonished contemporary English visitors by its magnificence and which has been re-created in the works of historians like Serle and Davison,(6) could have been conceived of and built by a mob of colonists whose only conception of how to spend their disposable income was to drink themselves into incoherent stupour. Undoubtedly people of all social backgrounds got drunk, some of them a great deal more often than others, but consumers also spent a lot of time and money on clothing themselves and their families. A plausible image of the colony is suggested by the powerful consumer thirst for the full range of luxury items available at the time.

Better quality clothing was as sought after but more easily obtainable by a wider cross section and a greater proportion of Victorians than was the case in England, stimulating very different concerns in the colonial retail drapery trade from those dominating the trade in England. There is also evidence in the newspapers, private papers and literary impressions that most people embraced wholeheartedly the opportunity to clothe themselves in as much finery as they could buy This impulse existed before the discovery of gold but the trend was to continue thereafter.

Almost three million pounds worth of cloth and its materials were imported into Melbourne in 1853, a figure clearly suggesting that consumer preference and business initiative had moved with astonishing speed to gratify the inclinations of a population of less than 100,000. With such a small total population in which the lower middle class and working class predominated, it is not plausible to argue that these vast amounts of clothing were consumed entirely by the upper classes. Although the figure does not include personal belongings, clothing brought in by private individuals entered the market in two ways: the sale of personal garments by new arrivals trying to make ends meet(7) and that brought out expressly as a form of small-scale speculation. As was the case in early New South Wales, those who had visited the colony of Victoria(8) gave advice indicative of the enormous perceived value of clothing in the colony: 'for those who wish to invest small sums in goods for Australia, boots, shoes, cutlery, flash jewellery, watches ... fancy articles, cheap laces and baby-linen offer immense profits. …