Australian dress style

While Australia has no single uniform national costume, an Australian national dress style, based on specific local dress styles, has emerged in response to climate, lifestyle and identity. This is reflected in the modern design of dress by emerging and established designers which incorporate particular defining elements.

An Australian style can be seen clearly in the main types of local dress: bushwear and swimwear, along with Australiana and Indigenous designs. These have been formed by a larrikin attitude, the qualities of mateship and the dictates of an outdoors lifestyle. Dress is also characterised by the migrant experience and the process of cultural borrowing, which is part of the unique history of Australia.

Presenting Australian national dress on the international stage depends upon what localised style is being represented. It is a question of authenticity about Australian culture and identity.
Local dress styles
Sally Smith Designs.

Sally Smith Designs. Image courtesy of Vogue Australia.

Australian local dress styles are different from Australia's fashions. Dress has been influenced by the experience of living in rugged country as well as modern leisure activities such as swimming, surfing and beach culture. This is reflected in different fabrics, such as moleskin and drill cotton, developed for more practical wear.

The cut, cloth and style of beachwear and bushwear have been adapted to localised street dress, as have the colours of the Australian landscapes, flora and fauna to the extent that there is a recognisable national dress style. The creation of a national dress style reflecting on the outdoor beach experience and the native flora in the Sydney Botanic Gardens are used, for example, by dress designer Sally Smith, as inspiration for her dress designs as recognisably authentic modern Australian dress.

Surf board shorts have been adopted successfully as dress across Australia. If you move from the beach to the bush, then clothing is usually adapted to follow suit. A test of how far inland you could travel from the beach wearing only brief racing bathers, though, is only a bus ride from Bondi to the central business district in Sydney. (The Chaser, ABC 2007). The closer you get to the bush, the more likely you are to be wearing tough clothes, a felt hat and elastic-sided boots, as well as adopting a language of mateship and equality.
Stockmen, diggers and aviatrices - bushwear and its influence

In the 1930s, the image of the squatter's daughter and the aviatrix model helped construct the female bush figure. Trousers were adopted by the squatters' daughters and the aviatrix, and this contributed to trousers becoming a popular icon of modern Australian women. In the 1940s, women's experience in war time, including their contribution to the Women's Land Army, cemented the popularity of trousers for Australian women.
Freda Thompson (1906-1980), Pictured here in 1934 just before take off at Lympne Airport when she became the first Australian woman to fly solo from England to Australia

Unknown photographer, Freda Thompson (1906-1980), Pictured here in 1934 just before take off at Lympne Airport when she became the first Australian woman to fly solo from England to Australia, 1934. Courtesy of National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame.

Fletcher Jones cemented the popularity of well-made smart trousers for men based on rigorous Italian tailoring and staff-owned factories and outlets.

In response to the colonial bush experience, Australian dress developed by stockmen and diggers was a preference for tough cotton drill or khaki pants or shorts, worsted wool coats or vests, oilskin coats, rabbit-fur felt hats and elastic-sided work or riding boots.

Today, these items are sold not only by bush outfitters like R.M. Williams, Baxter Boots and Akubra (hats), but also by dress companies such as Rivers, Colorado and Jeanswest. An advertisement by R.M. Williams promotes a national dress costume as: grazier shirt, solid-hide work belt, oilskin coat, Akubra hat, moleskin jeans and elastic-sided boots (R.M. Williams 2000).

This localised dress based on bushwear was adopted by the Australian Prime Minister as a form of Australia's national dress to be worn by world leaders attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in 2007.
Goddess swimmers and surfers - swimwear and surf culture
Annette Kellerman

Unknown photographer, Annette Kellerman. Courtesy of National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame and National Film and Sound Archive: 558337-5.

Since Federation, champion swimmers have been icons for the Australian body. A modern-day Venus worshipped around the world for her beautiful body and boldness, Annette Kellerman (1886 - 1975) was a distance swimmer, diver, and theatrical performer known as the 'Australian Mermaid'. Annette Kellerman shocked the world in 1907 by wearing a man's bathing costume that clung tightly to her torso and left her legs, arms and neck bare. In arguing her case in a Boston USA court, Kellerman stated that she was being practical rather than provocative and said that otherwise she 'may as well be swimming in chains'.

Subsequently, Kellerman designed and marketed the first modern one-piece swimsuit for women. Annette Kellerman greatly influenced public attitudes toward the female body. Kellerman published books instructing women on beauty and physical fitness, and lectured on health and exercise throughout Europe and America. Kellerman's own 'ideal' physique personified a new aesthetic of natural female beauty, one that valued athleticism and unadorned bodily display. In this way she was a trailblazer for the 'new woman' (Powerhouse Museum 2000/66/34).
Paula Stafford (right) with her creations, Surfers Paradise.

Unknown photographer, Paula Stafford (right) with her creations, Surfers Paradise, c. 1950. Courtesy of The Courier-Mail.

It was not until after the Second World War, however, that the image of the bronzed swimmer became popular with large-scale migration of people with Mediterranean, Eurasian and Melanesian skins.


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