Women and fashion in Australia's nineteenth century

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This thesis casts new light on the clothing culture of the first Europeans who engaged with the land now called Australia in New South Wales, at Botany Bay and the area around Sydney Cove. Many people assume that life for the ‘First Fleeters’ must have been crude and rough, devoid of any sartorial fashion element. Yet the naval officers would have been well dressed, albeit somewhat dusty, and the First, Second and Third Fleets carried numerous people who had worked in Britain in the appearance industries. But what of the women? A large number of the convicts transported to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land has been convicted for felonies connected with clothing theft. Clothing including accessories such as ribbons and handkerchiefs were valuable at the time but also demotic: they were not the preserve of the middling sorts and elites. Many of the transported convicts were women who had worked in the burgeoning fashion culture of late-eighteenth century Europe. Yet little work has been conducted on their clothing lives. In this thesis, I speculate as to the appearance of the convict women. I do not disparage them as the discarded, unwanted and unattractive ones as some historians as well as popular images, movies and television series have done in the past. Instead I use traces – in the written record such as diaries, transcripts and transportation lists – mapping this information onto the history of early advertising and the press in the colony, as well as analysing the visual sources that survive from this period. I work within the frameworks that recognise the value of material culture, object analysis and also the new fashion studies and fashion histories that demand that the poor and everyday be considered as worthy of study as the dress and habits of the elite. I adopt at times a poetic speaking position, as most of these women were illiterate and they certainly can no longer ‘speak’. Yet traces of their material culture, their backgrounds and their narratives suggest that a more robust and vibrant fashion culture probably existed from the very beginning of the European settlement/invasion that most historians have credited. It is my aim that my understanding of the materiality of cloth and clothing will map onto surviving traces, gestures and hints to enable a new story to be told of the first years of western fashion in the Antipodes.
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