I found out about the existence of the University Archives because of a dress. That may sound strange, but the full-skirted apricot and blue patterned silk dress, dating from about 1865 to 1870, has a small label stitched to the inside of its waistband. It reads “From Bright & Hitchcocks, Geelong”. The dress is in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria and I came across it when I was curating an exhibition titled “Australian Made: One Hundred Years of Fashion”. It opened at the Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia in May 2010. This dress was one of the earliest items on display and it is remarkable, not only for its almost pristine condition, but also because it appears to be the oldest surviving garment bearing an Australian label. It was not usual for makers or retailers to stitch labels into garments until the twentieth century. The majority of nineteenth century garments therefore are unlabeled.
Knowing its origins means a context can be provided for the Bright and Hitchcocks dress. Research into the company’s archives, which are held at the University of Melbourne, threw light on the networks of trade and consumption in Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century. As I read through the original hefty volumes of letters from Bright and Hitchcocks’ London agent to the managers in Geelong, I began to get a sense of how items for the Australian market were selected, what sold well, and what the company didn’t find worthwhile stocking. This clearly wasn’t a passive commercial relationship where, as is too often assumed, the current fashions in British goods were simply shipped out to the colonies in support of a society that was transposed holus-bolus from one side of the world to the other.
Established in 1850, Bright and Hitchcocks was a drapery and general merchants business. It stocked a broad range of imported goods, including men’s, women’s and children’s clothing and accessories, as well as dress fabrics and trims, blankets, carpets and household linen. It is commonly thought that ‘readymade’ fashionable dress (which could be bought over the counter) was not available at this time, however the company letters tell us otherwise. A letter from the London agent dated 24 August 1865 states, ‘By this mail I send assortment (25 dresses) new goods made for us … the prettiest goods I have seen…” Is it possible that the dress in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria was one of these twenty-five? Its styling dates it to the same era and if it is not from this particular group of imports, it certainly appears that the dress came into the country as a readymade item. Donated to the gallery in 1973, its provenance links it to the Bell family whosettled beyond Geelong on the Bellarine peninsula in the 1840s.
After more than a century of retailing to the residents of Geelong and further afield, Bright and Hitchcocks closed it doors in 1968. However its building still stands today on Moorabool street in the centre of the city as a reminder of this pioneering commercial venture.
For more information about the “Australian Made: One Hundred Years of Fashion” see
“Australian Made: One Hundred Years of Fashion from the 1850s to the 1950s” by Laura Jocic is available at the University of Melbourne Library
Laura Jocic, PhD candidate, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne.