Inside the Collection

Changing gender distinctions in dress: Stories from the Australian Dress Register

William Charles Wentworth court costume, detailed embroidered vest
William Charles Wentworths court costume, 1855-1865. Collection: Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Photograph: © Alex Kershaw

Most cultures differentiate between male and female dress – in fabric, colour, style and accessories. In western culture, gender differentiation in dress has gradually changed. Many entries on the Australian Dress Register reflect the evolution of distinctions between men, women and children’s dress in the 19th century and into the 20th century.

During the 19th century, the differences between men and women’s clothing became more pronounced. Men abandoned the coloured silks and satins, embroideries and lace that they had worn for centuries.
Elements of decoration persisted into the 19th century, as can be seen on William Charles Wentworth’s mid-19th century court costume, which belongs to the Historic Houses Trust and is decoratively embroidered in bright colours. Overall, in the 19th century, the trouser suit, typically in muted colours, became the ubiquitous male outfit.

Mourning suit, simple dark navy blue blazer with matching vest
Mourning suit , 1882-1884, Collection: Grenfell Historical Society

Thomas Rolls’ morning suit bought in England in the early 1880s, and now held by the Grenfell Historical Society, exemplifies this style.
Women’s dress became more androgenous in the 1920s, after World War I. It was fashionable for women to take on a boyish appearance, cutting their hair short, flattening their chests and wearing calf length, shift dresses.

3 David Jones Dress, with floral pattern with detailed beaded belt around the hips
2008/8/1 Evening dress made for May Camille McDonald (Dezarnaulds), David Jones, 1923. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

On the Register, the David Jones dress from the Powerhouse Museum, and the Museum of the Riverina’s beaded dress made by Miss Una Simpson, are both from the early 1920s and show the simple shape of women’s dress in this period.

Beaded dress with floral embroidery made by Una-Simpson
Beaded dress made by Una Simpson, 1925-26. Collection: Museum of the Riverina

Trousers, previously only male attire, very gradually became acceptable for women.
It is not only in overall style and colour that gender distinctions can be found, but also in the details of a garment. The way men’s coats and jackets button left over right is inherited from the days when a man drew his sword with his right hand from his left side. The buttons were placed on the right-hand side so that the fabric didn’t catch as he drew his sword. In contrast, a woman’s jacket, coat or bodice fastens on the other side, i.e. her right side over left.

Pockets are another garment feature which historically reflected gender. In the 19th century externally visible pockets on men’s clothing were widespread and could be accentuated, for example, by a handkerchief or watch chain in a breast pocket. In contrast, women’s pockets in the 19th century were generally hidden from view in the seams and folds of their clothing.
The black dress from the Museum of the Riverina worn by Mrs Jane Crain in the early 20th century has a pocket hidden within its cotton petticoat.

Quirindi Wedding dress, brown and white striped with brown trimmings
Wedding dress, 1877. Collection: Quirindi and District Historical Society

The Quirindi and District Historical Society’s 1877 wedding dress features one decorative pocket, but also has a hidden pocket on the inside of the garment. Discrete pockets were considered more feminine and therefore appropriate for ladies.

While gender distinctions were quite pronounced in adult clothing in the 19th century, such differentiation was not considered important at an early age. In general, infants wore long white dresses until they could walk and toddlers wore shorter loose fitting dresses. Until the age of five or six, children wore pinafores, dresses or suits with short skirts. Gender was marked by the parting of the child’s hair, on the right for boys and in the centre for girls, as well as slight differences in garment material and trim.

James Somervilles pelisse, of white broidery anglaise and frills, buttons up from the front
James Somerville’s pelisse, 1880-1890. Collection: The Cavalcade of History and Fashion

Boy’s dresses buttoned up the front and girls up the back. James Somerville’s pelisse of broidery anglaise from the early 1880s, belonging to The Cavalcade of History and Fashion, is an example of a male child’s dress which buttons up at the front. Between the ages of five and seven, at the discretion of their mothers, boys were dressed in short trousers and given their first short haircut, marking their first step towards independence.

Boys black velveteen suit with cap
Boy’s black velveteen suit, 1928-1930. Collection: Griffith Pioneer Park Museum

Between 1890 and 1920 children’s clothing became more gender specific. Around the end of the 19th century boys began to be put directly into trouser suits, such as the black velveteen suit held by the Griffith Pioneer Park Museum, rather than skirted suits. Colour coding children’s dress according to gender, such as blue for boys and pink for girls, was not common prior to the 1920s.

Today women wear many styles of dress traditionally reserved for men. Yet this loss of gender distinction has not been mirrored in male attire and children’s clothing is more gender specific than it has been historically. Similarly, some garment details, such as pockets, have lost their gender associations, while other distinctions remain. Evidently, the relationship between dress and gender is continuously evolving.

Rosie Cullen-Volunteer, Australian Dress Register

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