Inside the Collection

Inspired by the Museum’s collection- creating a gold rush dress

Photograph of girls blue dress 1850-1855
A10073 Dress, girls, silk, maker unknown, [Australia], c. 1850 – 1855. Collection:
Powerhouse Museum

It was gold rush day at my daughter’s school. One of the most exciting days of her year – damper making, tent building and gold panning – all without even leaving the playground.  The most exciting part though was the chance to dress up.

Luckily we already had the perfect outfit.  Some years ago for book week my daughter had requested a gown in 1850s style.  Roughly inspired by this dress (A10073) in the collection, I found some discounted navy (nylon) taffeta and spent a happy lunch hour in the Powerhouse Museum Research Library looking for a pattern.

I love libraries and ours is a particularly nice one which conveniently is open to the public by appointment.  When finished, the book week dress was a great success.  I must confess though that even with the pattern from the library, the end product was more a testimony to little girl aesthetics than historical accuracy.


Gold rush dress made by Nicky Balmer
Gold rush dress made by Nicky Balmer

Two years later the dress had become too tight for my daughter to even breath in, let alone face the rigours of the gold fields.  Imbued with that making do spirit I sewed (rather badly) an extra panel in the back to widen the bodice and added a band at the hem to make it longer.

Mending and altering clothes is less common these days, but there are many garments in our collection that show evidence of this in the past.

Day dress, womens, cotton
86/1010 Day dress, womens, cotton, maker unknown, c. 1835. Gift of Sydney Opera House Trust, 1998 Collection: Powerhouse Museum

In 1932 a lady called Hope Ryrie altered a dress so that she could use it as costume for a party at Vaucluse House.  The dress in question (86/1010) originally dates from about 1837 and was owned by Esther Hovell, the wife of William Hovell, the sailor, explorer and early Australian colonist.  Hope Ryrie made similar alterations to the ones I made.  She changed the dress to make the bodice and waist wider. The back of the skirt has also been altered by loosening some of the pleats to increase the waistline.

Another tale of mending in our collection comes from the history of 98/26/1 a costume worn by Dame Nellie Melba. It is thought she used the dress in the role of Marguerite in the opera Fauste and the object dates from about 1910. As a piece of theatrical costume, the dress is well worn and has been repaired in several places.

Costume, opera, dress, worn by Dame Nellie Melba, velvet/silk/cotton/leather/metal
Costume, opera, dress, worn by Dame Nellie Melba, velvet/silk/cotton/leather/metal, maker unknown, c.1910. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Similarly I will need to repair my daughter’s dress – gold rush day was the most fantastic fun, but rather hard on clothes.  I will repair the rips and wash away the mud and damper dough, and when I have finished the dress will be ready to pass down to the next generation of playground gold miners.

My daughter (and I) learnt a lot from her gold rush day and it was one of those events that we will remember forever.  Now though my thoughts are turning to this year’s book week.  I wonder if I can convince my daughter to go as ‘Pride and Prejudice” this year?

Fashion from Australia’s yesteryear:fashions and patterns, Kaylene van Schie, Greenhouse Publications, Victoria, 1986

Written by Nicole Balmer, Registrar

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