What were you to do if you were a woman living in a country town during the 1920s and dreamed of wearing the latest fashions from Paris? This dressmaking kit, which came to the donor from a house in Warwick, Queensland, speaks of the wide influence of Paris fashions and the audacious ‘lady overlanders’ who traversed the country showing samples and taking orders for the Swiss embroidery business, Sonderegger & Co.
We are able to learn much from this kit, as not only do the textiles survive, but also contextual materials and packaging. This unmade dress whispers potential – the lengths of coral and cream imitation linen and bold black and coral embroidered inserts are all you need to make up a smart summer dress ‘for sport and seaside’. Although unfortunately the pattern and instructions have been lost – perhaps the original owner decided to make the dress up in different fabrics?
The embroidered pieces display the trend towards exotic and folk decoration at the time and the influence of ‘Art Deco’, the fashionable taste of the inter-war period from 1918-39. The term was taken from the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industries Modernes in Paris. Design influences at the time were wide ranging, including East Asian, Egyptian, Central American, Russian and African, avant-garde artistic styles such as cubism and futurism, as well as geometric lines and schematisation.
The included illustration shows the fashionable silhouette of the time – straight up and down – with a flat bust and hips and without definition at the waist. Accordingly, the design of the cream bodice appears to be cut straight to the hip, with the embroidered panel sitting at a low hip line and the pleats of the coral skirt allowing for movement.
For sport and seaside
The ability to move freely and comfortably in clothes was an important consideration – women were now living more active lives and increasingly taking part in sports and outdoor recreation – as evidenced by this dress for ‘sport and seaside’. French designer Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, whose fashions most characterise the 1920s, said of this time, “I was working towards a new society… I now had customers who were busy women; a busy woman needs to feel comfortable in her clothes. You need to be able to roll up your sleeves.” (Chanel quoted in Morand, 2009, p73)
It was this sort of woman who sold the Sonderegger & Co dressmaking kits. They were not sold in shops, rather sample books showing the designs and embroidered fabrics were available by post from the Australian headquarters in Sydney or via a Sonderegger & Co representative who travelled from town to town. Newspaper advertisements from the time tout their ‘coming Paris and continental styles’ and emphasise the cost effectiveness of buying ‘direct from the factory’. Newspaper notices announced when a Sonderegger & Co representative would be in town and where the samples could be inspected. A notice in the Warwick Daily News from 22 March 1927 declares a Miss Sealy would be in Warwick during that week and inspections of the Swiss embroidered goods were invited at the Royal Hotel in Warwick – perhaps this is when the dressmaking kit in the Museum’s collection was purchased? These audacious women travelled alone throughout regional Australia, as seen in this article from The Daily News in Perth –
The ease with which the overland trip may be made is fittingly demonstrated by Miss B. Henderson, interstate representative of Sonderegger and Co., Sydney, who has been engaged in business in this State for some months, and is now motoring overland back to Sydney. Miss Henderson is travelling alone, and intends continuing on from Port Augusta via Morgan, Renmark, and Mildura to Sydney, thus cutting straight across country and leaving out Adelaide and Melbourne. Miss Henderson approached the Shell Co. of Australia Ltd., who supplied maps and arranged supplies of Shell oil and spirit.
(The Daily News (Perth, WA), 26 Sep 1930, p 7)
You could imagine there would be excitement in each town to see the samples and fashionable clothing for sale. However, it does not appear that these travelling saleswomen and their embroidered goods were universally welcome. A letter to the editor of the Forbes Advocate, signed “Forbes First”, reveals fears of competition and companies with non-British names –
“Sir, — I read in your ‘About People’ column that Miss Sealy, of Sonderegger and Co., is in town showing exquisite designs in Swiss Embroidery. I should like to inform you that also many local business houses, with British names, are doing the same thing.”
(Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advertiser, 20 August 1928, p 4)
Unfortunately it is hard to know exactly how these Sonderegger & Co representatives and products were received, or the experience of purchasing a kit like this and making it up. Do you have any memories or family stories? Perhaps a Sonderegger & Co sample book, dressmaking kit or dress that has been passed down? Please leave a comment!
Alysha Buss, Assistant Curator
Advertising, Sunday Times (Perth, WA) 6 June 1926, p 6
Advertising, Warwick Daily News, 22 March 1927, p 6
Miscellaneous, Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advertiser, 20 August 1928, p 4
‘Lady overlander’, The Daily News (Perth, WA), 26 Sep 1930, p 7
Valerie Mendes, ‘Art Deco Fashion’ in Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton, Ghislaine Wood (eds), Art Deco 1910-1939, V&A Publications, London, 2003, pp 260-271
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel quoted in Paul Morand, The allure of Chanel, translated from French by Euan Cameron, Pushkin Press, London, 2009, p 73
Valerio Terraroli, Skira dictionary of modern decorative arts 1851-1942, Skira Editore, Milan, 2001, p 17
Phyllis Tortora and Keith Eubank, Survey of Historic Costume, Fairchild Publications, New York, 2003, pp 382-397