Dr Sarah Bendall

The Powerhouse Research Fellowship

March 2022

Project Title: Whalebone and its Afterlife: Design Innovation and Adaptation in Fashion, c. 1700–2000

Sarah Bendall
Image: Dr Sarah Bendall.

For over four hundred years whale baleen (historically known as whalebone) was sought after for use in the manufacturing of garments and accessories, owing to its unique flexibility, strength and malleability, properties that we value now in modern synthetic plastics. By the early twentieth century the effects of unchecked whaling and the introduction of petroleum-based products saw the demand for whale products fall. The introduction of steel, elastic, and plastic into clothing manufacturing further displaced whale baleen from its prominent place, particularly in women’s corsetry, bodices, and accessories.

This project proposes to examine a range of fashion objects made using whale baleen and successive baleen substitutes in the Museum’s collection. In doing so, it aims to understand how the material properties of this natural resource facilitated design and manufacturing innovation in fashion in Europe and Australia from roughly 1700–2000, and, conversely, the influence of fashion on whaling and the environment.

Dr Sarah A. Bendall is a Research Fellow at the Gender and Women’s History Research Centre, Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, Australia Catholic University. She is a material culture historian who specialises in the gendered and embodied experiences of dress, as well as the production, trade and consumption of global commodities and fashionable consumer goods between 1500–1800. Her current research examines experimental history approaches, the widespread use of whaling products in fashion between the years 1500–1800 and the roles of women in the clothing trades during the seventeenth century. She has published widely on early modern fashion and decorative arts and is the author of Shaping Femininity: Foundation Garments, the Body and Women in Early Modern England (Bloomsbury, 2021).

Further information about Sarah’s research can be found on her ACU research profile and website.