In 2012 my sister Antonia Riviere and I were visiting fellows at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. We were there researching Australian clothes rationing during World War 2. We were interested in how film had been used to support the government’s austerity drive, whether Australians been encouraged to ‘make do and mend’ like their British counterparts, and how could we use our own making to explore these and other questions.
The subject of mending and re-using textiles threaded its way through many of the conversations we had while we were visiting Marina – re-purposed clothes have been an integral part of Marina’s personal aesthetic for years, and as I enter my tenth month of clothes buying abstinence, mending is no longer just a challenge and a pleasure, it has become a necessity.
In the course of our discussions Marina remembered a mended dress she had seen exhibited at the Costume Collection Yarra Park, so before leaving for Canberra we managed to make an appointment and fitted in a quick visit to Bulleen. Loel Thomson, owner and curator of the collection, greeted us and kindly took time to talk with us and show us around her amazing gallery space. Loel’s interest in social history informs the way she displays the collection, and where possible she shows the clothes in context, alongside jewellery, bags, shoes, paper patterns, lace, needlework, photographs, magazines and booklets.
The Depression era display we had hoped to see had been taken down since Marina’s first visit, so Loel took us to the storage area where she found the items we were particularly interested in viewing – a dress and a couple of wagga rugs, all of which had been bought at farm sales.
It was very moving to look at such humble patched things, especially while surrounded by racks of elegant evening dresses, furs and fancy hats.
The dress was especially poignant; it was patched from the back, several different fabrics having been used to infill under the worn areas of the original cloth, with the newer cloth stitched in place by machine and hand.
There were very extensive areas of machine stitching, hand running stitch and the extreme wear and tear and general cobbling together of frayed cloth gave the impression that the owner must have hurriedly mended her dress most evenings to make sure it would see her through the next working day.
It seems like a small miracle that it has survived and is still being cared for, carrying with it a tale of unknown hardship.