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Australian national dress

wrap dress

Michael Macfarlane Reid, Megan Salmon - Origin wrap dress, silk dupion, summer 2007(detail), 2006. Image courtesy of dd by Megan Salmon.

While Australia has no single uniform national costume, an Australian national dress style, based on specific local dress styles, has emerged in response to climate, lifestyle and identity. This is reflected in the modern design of dress by emerging and established designers which incorporate particular defining elements.

An Australian style can be seen clearly in the main types of local dress: bushwear and swimwear, along with Australiana and Indigenous designs. These have been formed by a larrikin attitude, the qualities of mateship and the dictates of an outdoors lifestyle. Dress is also characterised by the migrant experience and the process of cultural borrowing, which is part of the unique history of Australia.

Presenting Australian national dress on the international stage depends upon what localised style is being represented. It is a question of authenticity about Australian culture and identity.

Local dress styles

woman wearing a Sally Smith dress

Sally Smith Designs. Image courtesy of Vogue Australia.

Australian local dress styles are different from Australia's fashions. Dress has been influenced by the experience of living in rugged country as well as modern leisure activities such as swimming, surfing and beach culture. This is reflected in different fabrics, such as moleskin and drill cotton, developed for more practical wear.

The cut, cloth and style of beachwear and bushwear have been adapted to localised street dress, as have the colours of the Australian landscapes, flora and fauna to the extent that there is a recognisable national dress style. The creation of a national dress style reflecting on the outdoor beach experience and the native flora in the Sydney Botanic Gardens are used, for example, by dress designer Sally Smith, as inspiration for her dress designs as recognisably authentic modern Australian dress.

Surf board shorts have been adopted successfully as dress across Australia. If you move from the beach to the bush, then clothing is usually adapted to follow suit. A test of how far inland you could travel from the beach wearing only brief racing bathers, though, is only a bus ride from Bondi to the central business district in Sydney. (The Chaser, ABC 2007). The closer you get to the bush, the more likely you are to be wearing tough clothes, a felt hat and elastic-sided boots, as well as adopting a language of mateship and equality.

Stockmen, diggers and aviatrices – bushwear and its influence

In the 1930s, the image of the squatter's daughter and the aviatrix model helped construct the female bush figure. Trousers were adopted by the squatters' daughters and the aviatrices, and this contributed to trousers becoming a popular icon of modern Australian women. In the 1940s, women's experience in war time, including their contribution to the Women's Land Army, cemented the popularity of trousers for Australian women.

Freda Thompson

Unknown photographer, Freda Thompson (1906-1980), Pictured here in 1934 just before take off at Lympne Airport when she became the first Australian woman to fly solo from England to Australia, 1934. Courtesy of National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame.

Fletcher Jones cemented the popularity of well-made smart trousers for men based on rigorous Italian tailoring and staff-owned factories and outlets.

In response to the colonial bush experience, Australian dress developed by stockmen and diggers was a preference for tough cotton drill or khaki pants or shorts, worsted wool coats or vests, oilskin coats, rabbit-fur felt hats and elastic-sided work or riding boots.

Today, these items are sold not only by bush outfitters like R.M. Williams, Baxter Boots and Akubra (hats), but also by dress companies such as Rivers, Colorado and Jeanswest. An advertisement by R.M. Williams promotes a national dress costume as: grazier shirt, solid-hide work belt, oilskin coat, Akubra hat, moleskin jeans and elastic-sided boots (R.M. Williams 2000).

This localised dress based on bushwear was adopted by the Australian Prime Minister as a form of Australia's national dress to be worn by world leaders attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in 2007.

Goddess swimmers and surfers – swimwear and surf culture

Annette Kellerman

Unknown photographer, Annette Kellerman. Courtesy of National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame and National Film and Sound Archive: 558337-5.

Since Federation, champion swimmers have been icons for the Australian body. A modern-day Venus worshipped around the world for her beautiful body and boldness, Annette Kellerman (1886–1975) was a distance swimmer, diver, and theatrical performer known as the 'Australian Mermaid'. Annette Kellerman shocked the world in 1907 by wearing a man's bathing costume that clung tightly to her torso and left her legs, arms and neck bare. In arguing her case in a Boston USA court, Kellerman stated that she was being practical rather than provocative and said that otherwise she 'may as well be swimming in chains'.

Subsequently, Kellerman designed and marketed the first modern one-piece swimsuit for women. Annette Kellerman greatly influenced public attitudes toward the female body. Kellerman published books instructing women on beauty and physical fitness, and lectured on health and exercise throughout Europe and America. Kellerman's own 'ideal' physique personified a new aesthetic of natural female beauty, one that valued athleticism and unadorned bodily display. In this way she was a trailblazer for the 'new woman'.

Paula Stafford and models

Unknown photographer, Paula Stafford (right) with her creations, Surfers Paradise, c. 1950. Courtesy of The Courier-Mail

It was not until after the Second World War, however, that the image of the bronzed swimmer became popular with large-scale migration of people with Mediterranean, Eurasian and Melanesian skins.

Paula Stafford is generally credited with being the first local manufacturer of bikinis in 1947, after cutting a one-piece in half in 1936. Stafford later made them at her home in Surfers Paradise after the Second World War, selling to 400 outlets by 1952. Bikinis finally began to dominate women's swimwear sales by the mid-1960s.

From the 1950s, brightly-coloured print shirts adopted from the Pacific Islands, such as Hawaii and the Fiji Islands, have become part of the male beach dress and translated into popular leisure shirts reflecting Australian lifestyles. The Australian pop band The Church, were known in the 1980s as much for their paisley shirts as their catchy melodies'.

If there is a positive stereotypical image of Australian style it is spunky Bondi lifesavers in small Speedos and way-cool salt-bleached surf dudes in cord board shorts and wild printed shirts.
(Maggie Alderson, 'Relax, it's Australian', Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 2000)
men in the surf

Rennie Ellis, Ironmen, Portsea, 1990, Courtesy of Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive and National Library of Australia.

In March 2000, when Speedo launched its full-body Fastskin swimsuit, modelled after a shark's skin, the public lament was for the loss of the sensational bodies of the swimming stars (Harari 2000 in Craik). Today, even lifesavers wear long-sleeved tops or wetsuits and sun hats, as do children, as protection from the sun.

In response to the beach experience, surf board shorts, singlets, colourful shirts and thongs have been adopted as part of a national dress code by both males and females. Females have also adopted the loose-flowing sarong from Indonesia, sulu from the Fiji Islands and Punjabi shirts from India as a preferred choice of cut and garment style as beachwear, providing both sun protection and also as transition garments from the beaches to town.

While surf culture has come to represent an international Australian style, the fashion advice is 'Don't wear your speedos anywhere but in the water or on the beach. The shops might be walking distance from the sand, but that doesn't make it okay to pop in to a bookshop for a languid browse' ( Sydney Morning Herald, Lifestyle, 2006, comments).

man wearing Saba clothing

Saba, Men's spring summer 2007, Ocean Hoodi, Biscuit Short. Image courtesy of Saba

Along with swimwear, Australian brands of surfwear and beachwear have become internationally renowned: Queensland brand Billabong surfwear, Sydney urban Mambo shirts, Okanui board shorts, Rip Curl, and Quiksilver are now recognised as distinctly Australian purchases for tourists to Australia. With their sometimes hard-edged images, the swimwear represents an image of freedom, health, fitness and a larrikin attitude. The dominant message is one of attitude rather than obvious Australian motifs.

Larrikins – urban cool

The larrikin attitude, qualities of mateship based on the principles of a fair go and democratic debate, have also contributed to an Australian dress style.

group of larrikins

Rennie Ellis, Sharpies, Melbourne, 1973. Courtesy of Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive and National Library of Australia.

A larrikin dress and style contrasts distinctly with the bush and beach dress styles. While cabbage palm hats were characteristic of male dress in the Australian bush in the 19th century, the larrikins of Sydney's Rocks region around 1900 were distinguished by their cabbage palm hats and dubbed the 'Cabbage Tree Mob'.

While the term 'The Push' referred to gangs of small-time street criminals in Sydney's The Rocks district at this time, many years later, it was adopted by a loose but distinctive group, based in Sydney, in the 1950s and 1960s, who had a rebellious approach to life, embracing modernism and free thought. Members of The Sydney Push, artists, journalists, actors and students, who frequented cafes, coffee shops and pubs, tended to listen to 'cool' jazz and wear suits. In the 1960s, the women's liberation movement, the Vietnam War and the flower power generation also greatly influenced the style of dress, and un-dress.

In the 1960s the boot-wearing rockers, sometimes associated with the bodgies, widgies and sharpies, were seen as sworn enemies of the surfers – both groups recognisable from the localised dress styles.

Away from the beach and dance floor, surfies wore desert boots. Thongs, then were distinctly, uncool. To get boots ready for wearing, real surfies dragged them behind their woodies for a couple of miles.... The sworn enemy of the Australian surfie was the sandkickers or boot wearing, Rockers. At every opportunity the two groups would have a blue (Australian slang for rumble).

Footwear – boots and thongs

stockmen wearing moleskins, hats and boots

R.M. Williams stockworkers wearing moleskins, Akubra hats and elastic-sided boots. Courtesy of R.M. Williams.

Like Akubra hats, Blundstone was chosen to supply their boots in both world wars, which guaranteed expansion and longevity. In the post-Second World War period until now, its products are exported widely throughout the world.

Thongs are one of the most basic forms of footwear design worn for thousands of years across the world, and yet Australia claims a special identity with them (as evidenced by Kylie Minogue being hauled towards centre stage on a giant thong during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games closing ceremony). Thongs are seen as essential Australian summer footwear for going to the beach, down to the local shops, to a barbecue or just about anywhere. At the beach they give protection against the hot sand and sharp rocks in shallow water.

The modern rubber thong was invented by New Zealander Maurice Yock, who patented the rubber 'jandal' design in 1957, which was believed to be derived from Japanese sandals made with wooden soles and fabric straps. Servicemen returning from occupied Japan after the Second World War popularised the footwear in both America and New Zealand. In 1959, Dunlop Footwear in Melbourne imported 300,000 pairs of thongs – the thong finally attaining widespread popularity in the 1970s.

Today, the thong has merged with the traditional footwear and feet decorations of the Indian sub-continent so that thongs with semi-precious stones are worn as dress and fashion items.

Headwear and millinery

man wearing Saba hat

Saba, hat, Men's spring summer 2007. Image courtesy of Saba.

Due to the lack of imported hats and the need to wear a hat in hot climate areas, cabbage palm hats were also a popular item of early Australian dress. These hats are significant as the only distinctive item of Australian dress made entirely from Australian materials, with the plaiting often done by local Aboriginal groups.

Modern versions of the cabbage palm hat are still made by Australian hatters and milliners as increasingly popular streetwear and as part of men's summer dress collections.

Emu feathers and horses have also influenced local dress. By 1900, an emu feather plume adorned the slouch hats of the Australian Light Horsemen, worn on active service in the Boer War and again in Egypt during the First World War when soldiers fought for the right to wear this plume.

The Akubra hat, made from rabbit hair in a mechanised felt making process, perhaps epitomises the look of bush headwear. The label 'Akubra' was coined in 1918 and has become synonymous with the hats themselves (Eager 1998).

Feathers, felt and trimmings continue to play a large part in the labour intensive Australia's headwear and millinery industry. Australian millinery themes, colour, materials and inspiration can vary from serpentine trees to a black cockatoo's plume and tropical flowers (see Serena Lindeman's 2006 award-winning creations).

Australiana motifs and textiles

man wearing Mambo clothing

Shorts, men's, 'Horn Player', screenprinted cotton, designed by Reg Mombassa, made by Mambo Graphics, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1992. Image courtesy of Powerhouse Museum: 92/1959.

By the 1920s, a great deal was made of the use of Australian flora and fauna in designs along with boomerangs, shields and crossed spears, when Margaret Preston and others advocated the recognition of Aboriginal motifs and Australiana motifs. By the 1990s, the bold Australian print and the graphic Aboriginal design won admiration as world-recognised Australian fashion textiles. This can be seen in designs and styles in everyday dress especially, for example, with dd by Megan Salmon, who uses Indigenous designs under licence to create textiles for local dress inspired by, for example, the country of Gija people in the Kimberleys, Western Australia.

Sydney Olympics

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, there was great use of Indigenous motifs and designs, as well as influence on designs which coincided with a more complicated and obvious sense of national identity. The designers of the outfits for the ceremonial outfits were Peter Morrissey, Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, chosen for their distinctive Australian design approach and recognisable use of Australiana.

Mambo took the advice of athletes and abandoned ties and formal uniforms, opting instead for yellow and ochre striped shirts, bronze trousers and skirts, and ochre loose fitting jackets (with the Mambo logo emblazoned inside). For the closing ceremony, Mambo swapped the yellow shirts for a colourful shirt featuring a typical Mambo rendition of an Aussie suburban landscape...
Jennifer Craik, 'The Australian-ness of Australian Fashion and Dress', UnAustralia: The Cultural Studies Association of Australasia Annual Conference 2006, Canberra, 6-8 December 2006.

The authenticity was evident – a larrikin attitude represented by the board shorts with a jacket which referenced both Indigenous Australian earth colours and also the urban landscape – combining swimwear, bushwear and larrikinism in one bold sweep. The outfits were easily recognised as post-modern Australian national dress.

Useful links

Australiana, Indigenous, urban


Australian fashion and textile resources

Fashion and textiles education

Print references

Alderson, Maggie, 'Relax, it's Australian', Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 2000.

Craik, Jennifer, 'The Australian-ness of Australian Fashion and Dress', UnAustralia: The Cultural Studies Association of Australasia Annual Conference 2006, Canberra, 6-8 December 2006.

Eager, Alan, 'Akubra. An Aussie Icon', Outback. The Heart of Australia, vol. 1, pp. 58- 62, 1998.

Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid, Allen and Unwin, 2005

Harari, Fiona, 'Suits take the perve out of the pool', The Australian, 17 May 2000.

Mitchell, Louise and Ward, Lindie, Stepping out: three centuries of shoes, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 1997.

Last updated: 9 June 2015

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