Short shift: Fashion week research on how the ’60s and ’70s rocked Australia’s clothing industry

It was the dress that shocked a nation and signalled an industrial revolution.

When sixties model Jean Shrimpton attended the 1965 Melbourne Cup dressed in a simple white shift hemmed well above the knee – with no gloves or stockings – the outfit immediately sparked scandal.

The moment encapsulates a series of cultural, social, economic and technological shifts underway in Australia which led to the unravelling of the local clothing manufacturing industry.

It was this iconic photo, depicting nonchalant Shrimpton on the lawns of Flemington Racecourse, which inspired Pauline Hastings PhD research at Monash University into the history of Australia’s textiles and clothing industry from the 1960s on.

Hastings is presenting her research as part of Melbourne Fashion Week.

A lesser-known detail about ‘that dress’: Shrimpton was sponsored to attend Derby Day by industrial chemical and fossil fuel company Du Pont, to promote the company’s new synthetic fabric, Orlon. 

Orlon advertisement / Credit: Flickr user Peter Kelaher

Cheap, mostly imported synthetic fabrics (made from fossil fuels) were one of several factors contributing to a major shift in Australian clothing manufacturing and consumption, Hastings says.

Hastings says, there is a clear thread linking the rise of synthetic fabrics like Orlon, Dacron, Rayon (… anything ending with an ‘on’), which had a throwaway quality to them, and today’s fast fashion addiction. Australia is the second largest consumer of textiles globally, buying on average 56 new items of clothing per person, per year.

Read more: When you’re finished with fashion where does it go?

Post war immigration and the rise of the ‘baby boomers’ led to a greater emphasis on youth culture and individualism. 

This, together with the rise of advertising and mass marketing helped drive a cultural shift away from the ‘make do and mend’ era where fabrics and clothing were often unpicked and re-sewn into new garments. 

Hastings says the removal and reduction of tariff protections was another contributing factor to the demise of local manufacturing.

Before the post-war era, “everyday clothes weren’t imported. They were manufactured here … made for local consumption,” she says.

“Imports on mass were kept out by tariff protection. So, very high tariffs on anything important [which] meant that if they did come in, imports were sort of priced considerably higher in the marketplace than our local product. And our local product was not overly cheap from what I can gather, because it was pretty,  labor intensive and Australian wages at the time were quite high.”

Interwoven, these different factors – the commodification of youth culture, the reduction in tariff protections by the Whitlam government, and the rise of new synthetic fabrics – all contributed to the demise of Australia’s local clothing manufacturing industry.

Today, 97% of Australia’s clothing is imported.

By sharing her research, Hastings says, she hopes we can learn from history.

“It’s how culturally we can shift. Because, we did a major shift from the post war era of what I call ‘thrift and making do.’ We did a major shift then to a sort of a ‘purchase everything we can possibly see throwaway society’ when it comes to fashion, in a couple of decades.” 

She says, history shows, if we really wanted to, we could learn again, to value things, recycle, upcycle and cultivate a culture of sustainability.

For more on Melbourne Fashion Week

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