Category Archives: personal and self-indulgent

Bonnets, burqas and bikinis

During the 1860s, a trickle of English women went out to the colonies with loans from the Female Middle Class Emigration Society to cover their fares in Second Class – the middle class, between First and Steerage. They sent letters back to the FMCES when they repaid their loans, so we know quite a bit about them. Most of them were in their late twenties or thirties, so had missed the marriage market. Their best hope of economic security was to become governesses, a ‘white blouse’ occupation that required, above all, respectability and accomplishments. You might be lousy at teaching mathematics, but your manners must be beyond reproach.

A disaster occurred to one of them on the voyage out: several weeks away from Australia, she was walking on the deck when a sudden gust of wind blew her bonnet overboard. It was an appalling loss for her, because without a bonnet she couldn’t go up on deck or appear outside where she could be seen by the crew or the male passengers. Going bareheaded would be unthinkably bold.

I’m quite sure she could have bought or borrowed a shawl from one of the emigrant women in steerage, or rigged up a kerchief of some sort using a petticoat or bed linen, but a bonnet was important, because it showed her middle-class status. Instead she spent the rest of the voyage inside, unable to enjoy fresh air or sunshine or exercise until the ship reached Australia.

At about the same time, throughout the Pacific, missionaries were busily introducing Islander women to the delights of the Mother Hubbard, a shapeless, loose cotton dress with a high neckline and long sleeves that concealed all those parts of the female anatomy that the women concerned had not previously realised needed concealing. Eventually most Pacific Island women adopted the Mother Hubbard, because it became a symbol of Christian conversion. Variants like the Hawaiian muu-muu are still worn. I wonder how other women felt about the new outfit? Forms of clothing that emphasize extreme modesty can feel like an implied rebuke to those who don’t wear them.

On the other hand, Pacific Islanders had their own scrupulous notions of modesty and privacy that governed their lives. In 1851, the adventurer Ben Boyd seems to have unknowingly blundered into the women’s quarters on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. This was where the women went to bath, to toilet, and where they stayed during menstruation. It was an area absolutely taboo to all men, and when he ignored the islanders’ attempts to keep him away, he was speared to death.

Modesty takes many forms. Currently there’s a debate in Australia – and many other parts of the world – about Muslim women and their distinctive forms of dress, summed up in some extremists’ demands to ‘ban the burqa’ – which is nicely alliterative, but not at all accurate since there are probably no women in Australia who currently wear a burqa. Perhaps a few hundred wear the niqab, and many more wear other traditional forms of dress, more or less concealing, though it’s by no means universal amongst Islamic women.

Burqa sewing pattern

Clothing, particularly women’s clothing, carries so many meanings – class and respectability in the case of a bonnet, religious conversion in the case of the Mother Hubbard. It can also be a symbol of modernity or of rebellion. I can just remember, as very little girl, a family holiday at the beach, when my two grandmothers saw their first bikini. I can remember them both peering out the window at a young woman walking by in what – I now realize – was probably a very modest two-piece. ‘Look, you can see her navel!’

swimsuit pattern from Women's Weekly

Australian Women’s Weekly, 6 December 1961

It was at about the same time, in the 1950s, that Greek and Italian immigrant families began to arrive in Brisbane. Inevitably, given the long years of war in their homelands, there were many older, widowed women amongst them. These women dressed in their traditional widows’ clothing of a black dress, black headscarf, and black stockings and shoes. They were a haunting alien presence, and locals found their clothing confronting.

No one forced a Mediterranean widow to wear these clothes, any more than the 1860s governess was forced to wear a bonnet. On the contrary, in either case to force her not to wear the clothing of her choice would imprison her, in a ship’s cabin or within the family home.

It’s not always women’s clothing that becomes the focus of attention. Men’s clothing has sometimes been politicised too, often as a symbol of modernity. In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire banned the turban as old-fashioned and inappropriate in the modern world, and replaced it with the fez. A century later Ataturk banned the fez as old fashioned in modern Turkey, and recommended the Homburg hat instead. There was a religious dimension to this change too, part of Ataturk’s drive to secularise the nation: an observant Muslim can place his forehead on the ground in prayer while wearing a turban or a fez, but not while wearing a hat with a brim.

But it’s usually women whose clothing is policed – or who police themselves. Men play a role in this, especially when a form of clothing is treated as an outward and visible sign of religious faith, for men are the traditional gatekeepers in religious observance.

Older women play a role in the policing too. Modesty takes many forms, and it is deeply internalized. Personally, I wouldn’t be seen dead in a bikini. I like to think this is a personal decision – and an aesthetic one, believe me. But I never wore a bikini, even in my long ago youth, and I suspect there has always been a faint memory there of my grandmothers at the window tut-tutting – ‘Look, you can see her navel!

Open House Brisbane 2014 coming up

Next weekend, 11 and 12 October, Brisbane’s Open House weekend for 2014 is on. Last year I wrote discursively about Open House days here. The range of open houses and other buildings is wider this year, with a variety of reasons for their inclusion, not just historical, but for their architectural or ecological significance as well. And new buildings have been added, such as the ABC studios at South Bank.

Last year I spent a very happy day wandering around the city centre looking at public buildings. It was fascinating, particularly looking at ones that are not usually open to the public, like the Masonic Temple on Ann Street, designed by Lange Powell, my grandfather’s older brother, in the 1920s. This time I’m planning to have a peek at some of the open buildings in the suburbs, and maybe get a sense of Brisbane’s domestic architecture as well.

Highly recommended. For people in other cities, a Google search will bring up your particular Open House weekend – they are scattered throughout the year.

Open House 2014 booklet

Many thanks to Open House Brisbane’s organisers, who sent me the booklet and VIP passes for the weekend. The very first payola I have ever received for this blog!

Book thieves

Less than 20 years ago, archaeologists discovered a library in the Athenian Agora dating from about 100AD. The Library of Pantainos was named for its dedicator, Titus Flavius Pantainos, and was recognized as a library mainly because the library rules have survived:

Image of the Rules of the library

No book is to be taken out because we have sworn an oath. [The library] is to be open from the first hour until the sixth.

No borrowing, and restricted library hours. I can relate to that, even though I would find the papyrus scrolls unfamiliar – and as a woman I wouldn’t be allowed inside anyway. Continue reading

Reflections on the Australian Historical Association Conference

I’ve just spent 5 days at the Australian Historical Association conference, held this year at the University of Queensland, and I’m all conferenced out.

AHA conference header

I won’t attempt to summarise a conference with so many papers, so many parallel sessions, so many evening events that I didn’t get to. For those who are interested, the abstracts are here and almost single-handed, Yvonne Perkins @perkinsy tweeted the conference.

Instead, here are a few of my general impressions on the state of history in Australia today that I’ve picked up by osmosis during the last week.

  1. I hope the conference was a success. The numbers were good, though I gather there were more postgraduates and fewer senior historians than usual. This has financial implications as postgraduates get in at a concessional rate. (So do I, as ‘unwaged’ – which was Autocorrected to ‘unwanted’ on my iPad. Sigh). I wonder whether the shortage of senior people reflects workloads. Postgraduates have to present their work to a wider audience, but perhaps tenured staff are just too tired by the end of semester, to spend a week of their precious non-teaching time interstate. Which brings me to –

Continue reading

Shroffing Visa-card!

Whatever your attitude towards Christianity, there’s one story from the New Testament that has everyone, believer or non-believer, on Jesus’ side. Matthew 21:12 tells the story of Jesus driving out the money changers from the Temple – and nobody sides with the money changers.

I thought about this the other day when my Visa card statement arrived, showing a whole lot of unexpected transaction charges added to my account from my 3 weeks’ holiday in France. At a time when exchange rates can be calculated and money transferred in the blink of an eye or the blink of a cursor, it seems hard to justify these additional costs. I’ll probably pay up though, since I never check the small print, and paperwork does my head in. More money than sense, really. Continue reading

One degree of separation: Roger Rogerson and me

Yesterday, a 73-year-old former policeman with a bad hip was arrested and charged with the murder of a young drug dealer. Roger Rogerson has a long history of brushes with the law, and he has spent some years in prison, but the New South Wales courts have never yet succeeded in nailing him for murder.

The Sydney Morning Herald this morning describes Roger Rogerson as ‘the state’s most notorious former cop’. Perhaps a part of his notoriety always lay in his memorable name. A dodgy cop with an unmemorable moniker like – say – Terry Lewis might not enter the popular consciousness in the same way.

I know nothing personally about Roger Rogerson’s career, but in a funny sort of way, I’ve known about him for much of my life, because he and my husband went to school together, first at Bankstown Primary School, and later at Homebush Boys High. Continue reading

The Curse of the Ring

Cinderella's Wedding

Cinderella’s Wedding, Disney and Windsor versions

Warning: this is not my standard history post, but since the Royals are here, and since I’ve spent too long in doctors’ waiting rooms this week reading rubbish, and since this celebrates my 200th post since I began blogging, I’m indulging in nonsense instead.

Last year ABC Classic FM ran a competition, asking listeners to suggest a contemporary topic that could be turned into a Wagner opera.  I thought they wanted 500 words. It was only after I’d written this that I re-checked, and they wanted 50 words. So I had a parody with nowhere to go. Until now.

The Curse of the Ring

Act I: A young Nordic prince, Frederik (tenor), travels to a Great Southern Land to compete with sailors from around the world in the Games of the Rings. He sings of his quest to claim the Gold and take it back with him to Denmark. Continue reading