Wardrobe Malfunctions

Audrey Tennyson was the wife of Hallam Tennyson, Governor of South Australia and later Governor General of Australia. Her letters to her mother back in England are full of tales of high life in Adelaide and Melbourne around the turn of the 20th century. The problems of celebrity, it seems, aren’t new. Audrey Tennyson’s clothes were frequently scrutinized in the local press, and in 1902, she complained that her gowns ‘have all been described in the newspapers in every detail, [so] they are useless & I cannot wear them’. [30 September 1902] She was constantly trying to ring the changes:

Ask Mrs Lane how I can do up my purple velvet… She might put in anything that would do for doing up gowns, & also what sleeves are worn for the evening… I want something to eke out my old evening gowns at the endless concerts & plays. The smart morning gowns are chiefly for the Races… [25 January 1900]

She was particularly worried in the months leading up to the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall coming out to open Federal Parliament in 1901. (No, not Wills and Kate, but the earlier ones who later became George V and Queen Mary). The situation was complicated by the need for everyone to wear mourning following the death of Queen Victoria.

Tom Roberts, Opening Federal Parliament 1901

Tom Roberts, Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (Later King George V), May 9, 1901, 1903. Only the carpets and the Cardinal are red, because everyone was in mourning.

Will you tell Mrs Lane I am larger round the hips, I think, & send her new measurements & also the lengths of the skirt at the side seams, as they are always inclined to be short at the sides.  My bust & waist are smaller than they were, but that I don’t mind for I can always take them in & I may get fatter again… [17 February 1901]

Despite her requests, the following year she complained that Mrs Lane had

sent me a grey gown I never ordered & it is so tight round the hips it all gapes at the fastening & can’t be altered, so I have had to send that back… It really is a little trying, is it not? [30 September 1902]

I sympathise!


Audrey Tennyson’s troubles aren’t covered in Mel Campbell’s hugely enjoyable book, Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), but they would fit in very well.  Fit, or the lack of it, is the key issue she addresses.

Out of Shape is a difficult book to categorise: it is part history, part current affairs, part review of museum collecting policies – and in large part a diatribe against clothes that don’t fit. Campbell takes us back to the origins of commercial sizing in the clothing industry, and explains clearly why very few real bodies match the figures dreamed up first by the dress pattern maker Ebenezer Butterick, and later applied by ready-to-wear manufacturers.

The pioneers of sizing in Australia were Frederick and Arthur Burley, of Berlei corsetry. In the summer of 1926/7, they set up tents on a number of Australian beaches, where 6000 Australian women agreed to be tape-measured in their swimsuits. This data later became the basis of the National Census of Women’s Measurement, and notoriously nothing has yet replaced it. Inevitably it was skewed in favour of young women, women who felt okay in swimsuits, and felt confident enough to front up to the tape measure. It was, in Campbell’s words,

a total dog’s breakfast. It’s been cobbled together and augmented over time from dubiously accurate data.  Standards Australia officially withdrew it in 2009, and no other standard has yet replaced it. [p.109]

The American equivalent was a 1939/40 US Government survey of 10,000+ women, who were paid for their cooperation. Fewer than 2% were non-white and only 60 were over 70.  The results were skewed young, white, poor and thin.

audrey tennyson by Briton Riviere, 1899

Audrey Georgiana Florence Tennyson (1854-1916), by Briton Riviere, 1899

 Audrey Tennyson was neither young nor poor, and her 1899 portrait shows her thin waist was only achieved with the aid of good corsetry. She had all the advantages of a personal dressmaker, though until she found one in Melbourne, she relied on Mrs Lane in London, who relied on measurements that were apparently out of date.

Nowadays we buy our clothes off the rack, and face all the frustrations of finding clothes that fit. Too often we don’t know the origin of those clothes either. Audrey Tennyson took an interest in the clothing factories in Adelaide where girls as young as 14 worked at sewing machines for a pittance:

I forgot to say that the needle workers have, with the prices given, to provide their own thread, their own machines, which if they hire is 2/6 or 3/- a week for an hour, & their machine needles! It really is horrible. [16 July 1899]

When those factories are in Dhaka or Suva, it is much harder to know what is going on. It is ironic, too, that Bangladeshi and Fijian women with quite different body shapes are making homogeneously fitted clothes for the global market. Like those factory girls in Adelaide, they work for a pittance. Like those factory girls, too, the work gives them a measure of economic autonomy, which makes it preferable to domestic or farm work.

I once read that clothes should be tight enough to show you are a woman, but loose enough to show you are a lady.  That’s the ideal, but I, like Mel Campbell, would be grateful just to find something that fits me.  Alternatively, it would be nice to find – and afford – a Mrs Lane as my personal couturier. At least I won’t have to wear mourning when the Queen dies.

Mel Campbell, Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (Affirm Press, Melbourne, 2013)
Alexandra Hasluck (ed.), Audrey Tennyson’s Vice-Regal Days (Canberra, 1978)

4 responses to “Wardrobe Malfunctions

  1. Lovely stuff, Marion, as always. My favourites are the (generally Indian made) ‘free size’ clothes. This means the shops only stock the one size and I am not sure who it is supposed to fit, but certainly not me, or my daughter, or my best shopping friend, whose head is below my bust line.
    I also love the idea of clothes being tight enough to show you are a woman and loose enough to show you are a lady. Any idea where it came from?
    Oh, and apropos of clothes, I think this one is from Vivian Westwood: ‘The better you look, the more you see.’

  2. Thanks Sally. The quote was in a book on sale at GOMA during the Valentino exhibition. Unfortunately I didn’t pay any attention at the time to the author, and can’t remember it now. Hence that useful referencing strategy ‘I once read…’ I like the Westwood quote.

    It always intrigues me that so many servants’ clothes were cast offs from their mistresses – presumably the lower class was thinner than the upper class then, though you wouldn’t know it from watching Downton Abbey.

  3. Really enjoyable post, Marion. You reference to the “good corsetry” attendant upon Audrey Tennyson, put me in mind of this photo from our Picture Maitland database..

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