In a Familiar Fashion
Remembering Flinders Lane | 1931-1981
In the years that I knew my mum’s father, my Poppa, he was well and truly settled into retirement. His days were occupied caring for his wife and grandchildren, with much time spent in his garden, and tending the garden at his church. There were some hints at his earlier occupation; a fabulous collection of dress-ups hung in a row in the spare room wardrobe, and I recall that he would often pass comment on what the leading lady was wearing when we watched a film together. What I know of Poppa’s professional life I have largely pieced together from a small assortment of newspaper clippings dating from the late 1960s to 1981 when he formally retired after 50 years working in one of Melbourne’s most esteemed fashion houses. These articles collectively track the demise of our nation’s Garment Industry which found its home for generations on Flinders Lane…
It was around the turn of the century when ships used to sail up the Yarra and dock near Spencer Street. Warehouses sprang up around the area to receive the yarns and cottons and fabrics that the ships unloaded. The fashion houses, the manufacturers, the cloth merchants…all congregated a little further beyond, stretching right up Flinders Lane. And ‘the Lane’ became our centre of fashion, the hub of the rag trade in Australia.
Douglas Aiton, 1973
Buttons, Buckles and Trimmings
Our country was deep in economic depression when my Poppa, Colin Danks Venn, was gently prompted by his recently unemployed father that it was “about time to get a job.” He finished his schooling prematurely and answered an advertisement placed by W.H Smith, a haberdashery importer at 232 Flinders Lane. Poppa later recalled arriving to discover over 200 other boys lining the stairs of the building. He waited a while and as time passed was feeling rather disheartened when a man with a shock of red hair came down the stairs, occasionally stopping at a boy and directing him to an upper room. He chose ten in all, and young Colin was among them! And so it was that in January 1932, just after his sixteenth birthday, my Poppa got a job selling buttons for the princely sum of thirteen shillings and sixpence (13/6d) a week. He recollected having to hawk a bag of buttons, buckles and trimmings around to umpteen little tailor shops and makers-up on Flinders Lane; “it was dreary and uninteresting, but it taught me the rudiments of selling.”
Isn’t it remarkable how quickly industry evolves? Manufacturing regions today are low density, big barns in the ‘burbs. But when Poppa started in the Garment Industry in the 1930s, it was an entirely different landscape; a pulsating rabbit warren deep within the city. Rents were cheap along the Lane and the back alleys were densely packed with odd little rooms crammed full of people ‘making-up.’ Cutting and sewing, cutting and sewing…it was said that a company could go bankrupt while another made a fortune, all in a day’s business. There was pressure to dispatch garments to buyers on time and a late delivery could mean the order was refused and payment not made. But it was a thrilling business to be a part of. On the occasion of a huge gala fashion parade, a ripple of excitement would pass down the Lane…there was always a flurry of people.
The 1950s and 60s would prove to be the boom years of the Australian Rag Trade. “If I walk down the street I might say hello to twenty people. It’s like a big family, there’s nowhere else like it except perhaps 38th Street in New York…it’s a city within a city.” Leon Haskin’s family had been in the business for three generations, and this was not unusual. “Somehow everybody has been associated with someone else in the trade…Mrs Sorrell used to work for my father, and Jack Shaw and my father grew up as young men in the industry together…and I used to share a showroom with Ron Shaw, one of Jack Shaw’s sons…it goes on and on. Everybody knows each other.” Arguably this tightness of community would prove to be the Industry’s strength. It self-preserved and looked after its own.
In a Fashion House
Delivering orders to the fashion houses that lined the Lane was a window into a world of gilded showrooms finely furnished. Bolts of imported fabrics were piled floor to ceiling in rear workrooms. Stylists would sketch, and cutters would work by hand, one fabric panel at a time. The allure of the showrooms was great, and after two years hawking on the Lane, Poppa pursued an interview with one Evan Wade of E.H. Wade Pty. Ltd. By this time, his salary had increased to five pounds per week, but he was willing to take a significant cut for the opportunity to work in a fashion house. “Some choices in life may be right for you, but it doesn’t always mean it carries the biggest wage.” Wade had recently lost the backing of one of his financiers and was forced to sell his family home in order to finance the purchase of a basement workshop in Cavendish House on the corner of Flinders Lane and Russell Street. When war struck shortly thereafter, Wade’s business was turned out of Cavendish House by the Rationing Committee, and he relocated to the basement of Yoffa House at 187 Flinders Lane. The business would stay here for the next fifty years.
Poppa started at Wade’s as a Junior Salesman, tasked with the interstate trips to show new collections to prospective buyers. In time, Wade himself undertook to train his young recruit as a Stylist, learning to interpret overseas trends and adapt designs to local tastes and available fabrics. At age eighteen Poppa was allowed to make his first collection, but the war intervened and his career was stalled for the sake of that “terrible waste of time and life.” On his return from service in New Guinea (and very keen to put the past behind him) he absorbed himself back into the company, picking up where he left off. He was chiefly occupied with the progress of one label in particular, and Van Roth - as it was named - would in time grow to become one of the most prestigious couturier brands in the country, and ultimately define his life in fashion.
Over the past few weeks I’ve searched all over for photographs of Van Roth gowns. Not dresses, (there is plenty of Van Roth daywear floating around on ebay and in op shops) but gowns - the beaded brocades and the silk sheaths from the evening wear collections. My aunt assures me that the workmanship that went into the production of a Van Roth gown was second to none. Simply put, we don’t make clothes with such painstaking dedication to detail anymore. Nor do we give the same attention to customers as was once expected. A prospective buyer at E.H. Wade would be ushered into the Showroom through a studded, red leather door and be seated as they observed a little parade of house models displaying the latest collection. And there were always fresh flowers in the room… Poppa did the arrangements himself.
It was a Van Roth creation that in 1967 would win Poppa his long hoped for Australian Gown of the Year Award. He was Managing Director of E.H. Wade by this time and had worked tirelessly to claim the Industry’s highest honour. To manufacturers and designers the Gown of the Year was a labour of love; it cost a great deal of money in terms of hundreds of design and workshop hours, as well as expensive materials and trimmings. I’ve heard it said that the Award was to the Garment Industry what the Oscar’s are to the Motion Picture Industry; greatly coveted and a landmark in the careers of their recipients. The morning following the ceremony at Melbourne’s Menzies Hotel, Poppa’s winning gown appeared on the front page of The Sun. Modelled by Natalie Woodley, it was a floor-grazing sheath in Australian-made lurex. The fabric was a soft, pine green shade, with an exquisite oriental rose pattern hand-beaded in gold and apricot tones across the garment. I’m partial, but it hasn’t dated a day! If I knew where it was, I’d buy a ticket tomorrow and wear it to the ballet.
End of an Era
As the 1970s rolled around, the slowing pace of the Garment Industry was too palpable to ignore. One by one the tailors, haberdashers and fashion houses were closing their doors as business dwindled. The gradual demise can largely be attributed to three primary causes; property development, increasing labour and material costs, and competition from Asian markets. This last factor in particular troubled Poppa; “we couldn’t make a dress for anything like what they sell it for,” he said. In the 1940s, the availability of skilled labour had risen significantly with the post-war boom in immigration, with many migrants and female workers bringing their particular expertise to the Industry. But as the century wore on, social changes such as equal pay for women and standardised pay awards served to push up the cost of labour, making the Industry increasingly less able to compete with foreign imports. It was thought at the time that only bulk manufacturers of inexpensive day wear would be affected by the changing market and that Melbourne-made ‘haute couture’ would survive…this has not proved to be the case.
Another contributing factor is that trends in fashion were becoming increasingly casual. The fashion houses of the 1950s dealt in natural fibres, pure silks, cottons, and pure wools. Synthetic fabrics were considered poor taste. But come the 70s, market interest in quality materials and expensive couture was wearing thin. “Young women want jeans now, not glamour” said a 1973 newspaper. On the subject of denim, Poppa too was quoted; “it is a pity that young girls who all have the ability to be pretty and attractive go out in jeans. Dressing up when I was young was terribly important, it was so elegant.” That was in 1981. But a few years later his attitude seemed to have changed, and he was reported as announcing that “not until dress is regarded as an essential part of lifestyle will the Industry get a shot in the arm.”
And so it seems that our Rag Trade belongs to a closed chapter in the annals of Flinders Lane. Gone are the quaint, forgotten styles of sign-writing on tired buildings, all telling more or less the same story...‘Evening Wear,’ ‘Jackets and Coats,’ ‘Fabric Bonders,’ ‘Non-Woven Fabrics.’ Even recent success stories such as Colette Dinnigan, Lisa Ho, and Bettina Liano have been victims to a tenuous industry and are now conspicuously absent from our catwalks and clothes racks. For my part, I understand the reasons why the Industry is no longer – each one entirely valid. But I feel a loss in the simple sense that we once did something exceptionally well right here in Melbourne, and now we do it no more.
Down Memory Lane
Seven years ago I left university - and in what seems like a case of history repeating - it was my turn to knock on a door on ‘the Lane’ in search of my first full-time job. I was successful, and started working in an architecture studio at number 107 Flinders Lane. Occasionally on my lunch breaks, I walk past the renowned Adelphi Hotel which now occupies number 187…and I think of Poppa in his office, or in his Showroom, or “getting down and dirty in Dispatch”…as my mum said (and by “down and dirty,” she of course meant cutting fabric and folding garments into boxes). He would have been amused to see what Melbourne has made of its old service roads and alleys today. I know he was not opposed to the demolition of some of the Lane’s original buildings; “it is good to see those great, grotty rabbit warrens go…they really were fire death traps you know.” But he could never have imagined the wealth of restaurants that now line Flinders Lane, and the boutique bars where tourists mingle with the city’s white-collar milieu. The Garment Industry might be gone, but the vibrancy, creativity and enterprise of Flinders Lane…it’s still there. And a strange sense of community amongst all the worker bees that fly into town each morning and buzz-about their business until the light fades.
For further images and information on Van Roth garments, visit www.vanrothstyle.com