Unpicking the gendered body: new research in the history and material culture of clothes

Thursday, March 24, 2022 at 05:00 PM


Melbourne, VIC
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Alicia Cerreto - HCV

In March we observe Women’s History Month, adding historical context to annual celebrations of International Women’s Day on 8 March. In this Making Public Histories seminar three historians of dress present recent work exploring history and material culture. Their topics range in time from the Elizabethan era to the 1920s and consider how dress functioned to shape gendered bodies in the past.


Dr Sarah Bendall

Shaping the Body in Early Modern England: Foundation Garments and Women’

The structured feminine silhouette of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was achieved using garments called bodies and farthingales, predecessors of later corsets and crinolines. In this talk Sarah Bendall discusses how these garments began to shape and define changing notions of the feminine bodily ideal, social status, sexuality and modesty in early modern England, influencing enduring Western notions of femininity.

Dr Lorinda Cramer

‘“Always to appear respectable” and the “butterflies about town”: Dress in gold-rush Victoria’ 

Gold-rush commentators deplored extravagant dress. Considering it a vulgar display of wealth, they encouraged modest good taste instead. While this began with sensible purchases, it extended to care and maintenance – for gowns were worn over many years and mended, adjusted, bequeathed and handed down.

Assoc. Prof. Melissa Bellanta

‘The Shoddy Dropper: Working-Class Men and Fashion in 1920s Australia’

This talk uses the interwar career of the Melbourne con-man, Louis Stirling, to offer insights into Australian working-class men’s relationship to fashion in the roaring twenties. For a brief period, Stirling was a ‘shoddy dropper’: a salesman who sold supposedly-quality suit lengths door-to-door. Considering the rise of shoddy dropping, the talk sheds light on the dress practices and longings of urban working-class men in 1920s Australia, counteracting the tendency only to think about women when considering fashion in the day.  


Margaret Anderson, Director of Old Treasury Building will host the evening, and HCV Board Member Associate Professor Susie Protschky will facilitate the Q&A.


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The History Council of Victoria Incorporated (HCV) is the peak body for history in the Australian state of Victoria. Its vision is to connect Victorians with history and to inspire engagement with the past, their identity and the world today. The HCV champions the work of historians and the value of history. It recognises that history can be written about any place, any person, any period. The HCV advocates why history matters.

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As the peak body for history in Victoria, the History Council makes submissions on current issues. In doing this, the HCV Board is guided by its Advocacy Policy and by the Value of History, a statement developed co-operatively by the HCV and the History Councils of New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia.

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The HCV was formed as an advisory body in 2001 and incorporated in 2003. It comprises representatives from cultural and educational institutions and heritage bodies; history teachers and curriculum advisors; academic and professional historians; and local, Indigenous, community and specialist history organisations.

As the peak body for history, the HCV has both ‘outward-looking’ roles (including advocacy and representation to government and the wider community, consultation, community education, and networking with allied interest groups) and ‘inward-looking’ roles (including member support, information dissemination, and networking between members).



The History Council of Victoria acknowledges the State Library of Victoria and the Public Record Office Victoria for supply of the archival images that appear on this website.

We acknowledge the National Film and Sound Archive for the right to use of the video footage on the home page, titled "Melbourne: Life in Australia (1966)".

Image credits

  • Italian sailors on ship at Port Melbourne 1938, Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria
  • Chinese procession in Collins near Elizabeth Street 1901, Harvie & Sutcliffe, photographers, State Library of Victoria
  • People’s homes, Aboriginal station Coranderrk 1878, Fred Kruger Photographer, State Library of Victoria
  • Chinese nurses at Children’s Hospital under scholarship 1947, Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria
  • Ladies physical culture class VRI Melbourne c1931, Public Record Office Victoria VPRS 12903/P0001, 011/02
  • Melbourne Cup, Derby and Oaks Day, Flemington Racecourse 1936, Public Record Office Victoria VPRS 12903/P0001/4802, 372/30
  • Flinders Street viaduct at foot of Market Street with advertisement for McRobertson’s Chocolate on bridge, Public Record Office Victoria VPRS 12800/P0003, ADV 1342