Costume & Textile Collection

The unique costume and textile collection housed at Grossmann House is one of Australia’s hidden treasures. With the opening of the property as a museum in 1964, a dedicated group of women from Maitland and the Hunter Region began collecting to furnish the house and preserve important items of textile and costume history. Since then, through the generosity of many families, National Trust volunteers have developed a significant collection of domestic textiles and nineteenth century costume. It reflects the taste of wealthy families in the Hunter, as well as important themes in the history of the region and Grossmann House.

A Unique & Nationally Significant Collection

The study of nineteenth century dress in Australia provides new insights into the changing nature of the colony as it developed to become a nation; the increasing separation between urban and bush life, differences between the social classes and the ordering of masculine and feminine roles and values.

The costume and textile collection held at Grossmann House has national significance, with items provenanced to the Hunter Region and representing a wide range of uses from the everyday to the ceremonial, across a broad social spectrum.

Dating from the 1850s to the turn of the century, it illustrates the growth in prosperity in the region during the years when Isaac Beckett and Samuel Owen made their fortunes in Maitland, as well as providing information about lifestyles, tastes and what was available at the time.

The work-clothes and related items are particularly rare, as they are a style of clothing hitherto not included in collections of this kind.

Other aspects which, in the twenty-first century are fascinating to contemplate, include the often highly elaborate construction of the clothes, how they were worn and kept clean, and the limitations nineteenth century clothing imposed on the wearer.

Fashions and Textiles as Cultural Insights

Grossmann House was acquired by the National Trust of Australia (NSW) in 1964 and opened to the public as a house museum of the Victorian period in June 1966. A group of dedicated women volunteered their expertise to source furniture and furnishings for the property and, through the generosity of many local families, developed the collection of domestic textiles and costumes held at Grossmann House, which brings to life the history of the region.

Most of the collection dates from the 1850s to around 1910. It includes women’s silk and formal clothes including wedding dresses; underwear, including a rare crinoline petticoat with watch-spring hoops; men’s clothes, mostly formal but some workaday; children’s and babies’ clothes, particularly Christening gowns and bonnets, and women’s accessories. The women’s costumes and bodices from the 1880s in particular demonstrate the typical Victorian adherence to rigid foundation and structure, often with elaborate embellishments.

Throughout the house are examples of lace, embroidery, tapestry, felt flowers and other crafts employed by Victorian ladies to embellish their homes during the period when Isaac Beckett built and lived in the property; the 1870s and 1880s.

The textiles in the collection demonstrate the close links between fashions in clothes and domestic interiors. They are also examples of fabrics available locally and skills such as embroidery and lace-making.

Fashion – A Barometer of the Times: 1800-1830: a turning point

Fashions for women in nineteenth century Australia were strongly influenced by those of France and England, albeit adapted to suit different lifestyles. Although the century started on an elegant, classical note with unstructured, décolleté dressing, the early 1820s represented a turning point in fashion reflecting a change in the role and status of women, which was to endure throughout the century.

Corsets again became essential – even for small girls – to achieve the ever-smaller waists, contrasted with wide skirts and sleeves. This trend eventually led to the crinoline, then the bustle, and clothes where elaborate decoration and restricted movement became symbols of status for the wealthy. Working women wore a much simpler version of these styles – but they ‘dressed up’ for photography and other important occasions.

Gentlemen took their cue early on from English tailoring and respectability. After a short flirtation with dandyism – the sleek breeches made possible by London tailoring, accessorised with elaborate stocks and cravats – sobriety and respectability took over for well over a century.

Fashions in the home changed too. The Regency taste for bright, contrasting colours became more subdued, replaced by a more neutral, ‘refined’ palette before the Victorian era brought with it a taste for rich, deep colours.


Fashions for children

After a period of relative freedom up to the 1820s, the opulence of the mid nineteenth century saw children dressed to reflect the wealth and aspirations of their parents. Little girls were crammed into tight corsets and wore clothes which emulated those of their mothers. They wore hoops when their mothers wore crinolines and, in the1870s and 1880s, older girls wore bustles and draped skirts.

From the 1860s there was a groundswell against children wearing corsets, and the efforts of the Aesthetic Movement in the 1880s helped towards the end of the century to bring about a new awareness of children as children. Miss Jeanette Grossmann, an early Principal of Maitland Girls’ High School housed in Grossmann House from 1894 to 1963 is credited with encouraging dress which allowed freedom of body as well as freedom of mind.

For most of the century, boys under the age of five were dressed in frocks, and can be mistaken for girls in photographs of the era. Older boys wore tunics, short pants and a variety of military style uniforms. From 1885 Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book popularised ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ suits – velvet with elaborate lace collar and trim. However boys generally fared better than girls. The knickerbocker and sailor suits made popular by the future Edward VII provided a degree of comfort not enjoyed by their sisters.

Rigid Structure and Rich Embelishments

The 1870s saw the introduction of the bustle – a horsehair framework tied at the waist to give elaborately trimmed fullness at the back while the smooth, flat lines of the skirt front emphasised a narrow waist. Bustle technology became more sophisticated over the decade. The ‘Langtry’ bustle folded up to allow the wearer to sit down and sprang into place again when she got up. By the 1880s, the bustle was extending horizontally from a waist engineered by such tight lacing that crushing of internal organs, and even death, were not uncommon. The bustle diminished and disappeared in the 1890s, but the bust gradually became thrown forward, forcing the body into an ‘S’ shape not conducive to good health.

In England, the Rational Dress Movement introduced to promote a healthier way of dressing was widely ridiculed, but the message started to permeate as women became more physically active. By the 1890s, sports were becoming popular with costumes for both men and women developed to match – although tennis dress for women was still likely to be a tennis apron over a day dress.

1890-1910 Turn of the Century, and a New Freedom

In Europe, La Belle Epoque was a time of peace between the major powers and technological advancements of all kinds. It was also the era of Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, Jean Cocteau and Impressionism in art. The dawn of a new freedom of expression which inspired a new, ‘bohemian’ lifestyle among intellectuals and artists, it was a transition period characterised by exuberance and artistic freedom.

The 1890s saw a complete change in the line of women’s clothing. Skirts were generally gored or bell-shaped to create a slim line and, although there was some fullness at the back, the bustle had gone. Sleeves became tightly fitted but waists remained narrow. Lace was fashionable for evening wear, with bodices décolleté and sleeveless. Huge ostrich feather fans and long suede gloves completed the look. Dashing young men wore narrow trousers with ‘peg tops’ and the height of the collar increased over the decade until it was almost a choker.

The Australian larrikin became a colourful figure of the time, flaunting his short coat, flared trousers and high-heeled boots. His equally colourful girlfriend was known for her vibrant colours, elaborate velvet jacket and the mass of ostrich feathers which adorned her hat.


The Impact of Fashion on New Technologies

Major influences on fashion from the mid 1800s included the invention of the sewing machine, the introduction of aniline dyes which often replaced the subdued, soft colours of early decades with a garish mix of bright hues, and the increasing sophistication of fabric production, such as the jacquard looms of Britain and France.

Fashion took advantage of the new variety of patterns and colours which had become available. During the early 1870s the mode was to have a bodice of a different colour from the skirt and to cut the dress out of two different materials – the plain being trimmed with pattern, and the patterned being trimmed with plain. A writer in The Young Englishwoman (1876) complained that the effect was often difficult to describe!

In 1858, Isaac Singer issued the first domestic ‘Family’ machine, which revolutionised home dressmaking and furnishing. Grossmann House holds a collection of significant nineteenth century sewing machines.

The introduction of the sewing machine allowed decoration to become increasingly elaborate with frills, ruffles and flouncing added in profusion. The construction of clothing, too, became more precise with bodices cut in many sections and whale-boned along the seams to provide a wrinkle-free fit.


Sewing Machines Collection

The wine brocade afternoon gown in the Costume and Textile Display Room shows the increasingly elaborate design and construction of clothes worn by upper middle class women from the mid 1870s. This was made possible by new technology such as the sewing machine, and the mass production of textiles.

Grossmann House holds a collection of significant nineteenth century sewing machines, including an impressive American Wheeler & Wilson cabinet-style machine, dated 1817. Its elaborate cabinet, gilded in high Victorian style, indicates the status of the machine as an item of household adornment, rather than just a labour-saving device. Although Singer sewing machines were to become the most popular brand from the late 1860s, it was the American-made Wheeler & Wilson machines which revolutionised dressmaking in the 1850s.

Other machines housed at Grossmann include a brass Moldacot Patent ‘C’ Pocket Sewing Machine (on view in the Costume and Textile Room). The first of these came onto the market on 17 July 1886. The Beale Hand Sewing Machine made around the turn of the century is portable, but designed to fit a treadle stand. The Gritzner Sewing Machine on show in the Morning Room is marked ‘N Joachimson, Hamburg, Sole Agent, For Australasia’. By 1902 Gritzner was Germany’s largest sewing machine manufacturer. The c 1915 Duchess Sewing Machine is American, made by the ‘National’ sewing machine company. It has a domed wooden cover with carved flowers at each end. An early 1900s child’s Casige Toy Sewing Machine is decorated with gold scrolls, foliage and flowers with bronze petals.