Colonial Australian dress: An Introduction

This post is mostly based on a tour I gave of the fashion collection at the Powerhouse Museum for a group of NIDA costume students. It is also inspired by my work on the Australian Dress Register. I am a strong believer that dress and fashion research should include close examination of actual examples of dress. Through my work at the Museum and for the ADR I have learnt much about Australian dress through examining actual examples of dress from the past.

For many people outside of Australia, the image of Australian dress is based largely on ‘bush’ stereotypes such as Crocodile Dundee or the swag man described in the famous song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ . Contrary to these stereotypes, Europeans in Colonial Australia attempted to dress in very fashionable styles.

When the British settled Sydney as a penal colony in 1788 they initially only intended to create a prison for criminals on the other side of the world. The result was a country that in many ways resembled Britain. With dress there was a general adherence to British and European styles.

In this post, I will have a look at some of my favourite examples of early Colonial Australian dress before 1850.

Anna King's Evening dress, c. 1805. Collection: National Trust of New South Wales, Photo: Brenton McGeachie

Anna Josepha King wore this dress from 1805, most probably for evening wear and formal events in Sydney. She was the wife of Philip Gidley King, Governor of New South Wales, was born in 1765 in England and had three children.

Detail, Anna King's Evening dress, c. 1805. Collection: National Trust of New South Wales, Photo: Brenton McGeachie

The Colony had only been settled 17 years when this dress was worn. It is a fashionable style of dress for the period, which saw a move away from the elaborate styles of the 18th Century to a more classical mode. This dress with its luxurious muslin and fashionable cut would have stood in contrast to the worn and frayed working class clothing of the convict population. In the newly created society of Sydney with a large number of convicts, it was important for those in positions of power to demonstrate their authority. The distance between England and Sydney at that period would have made it desirable and even necessary for those in positions of power in the colony to keep up with English fashions.

Ball gown thought to have been worn by Ann Marsden Collection: Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Photo: Penelope Clay

Cotton was not only a fashionable choice of fabric but was a suitable choice of fabric for the warm climate of Australia during the early years of the Colony. Ann Marsden, the member of another significant colonial family, wore this dress during the early 1820s and may have been worn to a ball at Government house in Parramatta in 1822. Ann was the first daughter of clergyman Samuel Marsden a prominent figure in the Colony of New South Wales. There are two things that I find interesting about this dress. Firstly, unlike Anna King’s dress, this gown was little less fashionable for the period in which it was worn. By the 1820s Romantic styles began to influence European fashions. Although this dress is quite plain and discreet in style by contemporary standards it would have been suitable for the daughter of a clergyman. Perhaps this dress demonstrates conservatism and piousness instead of wealth and power like Anna King’s dress.

The other interesting thing about this dress is the embroidery at the hem and cuff.  The embroidery features a ‘boteh’ motif with a scalloped edge and small-stylized circular flower motifs. This design is Indian in style and  may have been added by the maker of the gown. Another dress from the same period provenanced to Ireland also uses a very similar style of embroidery in the hem and cuff of the dress.

Dress, cotton / muslin / lace, maker unknown, Ireland 1815-1825 Collection: Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

Detail, dress, cotton / muslin / lace, maker unknown, Ireland 1815-1825 Collection: Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Photo: Rebecca Evans

Detail of hem, ball gown thought to have been worn by Ann Marsden Collection: Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Photo: Penelope Clay

Ackermann's Repository of Arts, 1818. Photo: Rebecca Evans

Convicts were often issued with jackets such as this rare surviving example. It is made of rough woollen fabric and was designed to be uncomfortable while the miss-matched colours were made to humiliate and punish the wearer.This jacket stands in contrast to the muslin dresses worn by Anna King and Ann Marsden. Instead of demonstrating wealth, this jacket was designed to maintain social order through humiliating the wearer and making them obvious.

Check taffeta skirt worn by Sarah Thomas, c. 1839 Collection: Tongarra Museum, Photo: Rebecca Evans

Looking at a slightly later example, this check silk taffeta skirt is believed to have been made and worn by Sarah Thomas, the wife of a farmer en route to Australia from England in the late 1830s. I talked a bit about this skirt a few years back when I wrote a guest blog post for Worn Through. I believe this dress had a bodice, something like the bodice of this similar dress from the mid-1840s.

Womens day dress, 1840 - 1850 Collection: Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Photo: Sue Stafford

What strikes me as interesting about this check skirt is that it is a very stylish example of English dress for the late 1830s. This dress was chosen by Sarah Thomas, a member of the working class, to start a new life in Australia. It represents the desire and need to re-create British society on the other side of the world.

Dress during the early Colonial period in Australia was used as a means to re-create British society and to differentiate between those in positions of power and wealth and those who were convicts and of the working class.  Rather than creating a disinvite individual style, much early dress in the 19th Century was very European in style.

One of the best parts about working in a Museum is sharing the collection with the public and one of my favourite ways to do this through collection tours. They give curators the opportunity to chat with a wide range of people about collections and visitors often provide more information on objects. Tours are always great fun, the only worry is losing visitors in the stores!


Alexandra Joel, ‘Parade: The story of fashion in Australia’, Harper Collins, Sydney, 1998

Alexandra Joel, ‘Best dressed: 200 years of fashion in Australia’, Harper Collins, Sydney, 1984

Margaret Maynard, ‘Fashioned from penury: Dress as cultural practice in Colonial Australia’, Cambridge University Press, 1994

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  • Catherine June 21, 2012 06.02 am

    Thankyou for this, I’m researching early colonial female dress for a ball which is coming up soon! I’m trying to distinguish between ‘country’ or ‘rural’ dress and ‘city’ dress for women, but without resorting to workwear this is really an impossible task. The evening dresses are very interesting as they are so much less fine than I might have expected them to be – really very simple compared to, say, the taffeta day dresses. Thanks anyway, I’m glad these things are being preserved!

  • Rebecca June 23, 2012 01.59 am

    HI Catherine,

    I am glad you found this post helpful to your research.
    The taffeta dress and the muslin dresses are from different period and therefore different in style. Earlier 19th Century dress was much more simple in style, fabric and design as opposed to the more elaborate styles in the 1840s.
    Generally there wasn’t too much difference between Town and Country dress worn for special occasions.

    I hope this helps and I hope you find something to wear.


  • Chloe Marsden August 23, 2012 04.06 pm

    This is really interesting – I have been following this blog for a while as I am volunteering for a local museum, managing their historical costume and textile collection and want to take this further to study and work in museums. I have recently found I have a family connection to the very Ann Marsden who originally wore the wedding dress featured on this page so it is amazing for me to see it here! Her grandfather was born a few miles from my home town and my family have no other items of historical dressI can study. I have been offered a place on the Museum Studies Masters at Sydney University subject to a scholarship and would be very interested to use the Marsden collection as a subject for a dissertation. Would it be possible to contact you personally for more details on this particular collection?
    Chloe Marsden

  • Rebecca August 26, 2012 08.37 pm

    Hi Chloe,

    Many thanks for your comment!
    How fascinating that you are related to Ann Marsden.
    Yes! Please feel free to contact me about this, my Worn Through email is



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