Launched in February 2015, Dressing Australia – Museum of Costume’s Women of Empire exhibition features costumes of the era — nurse uniforms, gowns worn to war fundraisers, and day dresses worn by the women who entered the workforce. “I tell the story of ordinary women who did extraordinary things,” said Fiona Baverstock, the curator at Dressing Australia.
The costumes of women in the British Empire are paired with comprehensive storyboards that tell their stories. The exhibition features women of Australia and New Zealand, and by 2016 it will also feature women of Canada and South Africa. “It was a universal experience for women. It transformed the lives of women from all these different countries.”
Women of Empire captures how the social roles of women and their fashion went hand-in-hand. For example, clothes became more comfortable because women were doing work they had never done before. “Nurses were some of the first to raise the hemline because when you’re in the mud in France and Flanders, a long skirt is absolutely useless.”
One of the stories in the exhibition is of Marion Elizabeth Leane Smith, who was, at the time of the Great War, the only known woman of Australian Aboriginal blood to have served as a nurse. Smith was born in Australia and moved to Canada to study nursing. She served with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service in France during the First World War and earned the Distinguished Service Medal in the Second World War.
Though the exhibition focuses on the British Empire, visitors won’t find content about the Great War experience of the women of India. “It’s difficult to get a handle on the Indian women’s experience,” said Baverstock. “The Indian women were not allowed to serve in any significant way that we can discover.”
Baverstock is particularly interested in submissions of people who were involved in women’s organizations in Canada that raised money, made jam and knit clothing for soldiers, such as Ottawa Women’s Canadian Club and Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire.