Catwalk to Sidewalk

Street Style through Melbourne archives.

By Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Public Record Office Victoria, Victorian State Archives

Railwaymen by Victorian Railways Board and circa 1900Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

This beautifully crafted display of portraits shows the railwaymen and traffic staff of the Victorian Railways in Australia, circa 1900. It provides a fascinating snapshot of what was popular in workingmen’s hairstyles and facial hair across diverse age groups, with wild bushy beards seemingly favoured by anyone old enough to grow one. In contrast to Melbourne’s middle and upper class men of this era who could be seen sporting morning suits and top hats, workingmen were more interested in practical, rather than fashionable styles. The bushranger frontiersman image of the nineteenth century may have been slowly evolving into a more urban look but the safety razor was not introduced until 1903, so a natural beard remained as an expression of rugged manliness, as the alternative would have required constant visits to the barber.

Mr Olney, circa 1928 by Victorian Railways Commissioners and circa 1928Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Post World War One, the clean-cut style required of servicemen continued to be the dominant trend for men, and the wild and woolly look from the turn of the century could no longer be seen on Melbourne’s streets. Not only were safety razors with disposable blades making shaving a quick and inexpensive part of a man’s daily routine, the year 1921 also saw the invention of the electric clipper, which helped ensure the popularity of closely clippered hair styles throughout the following decades. This portrait of Mr Olney, taken by the Victorian Railways, circa 1928, typifies the suave and sophisticated look of Melbourne men during this era, who looked to sports and film stars as style icons. His suit also features two popular accessories of the decade, the patterned pocket square and stripped tie.

Derby and Oaks Day, 1936 by Victorian Railways Board and 1936Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

In 1936, this Melbourne Cup fashion style worn to watch the iconic horse race, was all about furs and hats. While thankfully real fur is no longer fashionable, there is still no separating Oaks Day and couture headwear. In the 1930s however, hats were not just race day fashion, they were popular all year round, with Melbourne’s socialites flocking to the exclusive millinery salons clustered around Collins Street in the CBD. Victoria’s leading milliner Thomas Harrison’s salon at 163 Collins Street was considered a fashion destination. Furnished in the Louis XV style, it stocked the latest designs from France and London, although most women preferred a Harrison creation, designed specifically for them. There was a certain amount of conformity to interwar dressmaking and a couture headpiece was often how wealthy women chose to express their individual style.

Railcar Powder Bar by Victorian Railways Board and Circa late 1940sPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

The idea of teenagers as we know them today, with their own fashions, behaviour and rituals, entered popular consciousness during the latter half of the 1940s. During this era, young Melbourne women followed U.S. trends and sought to create outfits that were neither too girly, nor too matronly. The women photographed here in a train carriage ‘powder bar’ are dressed in what could be considered the teen girl uniform of the 1940s (and into the early 1950s), with their sweaters (snug fitting angora was very trendy) and box-pleated plaid skirts to just below the knee. Simple accessories such as scarves and bracelets were also popular. This outfit, usually paired with white ankle socks and loafers, was appropriate for a range of formal and informal activities. So while these teenagers may have been carving out their own fashion identity, they still considered it important to fit into the wider society and did not stray too far from what the older generations would approve.

The Moomba Queen, 1969 by Harbour Trust Board and 1969Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

The late 1960s were a period of social turbulence and prosperity in Australia and styles reflected the optimism and exuberance of the time. Melbourne had previously been deeply conservative with women’s wear orientated towards an older, upper class clientele but by the mid-1960s times were beginning to change. A pivotal moment came in 1965 when visiting English model Jean Shrimpton stunned the crowd on Derby Day with a white shift dress 10 centimetres above the knee and sheer pantihose, not to mention her lack of a hat! While horrifying the conservative set, the look inspired a new generation. Iconic Melbourne designers such as Prue Acton and Norma Tullo led the way for young women to experiment with shapes and colours in a bold way, visually differentiating themselves from their parents’ generation. In this image of Moomba Festival Queen, Janine Forbes, the photographer has captured the huge generational divide in the fashion styles of women in 1969. With a mini dress, big hair and dramatic eye make-up, her look is a world away from the conservative styles of the women surrounding her.

1960s Fashion futurism by Melbourne Harbour Trust Commissioners and circa 1960sPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Throughout the 1960s hemlines continued to creep up as the mini became more than a skirt, and was embraced as a feminist symbol of liberation. During this time Melbourne was heavily influenced by European designers like Mary Quant who started to embrace a more futuristic look. Advancements in fabric technology also fuelled futurism in fashion with the invention of new materials like PVC, polyester and faux fur. At the same time exciting new colour combinations such as ‘optical white’ and silver were popularised in the late 60s thanks to the introduction of a new bleach.

This striking image highlights several of these trends as the young female employee to the left of the frame wears a futuristic cut, optical white socks and stacked heels. It also serves to remind us just how far Melbourne fashion had come as the miniskirt is being openly worn in the workplace.

Lady in Red by Australian Wool Board and circa 1973Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

The 1970s was a decade that was defined by the counterculture movements. The antiwar movement was in full swing with 100,000 hippies marching down Bourke Street in protest of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war and bringing with them new fashion like paisley prints, kaftans and loose free flowing dresses. At the same time the feminist movement was growing and feminist icons of the time like Kate Bush and Melbourne’s own Helen Reddy of I Am Woman fame became style icons for many. We’ve chosen this image from the National Archives of Australia’s womenswear collection as a prime example of 1970s fashion as the woman in the frame sports red chiffon a la Kate Bush, loose curls and an attitude that suggests she’s in control of the frame. The men by contrast are dressed in standard suits, their relaxed sweeping hairstyles and over-sized bow ties are the only things that hint of the 70s era.

Let’s Get Physical! by Melbourne Harbour Trust Commissioners and circa 1980sPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

The 1980s was a time of materialism and individualism where pop culture reminded us that our bodies were our temples. Out of this atmosphere a new fitness fashion craze emerged, and a range of sportswear flooded the Australian market in bright hues of royal blue, fuchsia and emerald green as you can clearly see in this image from our Melbourne Harbour Trust collection. Sportswear was made from man-made materials like lycra and headbands and legwarmers capped off the look. Australia’s own superstar, Olivia Newton-John also had a large hand in popularising this look after she released Let’s Get Physical in 1981.

The comfort and convenience of gym wear served as an inspiration to mainstream fashion and the look soon transitioned into everyday wear. Interestingly a trend that is seen as cringe worthy to many has stood the test of time as we still see elements of this in fashion today with the athleisure trend.

A Cheeky Opening to Melbourne’s City Circle Line, 1981 by Public Transport VictoriaPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Fashion in the 1980s was bold and brash with an attitude to match. The anti-materialist youth culture movements of previous decades were replaced by a ‘more is more’ attitude which left its mark on Australian fashion. This image, taken on 6 December 1981, marks the opening of Melbourne’s City Loop railway. To the modern eye it is dated and almost comical. In 2017 young women in string bikinis are unlikely to be seen advertising the opening of a publicly funded railway line; but in the 80s, perhaps as a reaction against the second wave of feminism, women were often used in advertising geared towards the male gaze. The image also shows the evolution of the bikini from high-waisted boy shorts to something much skimpier a trend that would soon be picked up by the fitness craze that would sweep the nation.

90s Kids take a tram to Lunar Park by Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board and circa early 1990sPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

If the 1980s was the decade of excess, the 1990s was the exact opposite. Gaudy over-the-top fashion statements gave way to a new minimalist ‘anti fashion’ decade. Young Australians started dressing for comfort and body conscious silhouettes were ditched in favour of a slouchy, casual look. This image from our Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board collection shows teenagers sporting some early 90s trends, with denim jeans, hoodies and headbands becoming fashion staples. This look would later develop further into the grunge look leading to the 90s being labelled the ‘slacker generation’.

Credits: Story

This exhibition was originally curated by Natasha Cantwell and Rebecca Young for a physical exhibition at the Victorian Archives Centre Gallery in September 2017. All images are from Public Record Office

Victoria's collection and the National Archives of Australia. Visit for more information about our collection.

For further information about any of the items contact

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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