It all began with a well-known rivalry. In 1946 Sir Frank Packer, owner of Australian Consolidated Press – and publisher of The Australian Women’s Weekly – was incensed that the Fairfax-owned Sydney Morning Herald had a strangle hold on the advertising account for David Jones. He wanted those fashionable dollars for his own title’s pages.
So, he’d enlisted his glamorous sister-in-law, Mary Hordern, then fashion editor of The Weekly, to head to Paris to round-up a collection of incredible French couture to bring back and show live to Australian audiences – all of which would take place at David Jones’ flagship Sydney store.
It was the post-war years and France had long depended upon quality Australian wool for their fashions. Now that the need for uniforms and other military garb was done, designers could once again let their creativity fly free with luxury materials and opened purse strings.
And while there was a thriving business in Australia for local so-called “French” designers, there was – Mary knew – nothing like the real thing. It was something she’d dreamt about doing when appointed the role the year before, something she’d written about in her very first column in November 1945. “My ambition,” she wrote, “is to give women the best ideas from the world’s greatest designers. Few can buy model frocks, but every woman wants her clothes to make the most of her Personality.
“A certain amount of adaptation is necessary to make overseas designs suitable for wear in this country. I hope my pages will supply Australian women with ideas for clothes, highlighting the latest fashion trends and yet entirely suitable for our climate and way of life.”
With Sir Frank setting up the introductions, Mary made the journey across the sea. She spent three months viewing over 50 collections from the top houses in Paris, including Balmain and Schiaparelli, before hand-selecting 120 ensembles – all of which were fully accessorised, styled, and contained woollens from our shores – that she believed would suit the Australian lifestyle while giving women a taste of real Parisian style.
It didn’t go without a few hitches, however. “There was some slight feeling that in putting the selections in the hands of an unknown Australian woman, perhaps the exhibition would not fully represent Paris,” she told newspaper Le Courrier Australien ahead of making the trip back.
“However, the objections were finally dispelled when I had pointed out the bad propaganda value of clothes that did not have the practical aspect of being suitable for our Australian climate. And I now feel, in conjunction with all these designers chosen to exhibit, that this exhibition is a faithful interpretation of the new hue in Paris, and yet is supremely wearable for the masses in Australia.
However, there are, of course, some of the clothes chosen for spectacle value, to demonstrate the workmanship of which only the French are capable. Those are purely to give that glamour which is part and parcel of the Parisian scene, without which our show would not be complete in representing Paris at all.
“The couturiers were most generous and are sending several frocks each – the only stipulation being that these frocks were shown on French mannequins – so that insurance would be made that the frocks suited the girl, that she would show it to the maximum advantage, making sure of the utmost in propaganda value. The frocks were to be sent as an exhibition of art which I, for one, consider them to be.”
So it was that with six French “mannequins” (the name then given to models) in tow, she returned ready to take the ultimate word in style to the nation. Australian fashion would never be the same.
A fashionable start
The grand ballroom was packed when, on September 16, the first French fashion parade took place in David Jones’ Elizabeth Street store. Showings were done twice a day, women flocking to drool over garments they may not have been able to afford (nor ones which were actually available to buy), but most certainly coveted. For three months, Mary took the fashion show on the road around the country, drawing thousands of women into department stores. And while the wardrobe of the French mannequins may have been the focus, their impeccable hair and make-up also had Australian women in a frenzy, desperate to know how to achieve the seemingly effortless, elegant look.
As The Weekly covered the triumphs of the long-running parade, the trip was a hit – the Parisian designers and their mannequins firmly established. And when, in 1947, a young man by the name of Christian Dior unveiled his first “New Look” collection, the fervour for French fashion would only increase. Certainly, Mary knew a hit when she saw it. So, for show number two the following year she redoubled her efforts, this time collaborating with David Jones’ rival Sydney store Mark Foy’s. A Dior gown was among the 100 selected for a debut on the shores of Australia on August 4, 1947, in the restaurant which had been elaborately decorated with heavily-scented camelias and vast tree branches adorned with brightly-hued stuffed native birds. Later, Weekly readers could find a pattern for it in the magazine’s pages.
Along with four French mannequins, Mary had discovered two local Australian girls to join their chic cohort. Judy Barraclough and Diane Gregory were chosen by the esteemed editor to walk the runway for the paid guests in original gowns – this time available to buy (albeit if you had the excessive cash to spare).
With women desperate to see the show with their own eyes, again they took to the road, this time venturing as far south as Hobart due to demand. In 1949, she returned to Paris again to hand-select the next fashions to tour Australia, Dior being front and centre. Not that he was the only designer. Chaos almost ensued during Mary’s trip to Jacques Fath’s salon. Glamazon Rita Hayworth had arrived for a private viewing just as Mary was finishing her selection. And when Rita spotted a royal blue linen dress French mannequin Colette Schwedorffer was wearing, the movie star made a plea – she desperately wanted it for her own use.
When the Paris Fashions Parade opened at the Trocadero in August, the power of Mary Hordern and the Australian market became clear: Colette looked a dream in the frock, with its plunging neckline and nipped waist. The dress remained a hit as it continued its tour of the country, copies made for sale in Sydney.
The Dior ‘New Look’ takes over Australia
Mary stopped overseeing the yearly fashion shows after the highly successful 1949 tour came to an end. But she certainly didn’t stop championing her star designer – Dior. His designs were regularly shown not only in her fashion column, but on the covers of the magazine, while also keeping readers up to date on the French Mannequins who had shown off the clothes to perfection.
And Dior knew the value of the association. Australian women, it turned out, were going to be instrumental in his global success. In 1950, Dior took a trip to Australia, reported The Sydney Morning Herald, to study “the fashion needs of the Australian woman”, while also visiting leading Australian wool mills for materials to take back to Paris. He would use both as inspiration for his collection the following year.
“Living in the sunshine of a comparatively new country unscathed by war, Australians have a cleaner, brighter outlook and are more receptive to new ideas than the tired people of Europe,” Dior would say of Australia to the outlet.
As Mary continued her glowing reviews throughout the 1950s, the designer himself identified Australia as the third most important market for French fashion – bested only by Paris and New York.
So, it was hardly a surprise that he and Mary (with the help of Hannah Lloyd Jones; wife of David Jones’ chairman) began working together once more. Dior was ready, he’d decided, to bring the first complete haute couture collection out to Australia. In October 1957, planning was at fever pitch when the designer suffered a sudden heart attack. He would die, aged only 52.
For Mary, as for all his fans it was a heartbreaking turn of events. She poured her heart and soul into ensuring the exclusive parades were the most exquisite yet. Seven French mannequins made the gruelling 60-hour flight to Sydney, accompanied by the designers’ collections. Their arrival on our shores was greeted with more flashing cameras and eager journalists than seen by any Hollywood star before that time.
And the parades themselves would be a triumph, a fitting feather in the bow for Mary, who resigned from The Weekly soon after with a legacy that would survive for decades to come.