Stories behind the clothing

August 23, 2017

Restrictive hobble dresses, long hemlines and sober colours — a true reflection of fashion’s demise from Edwardian to war-time style — will be on show in Mooroopna this month.

But it is the stories of the women behind the outfits at the Women of Empire 1914-19 exhibition which are the remarkable part of the travelling display.

Curator Keith Baverstock said he and wife Fiona started the exhibition in 2015 after being involved in the historical costume and vintage industries.

‘‘Women of Empire 1914-1919 takes us into the lives of about 30 of the women of Australia and New Zealand whose lives were transformed by their experiences in the First World War,’’ Mr Baverstock said.

With about 134 pieces, Mr Baverstock said the collection ranged from uniforms and gowns to a flower picked by a wounded Australian soldier and sent to his wife back home.

‘‘It’s the only exhibition in the world that tells women’s stories that had some kind of involvement with the First World War,’’ he said.

Mr Baverstock said women’s roles during this time took many forms with those with medical training — doctors, nurses, masseuses — joining the men on warships, at Gallipoli, in Egypt and on the Western Front.

‘‘Women with guts and determination drove ambulances and became cooks and orderlies, Red Cross aides or motorcycle messengers,’’ he said.

After first appearing at the National Wool Museum in Geelong, Mr Baverstock said the exhibition had appeared in many cities and it was time to take it to regional areas.

‘‘I’m a social historian myself,’’ he said.

‘‘We hear all the tales of the fantastic men during the war, but we don’t hear a lot about the women.’’

Mr Baverstock said these tales of the women often touched visitors to the exhibition.

‘‘People enjoy the stories; you often see them leaving with tears in their eyes,’’ he said.

It was the tale of Jane Sam that has stuck with Mr Baverstock the most from the women he and Mrs Baverstock call ‘‘our ladies’’.

‘‘She was a street prostitute at age 11,’’ he said.

‘‘She was incarcerated in her teens and ended up in one of the worst prisons in NSW.

‘‘She ended up marrying a Chinaman, which was an absolute no-no in those days.

‘‘She bore seven or nine sons and ended up being the mother of heroes.

‘‘Five of the men signed up for war and collected military medals.

‘‘I thought it was marvellous how a woman like that became the mother of heroes.’’

Mr Baverstock said the response to the exhibition had been so fantastic, work had started on a second exhibition — The Homecoming — which will tell the tales of women at the end of the Great War.

‘‘It will be seen in Australia and New Zealand in the second half of next year,’’ he said.

There would also be the chance for guests to contribute to the Letter to the Fallen project, which invites people to write a letter to an unknown soldier in France.

‘‘It is hoped to have 60000 letters by November 11, 2018,’’ he said.

■The Women of Empire 1914-19 will be at the Mooroopna Hall, 41 McLennan St, from August 24 to 27, from 10am to 5pm daily. Cost is $10 for adults, $8 for concession and $5 for children.

■For information, visit

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