A Fashionable History: Paula Stafford

Queensland has a rich, largely undiscussed, history of fashion. The Sunshine State is known for its beautiful beaches, laidback lifestyle, and endless array of bikinis. However, it wasn’t always this way. A very controversial garment in its early life, Paula Stafford pioneered the two-piece’s place in Australian culture.

Through the nineteenth century, Queensland fashion mimicked European styles. Thus despite the heat, the average middle-class woman dressed conservatively, pairing hats and gloves with gowns or long skirts, and always a corset – which was only ever loosened in private. After World War I, women’s wider roles in the workforce allowed for acceptability of shorter hair and hemlines, however tradition was not entirely abandoned – corsets were still essential, and even in the 1920’s some women wore ankle-length swimsuits to the beach. Bikinis may be synonymous with Australian beach culture today, yet there was a time when they were regarded as highly inappropriate. One Surfers Paradise local was able to overcome gendered social hurdles to bring bikinis to the forefront of fashionability and acceptability, and become one of the most successful Queensland businesswomen of her time.

Paula Stafford was born in Willaura, Country Victoria, in 1921. She moved into Melbourne City at thirteen years of age to attend school. Originally, she wanted to be an architect. However, her teacher advised her to consider a more ‘feminine’ line of work. Paula had always enjoyed making clothes for her dolls, and herself, so she went on to receive Diploma in Fashion Design at Melbourne Technical College. Paula moved to Queensland in 1939, stationed as an army nurse in Toowoomba during World War II. It was there she met her husband Beverly. He was a Gold Coast local, so in 1943 when the two wed, they returned to the coast to live in an old kiosk on Main Beach. By 1948, Paula and Bev had four children – Frances, Susan, Sibyl, and Michael – and were running a beach-hire service, renting umbrellas and surf floats. They relocated and built a house on Cavill Avenue, Surfers Paradise, in 1949.

Frenchman Louis Rèard is widely credited with inventing the skimpy bikini in 1946. However, Paula had been cutting swimsuits in half for herself since 1936 for comfort, and calling it a two-piece. She wore her sliced bathers to the beach, and made some for her daughters too. Tourists and locals, who would frequent their store to hire beach products, saw Paula and her children clad in her innovative designs, and asked her to make some for them. In under a month in 1949, Paula’s business grew from one machinist to produce garments, to fourteen – a number that would eventually rise to over sixty.

However, in a still rather conservative culture, Paula’s two-piece was met with a slew of disapproval. Paula recounts in an article how the Catholic Mothers club had said, “we definitely think bikinis lower the resistance of young people to temptation”. The Surfers Paradise Roman Catholic Priest Father J.N Shannon, told news reporters that, “the bikini type of costume often worn here lowers the dignity of Christian womanhood”. On Bondi Beach, a Local Government act was in place to ensure that swimwear remained ‘decent’. The act stated that swimsuits should cover the whole front on the body, have straps to keep in place the garment, and have legs at least three inches long. Archival ABC footage shows how the ‘Beach Inspectors’ would walk around with measuring tapes to assess women’s swimsuits. In 1945, when a young woman donned a bikini along the popular beach strip, infamous Beach Inspector Aub Laidlaw told her she was ‘indecently’ attired, and ordered her to put on more clothes. The woman was charged with offensive behavior. In 1951 the Miss World pageant ceased crowning winners in a bikini as the Vatican had frowned upon it. In 1952 a popular model, Anne Ferguson, wanted a Paula Stafford two-piece as well. When Anne wore it to Surfers Paradise beach, an inspector – Johnny Moffat – called it ‘inappropriate’ and told her she had to leave. These were not isolated incidents. Beaches at Coolangatta and Tweed Heads saw police ordering girls to put on more clothing. A South Coast Daily lead par read, “Beach inspectors and police have clamped down on the wearing of Bikini bathing suits along Queensland’s South Coast”. In a moment of what Paula called “righteous indignation”, she spoke to a friend at the local paper. The day after Anne’s run in with Moffat, Paula sent five models down to the same beach, all dressed in her bikinis. It attracted an immense amount of media coverage, and Paula received a plethora of orders.

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Cecily Collins, one of the models Paula sent to the beach the day after Anne Ferguson was kicked off, wearing the same bikini style as Anne.

 

Despite the raised eyebrows, Paula continued selling, and heavily promoting, her two-pieces. Outnumbered by the women donning them, eventually the local priest, police, town clerk and Mayor declared their approval of the swimwear, and Beach Inspector Johnny Moffat publically stated that he would no longer object to a women’s attire. By 1967, the aforementioned Aub Laidlaw even attended – and approved of – a fashion parade of Stafford’s swimwear. Paula had championed a movement for women – more than simply providing sparser beach attire and a better tan, bikinis represented a change in society’s ideals, and empowered women in their attire choices. Surfers Paradise became the home of the bikini, which bolstered tourism as well as trade.

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Paula Stafford, model Lisa Smaller, and Harry Rothery at the fitting of a bikini show for beach inspectors in 1967.

Paula’s business flourished and she would often work eighteen-hour days to complete orders. She began importing luxury fabrics from Europe and Thailand. In addition to her reversible bikinis, she sold eveningwear, daywear, and menswear. Paula held Australia’s first ever bikini parade in Town Hall, Sydney. By 1970, Paula Stafford designs were sold across Australia, the United States, Asia, and Europe. High-end department stores such as Selfridges would put in orders. Her designs even received celebrity attention. In 1957, well-known American entertainer Sammy Davis Junior visited Paula’s Cavill Avenue boutique, and purchased fifteen bags of tailor-made clothing – some of which he was gifting to Swedish-American actress Ann Margaret. The original pattern for a pair of his pants remains in the archives. Paula also dressed jazz star Johnny Mathis, and musician Frank Sinatra. In 1962 her designs appeared in a Courier Mail spread featuring comedian Spike Milligan, shot in the studio of Helmut Newton and Henry Talbot.

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An employee making (and wearing) Paula Stafford designs.

Paula’s ventures exceeded fashion, opening the first motel-type accommodation on the Gold Coast, launching art galleries, and establishing a modeling agency. She won the Chamber of Commerce’s Tourism Award in 1983, and was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in the General Division for service to the fashion industry in 1993. Paula was also inducted into the Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame in 2013. However, her legacy lies in her pioneering empowerment of women through the two-piece.

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A parade of Paula Stafford bikinis at Surfers Paradise.

Information and images were retrieved from the John Oxley Library at the State Library of Queensland. 

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