Ruby Velvet with Cream Lace: What the streetgirls are wearing in the 1880s

It seems that the sex workers of Brisbane in the 1880s favoured strong contrasts in their clothes: red velvet trimmed with cream; peacock blue satin also with cream lace; black and gold; and trailing feathers in their hats. How do I know this? Why, I read it in the diary of a (very) godfearing Scots woman, Helen Ferguson, who wrote about it in her diary in the Oxley Collection.

She writes vividly, and has a rather arch sense of humour.

“When I first landed here I thought there was a great many grandees here, but though their taste in dress rather ‘loud’, I little suspected what they were, for there are some very handsome and ladylike girls amongst them.”

Again, it raises the question of what diaries do, and who they’re for. This one was a document for “home”, for her family in Scotland. This means it can be difficult to work out the practicalities of how it worked: were sections copied out and sent? Was it sent back and forward? She has a clear audience, and it’s her sister. She’s also describing a new land and – often – unusual landscapes and social practices. This makes her ridiculously useful, because she’s self-conscious about describing that texture and detail that is usually so presumed as to be imbedded or invisible. In a diary for yourself, or even for members of your family who live in the same town or country, there’s no need to describe the opening hours of shops or the price of milk.

Which is why she’s happy to tell us, or rather to tell her sister, that, “Vice flaunts itself in gaudy colours here”, before spelling out the exact colours of that vice. The velvet, the lace, the “abundance of jewellery of every description”. The codes of fashion are clear to her, and to her sister.

But she’s not telling us simply to titillate. Certainly, prostitution is there on the streets, part of the world she describes, but she’s also a reformer. She was part of that “great movement now of what is called the social purity society.”In other parts of her diary, she’s quite emphatic and unwavering, especially about the breaking of the Sabbath. She rails against the butcher’s boys on their ponies and the bakeries that are open on a Sunday. And yet she takes a benevolent approach to these women workers in vice.

She explains the Contagious Diseases Act and its workings, lamenting its unfairness.“It is an act which compels all women who have chosen a life of that sort to go up every week on a certain day and be examined by the doctor. Those of them who have any disease are consigned to the Locke Hospital and those who have not received a clear certificate duly signed and attested so.

The problem, as she sees it, is that it labels these women for life.

This debars the poor girl from a chance of ever being reclaimed, for unless she leave the colonies she is known to the police where-ever she goes,  and not only so but the last remaining traces of womanhood vanish after they pass this Rubicon.”

And so she allows us a glimpse of the lives of these women, the role of the police, the line taken by the church, the sexual inequality that is – unfortunately – not astonishing, and reveals the perceived power of petition. This represents just a few pages in a diary that takes us inside a range of stories. I’m sure I’ll return to her, but in this very brief selection of pages in a small diary that skips dates and travels a wide variety of moods, better to end with her own observations:

” I have seen cases too of virtuous girls who have got unwittingly led in to bad company being trumped up by the police as suspected women and compelled to undergo this degrading examination and in the recklessness of sheer despair abandoning themselves to the life thus mapped out for them. Thus Queensland says to her Sons, ‘Sir you lust but will try to make it as safe for you as we can’ but to her poor fallen daughters no such protection is accorded; and it is against this iniquitous legislation that this social purity society is waging the hottest warfare. It is uphill work but they are bound to succeed for they are terribly in earnest about it and nearly all the ministers and influential members of churches have allied themselves with it . . . 1000 names have been signed to the petition already in the Valley district alone.”

Selections from: OM75-91, Helen Ferguson Diary, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Australia.

Kate Evans, Historian in Residence, John Oxley Library

Posted in Brisbane, Collections, Guest blogger Jo Browse John Oxley Library
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  1. Paul T. Seto

    I recently came across a story that recently, when demographers were examining the Canadian census records, especially around the gold rush times, they were puzzled at the large numbers of ‘dressmakers’ recorded, when there were so very few women there, about 1% of the population.

    It was only when the directions to the census-takers was examined, that it was seen that the ‘street women’, to protect the sensibilities of the readers of the census, were to be called ‘dress-makers’ in the occupation column.

  2. Kate Evans

    Paul, thank you so much for your comment. In my other life, I’m also a producer for Radio National’s Rear Vision program, and I’ve just interviewed a really terrific English census historian, for a program on the history of the census that should go to air on Radio National in early August. He talks about that very thing, and the way in which the list of wide and varied occupations somehow didn’t include prostitutes, although they might have appeared as “fallen”, “unemployed”, seamstresses or (and this is fabulous) “nymphs of the pave”.
    Cheers, Kate Evans

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