By Dr Elizabeth Bissell, Senior Curator, Cultures and Histories, Queensland Museum and Solitaire Osei, Senior Conservator, Textiles, Queensland Museum
When Queensland Museum’s long-awaited Anzac Legacy Gallery opened its doors in November 2018, visitors may have been surprised to see a women’s mourning suit displayed near Mephisto, the rarest tank in the world.
The suit was made for Mrs Christina Massey of Mayfield Road, Belmont, by Janet Walker, a popular Brisbane dressmaker during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Christina Woolridge was born in the Orkney Islands, Scotland, around 1865. She immigrated to Australia and married Thomas Massey at Roma in 1888. They had four children – James, Heywood, Helen, and Thomas Junior. Christina’s eldest son Heywood (known as Woodie) was serving in France with the 31st Battalion when his father passed away in Brisbane in 1918. It’s possible that Mrs Massey wore the mourning suit to her husband’s funeral that same year.
The mourning suit is an important object to have in the gallery because it represents one woman’s story, but also the stories of many women – mothers, sisters, daughters, and aunts – who lost loved ones during the First World War. It also reflects a particular time in Queensland, and how the war affected social customs. Because there was such an unprecedented amount of death during World War 1, Victorian mourning customs, which were very elaborate and public, were replaced by more private, modest acknowledgements as whole communities mourned. The silk satin suit reflects the design and styling that was popular during the war years, comprised of a jacket and skirt of simple design lines with military-like braid and button decoration.
The fabric of the original suit was deteriorating and too fragile to go on display so it was painstakingly re-created by Queensland Museum Textiles Conservator Solitaire Osei. The process of reconstructing the suit was a challenge she hadn’t faced before, but with her textile conservation experience and training in fashion construction, Solitaire knew it was achievable.
I spent a total of 420 hours re-creating the suit in matching materials. Starting with a thorough analysis of every fabric, thread and stitch, I was able to piece together how it was originally constructed. It wasn’t an easy process, however. Normally you start with people’s measurements to make a dress, but I had to go the other way as I had no idea what size or shape Mrs Massey was. So, after numerous measurements were taken, I drafted patterns and set out to reconstruct the mourning suit made by Janet Walker one hundred years ago.
When recreating the suit, it was the braid on the jacket back that proved the most difficult to obtain. The braid wasn’t available anywhere as it was made more than a century ago, so I had to break down the components of the braid and source the material. I ended up finding it at a military store in the UK and I then had to teach myself how to braid it and constructed a replica.
With the reproduction complete and ready for display, I still had a few unanswered questions. It was my hope that one of Mrs Massey’s descendants could shed some light about the alterations made to the garment, which were found during the reconstruction process. However, the process of tracking down descendants was complicated. The relationship of the donor to the Massey family wasn’t recorded at the time of the donation and the curatorial team were unable to trace living descendants through desk-based research, which led them to seek a broader audience through a media call out.
Fortunately, Peta Geisel, Christina’s great granddaughter, contacted Queensland Museum within hours of hearing the call-out on ABC Radio Brisbane.
She and her late mother Erna Olsen (daughter of Helen Wruck nee Massey) had donated the gown in 2008. Ms Geisel said the dress had sat for many years among the Christmas decorations at the top of her mother’s cupboard in Eudlo near the Sunshine Coast, before she housed it at her home in The Gap until the time of the donation.
In September 2018, Queensland Museum hosted a morning tea for the family, including Peta Geisel, her daughter Jasmin Forsyth and granddaughter Asha. Peta’s brother Jason Olsen also attended, as well as a nephew Adam Craven. The family admired the reproduction and viewed the original suit, which prompted a few memories. Peta described dressing up in the suit as a child and even wore it on horseback in a parade one day, resulting in a rip in the skirt that is still there today.
“I have many memories of my sister and I trying on this dress,” said Peta.
“However, back then, we had no idea it held such historical value. Granny Massey’s dress has such a story to tell, and I’m delighted to be learning even more about it, as this journey continues.”
Peta used to be a dressmaker herself, so was especially interested in the reproduction process.
“Solitaire’s work is outstanding,” she said.
“You can see in the detail, her level of skill and passion for this project.”
A large part of the curatorial team’s work on the Anzac Legacy Gallery has involved tracking down and meeting with descendants of those people whose stories are featured. Consultation and collaboration are so important when designing a gallery, and we try to find someone related to every single object we display. Stories enrich objects, providing context and connection.
Read more about the Anzac Legacy Gallery here.