Dressing Sydney

September 16, 2012 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Fraser Beath McEwing founded the Australian fashion industry newspaper Ragtrader in 1972. He sold it 20 years later but still writes a column for it. This is his impression of the recently opened “Dressing Sydney’ exhibition…

Michael Jaku and curator Roslyn Sugarman

When I heard that the Sydney Jewish Museum was putting on an exhibition tracing the history of Jewish contributors to the Sydney apparel industry I doubted it could be any good. I mean, how could it be if the organisers hadn’t asked me for advice? But in truth, they didn’t need my input to produce a stunning result.

In terms of fit-out, the exhibition space is modest and plain, devoting each angled panel to a different Jewish textile, apparel supplier or retailer – mostly dating from the Second World War. But it tells a massive story. This was a time, in Australia, when the textile and apparel industry had become almost comatose. It was brought back to life largely by European Jewish immigrants who arrived here with nothing but an irresistible will to succeed aided by deceptively high levels of intelligence and business acumen. Many of the businesses they founded are still going today, carried on by successive generations.

The exhibition

Because of the way international trade has developed, and Australia’s response to it, increasing derestriction of textiles and apparel imports killed off the ‘back end’ of the trade progressively from the1970s.   Previously, import protection had supported substantial yarn production, textile mills and sewing factories – but no longer. The few that are left supply niche areas of the market or are used for production runs that are too small to import.

Visitors to the exhibition, called “Dressing Sydney” will see many familiar names and pictures, along with stories of the companies they established, and more so if the visitor has a few years under the belt like I do. When I started Ragtrader, in 1972 these people were my customers, my friends and, occasionally, my foes. In retrospect I loved them – and still do.

Right at the front of the exhibition there is a movie interview with many of the personalities who are still with us. You could spend four hours looking at the five minute grabs – however, the curators were planning to shorten it. But I was lucky enough to see the still suave George Bloomfield telling how the trade used to be when his Playtogs brand was kicking fashion goals.

While this exhibition is about Jewish Sydney textile and apparel supply in the second half of the Twentieth Century, it is more about the spirit of remarkable people.

Fraser Beath McEwing’s professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels. He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.


One Response to “Dressing Sydney”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    I remember Fraser too well……in the 70’s all over Surry Hills’ shmate game territory.

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