A Brief Account of Fashion Manufacturing in Sydney: Surry Hills as the Former Hub of New South Wales’ ‘Rag Trade’

A Brief Account of Fashion Manufacturing in Sydney: Surry Hills as the Former Hub of New South Wales' 'Rag Trade'

Sydney has recently experienced its largest city fire in 55 years, with the R.C. Henderson Ladies Hat factory in Surry Hills being destroyed. The building, which was once a six-storey brick structure built in 1912, had been empty for some time and was set to become a boutique hotel. The fire has led to questions about how Surry Hills became the centre of the fashion manufacturing industry, or “rag trade”, for New South Wales.

Ready-made clothing developed in Australia in the 1860s with the uptake of Isaac Singer’s sewing machine. As the population became more prosperous, it needed better clothes. The New South Wales fashion industry was one of the most locally concentrated in Australia, with most men’s, women’s, and children’s clothes and hats made in or near Surry Hills. Electric-powered machines that sped up production were introduced from 1914.

David Jones assembled its garments in a modern purpose-built factory in Marlborough Street, Surry Hills in 1915. Until the 1980s, most Australians wore Australian-made clothes. High import duties meant there was enormous impetus for local production. As more women worked, they had less time and needed to buy store-bought clothes.

Surry Hills was covered in cheap terrace houses built as worker’s rentals from the 1850s. The new Central Station opened in 1906 on the site of a former cemetery. As the terraces deteriorated, the area was widely considered a “slum”. Multi-storey factories allowing for multiple occupancies were the norm.

Labour for the Surry Hills industry was drawn from the entire metropolitan area. Women immigrants made up 70% of employees. Labour became less skilled as detailed hand-tailoring and dressmaking were superseded by machines in the 1950s.

Between 1947 and 1966, 1.8 million migrants arrived in Australia. Many worked in factories. A large proportion of the Jewish Europeans who arrived in the 1930s and 1940s worked in the clothing industry; in turn they employed many southern-European migrant women who arrived with little or no English. Fashion and clothing knowledge enabled many Jewish migrants to re-establish their livelihoods and identities across the globe.

The Whitlam Government cut tariffs by 25% in 1973 to reduce inflation and as a new approach to national industry planning. At the time, fashion amounted to 10% of Australia’s total manufacturing employment. The reduction of tariffs and subsidies, price gouging, discounting, and off-shore production decimated the industry. Employment fell by nearly one third in two years after 1973. The market share of imports doubled. Business people moved their capital from manufacturing into property.

If we time travelled back to 1950 in Randle Street, the scene would be very different from today. Rather than urban professionals and baristas, we would see rag trade seamstresses, finishers, designers, managers, retailers, salespeople, and promoters. With this fire, another piece of Sydney’s rag trade and workers’ history is lost.

Source: theconversation.com

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