From Paris couture to those birthday cakes: The Women’s Weekly at 90

By Janice Breen Burns

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In 1946 a rich Sydney socialite with a clipped English accent, Packer family connections and a formidable reputation was appointed fashion editor of the then wildly successful 13-year-old Australian Women’s Weekly newspaper.

You get a sense of the legendary Mrs Mary Hordern and her cut-crystal quasi-British consonants on French Mannequins Present the New Look, a 1948 clip in the Bendigo Art Gallery’s new exhibition, The Australian Women’s Weekly: 90 years of an Australian Icon. She does the voiceover.

“Sydney has its own parade of Par-ris fa-ar-shions creations of Fr-ar-nce’s best known coutur-e-ay.” Among the rollcall of beach suits and swishy linens by Schiaparelli, Jacques Fath and Carvin, Mrs Hordern brightly suggests any husbands – mer-se-yers – bored by the fashions might care to focus instead on the delectable manni-quarns modelling them.

Such was the way we were. After the drab, terrifying years of World War II, a wealthy, nepotistic (Weekly co-founder Sir Frank Packer was Mrs Hordern’s brother-in-law), cheerily sexist socialite is appointed mentor to the housewives of Australia on matters of glamour and etiquette.

Australian Women’s Weekly covers, clockwise from main: October 9, 1957; February 19, 1975; October 8, 1958; June 30, 1982; November 23, 1960. 

Odd, now, yes, but it was Mrs Hordern’s time. And, let’s put aside unfair assumptions, she was no ninny. In the clip, she is, in fact, narrating her own extraordinary feat of glamorous post-war gobsmackery: her flight to Paris, negotiations with top ateliers, a culminating plane-load (a Qantas constellation, no less) of Parisian haute couture originals and a full set of genuine French mannequins to model it, en route to Australia before you could say, “ou est ce?”

The fashion show was a splash in The Weekly, hit headlines around the country, but was all in a day’s work for the remarkable Mrs Hordern, just one of many journalistic legends forged by The Weekly.

“She was of her time,” says exhibition curator Lauren Cross. “And that clip is of its time … You couldn’t cancel it.”

Nor would you want to. Revelations like Mrs Hordern and the quaint cultural tenets of “her time” are among myriad fascinating blips you can follow along The Weekly’s 90-year timeline at Bendigo Art Gallery. It’s a timeline that also mirrors the heavily nuanced history of Australian women’s cultural evolution and (through the 1960s and ’70s) revolution. Comparing the thens and nows will undoubtedly be a constant joy for exhibition visitors.

Cross says she’s made sense of The Weekly’s dense history by sorting exhibits including fashions, original newspapers and magazines, recipes, sewing patterns, mannequins in exquisite gowns, cookbooks and readers’ memorabilia, into two editorial categories that have underpinned the magazine since 1933 and its first publication as a black and white tabloid “women’s newspaper”.

“One stream is around Australian visions of style and womanhood and glamour,” says Cross, who cobbled that together with The Weekly’s current style director, Mattie Cronan. “It’s that little slice of the big glamorous world … a window into what women aspire to and daydream about in their 10 minutes alone with a cup of tea.”

The second stream is about homemaking: recipes, parenting, crafts. “And cookbooks,” adds Cross. “Especially the birthday cake book; there’s so much excitement around the birthday cakes!”

Clockwise from main: July 14, 1940 cover; Dolly Varden cake; swimming pool cake, candy castle cake; Humpty Dumpty cake (cake images from the 1980 birthday cake book).Credit: Russell Brooks

A recent Instagram post about The Weekly’s famous 1980 Children’s Birthday Cake Book (which has sold 80 million copies around the world so far) triggered a tsunami of 400 snaps and memories of home-made triumphs and disasters in a matter of a few hours. “That birthday cake book,” Cross shakes her head, “it’s a juggernaut on its own.”

Curating hundreds of exhibits was absorbing, and moving, and not just because of the cakes. “Sewing patterns, recipes, scrappy falling-apart bits of paper from all over the country,” Cross says. “It was quite moving; we actually have quite an amazing visual record of decades of emotional and caregiving domestic labor. The love and energy that goes into those nourishing and exciting and magical homes for families…”

Cronan’s dive into the magazine’s archive for glamour also turned up gold. “Manila folders full of beautiful images from the 1940s; a letter from a French milliner whose hats were printed in The Weekly, so many gorgeous illustrations of the Paris shows, Christian Dior gowns…”

Cover from July 2, 1958.

Cronan also scouted gowns from Weekly covers that marked swivel points in its history. Toni Maticevski’s waved red skirt for celebrity chef Maggie Beer, for example, was a joyous salute to glamorous older women and a nose-thumbing gesture to a youth-obsessed society. An extravagant Aurelio Costarella gown, on loan from the National Gallery of Victoria, was an elegant tribute to Australia’s home-grown royal, Crown Princess Mary of Denmark. Cronan styled the gown on location in the princess’ palace for The Weekly’s 80th birthday edition in 2013. “That was a milestone,” she says. For her and The Weekly.

Maggie Beer dressed in Toni Maticevski for The Weekly’s 2018 Christmas edition.

The magazine’s phenomenal record as a queen maker – editors, category directors, writers – is also threaded through the exhibition. “The women of their time creating the resource women wanted and needed at the time,” as Cross describes them. “They brought their own personal style and kudos, their own media presence and personality.”

In the nine decades following Packer’s launch appointment of journalist George Warnecke (its only male editor, 1933 until 1939) The Weekly’s mix of current affairs, profiles of famous women, fashion and beauty reports and tips and domestic arts was interpreted by a succession of legendary women.

Among the dozens worth Googling, because their biographies are too dense to unpack here: war correspondents Dorothy Drain (who became editor in 1972) and Adele Shelton Smith; photographer Adelie Hurley; economist and food director Pamela Clark (the author of the Birthday Cake Book became a 50-year veteran of The Weekly); style and fashion editors including Mary Hordern, Betty Keep and Maggie Tabberer; and editors such as Alice Jackson, Ita Buttrose, Nene King and Helen McCabe.

Buttrose, now chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, fondly remembers two stints at The Weekly. “The first, I think I was about 20 when I applied to be the social editor.” In 1963 she joined the magazine’s terribly civilised, ladylike workforce under Esme Fenston, a modest but fearless editor who would commission groundbreaking – and eye-popping for their day – features on the pill and women’s sexual health. Fenston was also The Weekly’s longest-serving editor (22 years), mourned with tears by Sir Frank Packer.

Ita Buttrose in her Australian Women’s Weekly office in Sydney, 1980.Credit: Fairfax

“I got to know many of those players,” Buttrose says of the office where a girl routinely smoothed her skirt, combed her hair and checked her nails lest her bosses’ lips curled. “They would vet you to make sure you were dressed correctly … Miss Keep, the fashion editor, Miss [Kate] Mahon, the beauty editor … and I was the only one called by my first name because I was a junior.”

‘There were women like me, back in the workforce, married and [with] children… I had to modernise it.’

For two years Buttrose was an exemplary (and immaculately groomed) social editor. She suffered just one tiny demerit which she only revealed years later, involving a certain tres-chic Melbourne Cup racegoer who posed for her social shot, oblivious to the clerk of the course’s horse nibbling the violets off her hat.

“It was a real dilemma,” Buttrose says, laughing. “I couldn’t say anything. I was young; I didn’t know what to do! I never told anyone until years later … then I got a letter from the same woman; she said ‘I always wondered what happened to my violets’ … That was The Weekly.”

Just over a decade later, in 1975, Buttrose had locked in a string of career milestones, including her against-all-odds launch of Cleo magazine, and was back at The Weekly, this time to save it. “I was appointed because it hadn’t moved with the 20th century,” she recalls. “Kerry [Packer] appointed me editor-in-chief of both publications so I could still keep my hand on Cleo at the same time.”

It was the first time the cash cow of the Packer family’s Australian Consolidated Press stable had seriously wobbled. “The marketplace was changing,” Buttrose recalls. “There were women like me, back in the workforce, married and [with] children. We had different interests that were reflected in everything … I had to modernise it.”

The magazine’s physical appearance was wrong, too. “The cost of paper was particularly high at the time,” Buttrose recalls. “There was a paper shortage … it was still a tabloid. I had to change the size.”

She cut it down to the A4 full-colour Weekly we know today and filled it with content deeply plugged into the 1970s zeitgeist. The simple mechanics of women’s liberated lives as working mothers and homemakers was particularly heavy in the editorial formula. “We started the campaign for better trading hours, for instance,” says Buttrose. “At the time, all shops shut at 12 on a Saturday so it used to be hell, hurtling around the butcher, the greengrocer, the bootmaker, wherever you had to go, by midday with a child in a stroller.”

The February 19, 1975, edition featured a ″⁣wedding dress to crochet″⁣. While more women were in the workforce, crafts remained an important focus.

Fashion got the liberated treatment too. Under Fenston, The Weekly’s fashion radar had already swung away from Paris. “Our own designers had started to pop up in the 1960s,” says Buttrose. “Norma Tullo, Prue Acton … there was also the fact women had less time to make their own clothes and as ready-to-wear started to kick off, that was really the big change; you could get the look from overseas quite economically by buying off the rack.”

Crafts and patterns were still crucial to the editorial mix. “You’d see something nice,” Buttrose remembers, “and think ‘I’ll get the fabric and buttons and make it on the weekend’,” but definitions of glamour were being rejigged away from Parisian copies.

“The 1970s was when we started to get designers like Peter Weiss and Trent Nathan and Stuart Membery, Merivale and Carla Zampatti, and they weren’t just replicating what was going on in Paris.”

They were seeding a new genre: Australian fashion design. Cronan clocked the same profound changes in archives of the 1970s and followed them to the boom era for local fashion in the 1980s. (The exhibition also includes a replica of the Jenny Kee Blinky jumper worn by Princess Di while she was pregnant with Prince William.)

The June 30, 1982 cover, featuring Princess Diana in the “Blinky” jumper, and the Weekly’s own version.

“They got more celebratory of Australia,” Cronan says. “They started using locations that celebrated Australia; Bondi Beach or gorgeous bush locations … and really, we haven’t changed. We still do.”

“It’s been a funny business, building this exhibition,” says Lauren Cross. “It’s really been like creating a space and occasion to prompt people to connect with their own memories.”

She has a theory about The Weekly’s success (albeit, with oscillating fortunes since the 1980s): that its tender, unerring respect for women’s interests and work is the reason.

“It’s a pretty well-documented cultural phenomenon that [women’s work] is relegated to this idea of being inferior, low culture … not taken as seriously or having the gravitas of men’s,” she says. “But The Weekly has always steadily carved out this space where women’s work and experiences and cultural and creative activity are always taken seriously. Even the birthday books are never taken lightly, there’s never that sense of a joke or ‘this is just silly nonsense silly women do for their children’. The Weekly’s more about ‘This is our world and these are the things that bring women pride and pleasure and these are the things that bring them worry and stress.’”

The Australian Women’s Weekly: 90 Years of an Australian icon is at Bendigo Art Gallery, May 27 – August 27.

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