Man, when I started this post I was only going to tell you about two rad ladies, but it seems that Arthur and Fred Burley employed lots of women in leadership roles that let them, if you will pardon another one of my trademark corny puns, shape Australian public life.
Clare Stevenson, by Nora Heysen, 1943.
Clare Stevenson was born in Wangaratta, Victoria and raised in Essendon. She studied science at the University of Melbourne but graduated in education in 1925, and when WWII broke out she was a senior executive at Berlei in charge of corporate training and product development, travelling between London and Sydney and around Australia.
"The interest in national fitness here amongst the older women will … help them keep the natural good posture and good looks of Australian youth till much later in life," Stevenson told the Perth Daily News in 1940, when she was visiting the city to deliver a very interesting-sounding lecture, 'The Care of the Bustline'.
Due to her management and training experience (and also, apparently, because she wasn't a "socialite"), Stevenson was appointed the Director of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) in 1940, rising to the rank of Group Officer (the equivalent to Group Captain in the regular air force, or to a captain in the Royal Navy or general in the British Army) in 1942.
The WAAAF was the first and the largest uniformed women's military service in Australia during WWII. By 1944 it had more than 18,000 members and made up roughly a third of the RAAF's ground force. A wonderful Sydney Morning Herald headline in 1941 marvelled, "Director of WAAAFs approves lipstick. Smokes, too."
"Women look more attractive with lipstick, even in uniform," she said, accepting the reporter's offer of a cigarette. "Lacquered nails? It's largely a matter of taste." Seriously, though, she spent the war fighting for equal pay and respect for her enlistees, and against the sentiment from government authorities that women's best contribution to the war effort was to maintain the home.
After the war, Stevenson returned to her previous job at Berlei. She retired in 1960. Never having married, she died in 1988, aged 85.
Desolie Richardson (who became Lady Desolie Hurley on her marriage to Sir John Garling Hurley in 1976) was Berlei's Chief Executive Designer from 1954 until her retirement in 1970. (Here's a photo of her in 1969.) During the 1950s she successfully licensed one of Berlei's flagship designs, the Sarong Girdle, from its American designer Constance Fridolph. (The correspondence between Richardson and Fridolph, thrashing out the details of this deal and sending sample garments back and forth, is now part of the Berlei Collection in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.)
The Sarong was advertised in the Australian Women's Weekly until the early 1980s. It featured two overlapping diagonal elastic panels in the front, which purportedly allowed more 'control' with greater freedom of movement. Early ads showed women dancing, walking a dog and playing golf in the garment. Another selling point was that it apparently didn't ride up.
As a side note, when I see historical ads posted online, in blogs or on Pinterest and Tumblr, I often see people taking the imagery quite literally. As I write in the book, advertising is an archive of desire: it says much more about how people wanted to live than how they actually lived. This is valuable, because it's a way of capturing ephemeral social attitudes.
You can tell what it might actually have been like to wear historical underwear by paying attention to what the ads say their products won't do, or that their competitors do badly. For instance, if an ad says, "Our corset bones are unbreakable!" you conclude that corset bones often used to break.
Richardson also designed the luxurious Mink Bra. As its name suggests, it was a strapless long-line bra made out of fur, which retailed for 50 guineas in 1962 (around $650 in today's money). Check out a photo of this hilarious novelty garment here.
"Unlike ordinary fashion designing," Richardson told the Australian Women's Weekly in 1961, "foundations have to be essentially practical and exact. The job's rather like accountancy and engineering with a dash of fashion thrown in."