Janet Walker

Mrs Janet Walker Mrs Janet Walker Detail from Janet Walker label Detail from Janet Walker label

Mrs Janet Walker was Brisbane’s leading costumiere during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Mrs. Walker (1850-1940) began her business in the Central Chambers, Queen Street in 1882. From there she moved to larger premises in Adelaide Street in 1886 and 1892, then back to Queen Street in 1919, where she remained until 1938. The quality of her work was first drawn to public attention in October 1884, when the female journalist from ‘The Queenslander’ visited her rooms, as well as those of her colleagues, Miss Margaret Caldwell and Miss Margaret Scott. From 1887 to 1901 the local press acknowledged Janet Walker’s designs at eighty-four weddings, fourteen balls, six receptions, at the opening of Federal Parliament in Melbourne, as well as describing thirty sets of trousseau garments made at her atelier (workroom).

Existing gowns made by Mrs. Walker not only reflect her skill as a designer, but also her high standard of workmanship. These qualities, together with her capacity to attract and maintain a clientele, enabled her to operate the largest private dressmaking establishment in colonial Brisbane. By the end of 1898 Janet Walker employed 120 staff, the majority of whom worked in her atelier. Even though she did not pay her apprentices during their first year of training, they were never expected to work overtime. Her remaining employees were paid the minimum wage, overtime, and bonuses during busy periods. It would appear that she trained her staff extremely well, as several left her establishment to set up their own businesses.

The ‘Ladies’ Emporium’

The Ladies Emporium The Ladies Emporium, Adelaide Street, 1896 – 1900.Photo: State Library of Queensland

During the latter part of the nineteenth century private costumieres and dressmakers were in direct competition with the dressmaking services offered by the larger drapery stores. Mrs. Walker and her partner Miss Caldwell were not intimidated by these changes, instead they matched the services offered to women by the larger drapery stores by opening the ‘Ladies’ Emporium’ in Adelaide Street in September 1896. As their business was so successful, the premises were remodelled three times between 1896 and 1900. In 1897 a showroom was also established on the ground level of the Courier Building at the corner of Queen and Edward Streets. Such a venture not only demonstrated the creative and entrepreneurial skills of these women, but also the independence they had achieved in a male dominated business economy.

Mrs Janet Walker, costumier, and Miss Margaret Caldwell, milliner, established the ‘Ladies’ Emporium’ at 216 Adelaide Street, in September 1896. Both women had operated their respective businesses in these premises since November 1892. The building had formerly been operated as the Finney, Isles and Company carpet warehouse.

The new Emporium was under the combined management of both women. It was divided into thirteen specialist departments including corsetry, cottons, dress goods, gloves, hosiery, laces, linens, linings, muslins, prints, ribbons, silks and underclothing. Miss Caldwell also began to stock a large selection of falls, flowers, parasols and net. Brisbane women were now able to order a custom made dress and matching hat, as well as all the accessories, which contributed to the total fashion look of the late nineteenth century. Stock for the Emporium was sourced from Sydney, Melbourne, London and Paris.

The comfort of both customers and employees was paramount. Each of the large show rooms located on the ground floor of the Emporium were well lit, ventilated, and kept cool on hot days with the addition of large window shades. The basement fitting rooms were artificially lit specially for the viewing of evening gowns. The establishment boasted three levels of such comforts. By the end of 1898 the work force at the Emporium had increased to one hundred and twenty, the majority of whom were working in the dressmaking departments. Between October 1896 and August 1900, thirty-three weddings were attributed to the Emporium.

Although the Emporium was a successful enterprise, it was closed at the end of August 1900, as Mrs Walker decided not to renew the existing lease. Instead, she renegotiated the lease for the two upper rooms where she was could continue her custom made clothing business. Mrs Walker remained in these premises until 1919, and then moved to Queen Street until her retirement in 1938, aged 88.

Although the social structure of Queensland began to change during the early twentieth century, Janet Walker’s reputation as a talented and skilled modiste had been established, and thus enabled her to continue to operate her business until her retirement in 1938.

The Janet Walker Collection

In 1991 Queensland Museum began to collect clothing objects made by this important figure in Queensland fashion history. The first item acquired was an Edwardian wedding gown. Between 1996 and 2000 six additional garments were donated following extensive research carried out by Michael Marendy on the career of Janet Walker.

Two exceptional pieces were identified:

  • an evening gown belonging to Lady Julia Griffith (1899-1903), the wife of the first chief justice of Queensland and Australia, Sir Samuel Griffith, and 
  • a ball gown made for Mrs Barbara Jane Drury, possibly worn to the Vice Regal Ball held at Government House in July 1892.

Ball Gown, H42023

Ball Gown, H42023 Ball Gown, H42023

This gown was designed and made for Mrs Barbara Drury, nee Grahame (1846-1907), the grandmother of the donor, Dr Patricia Marks, and the wife of Edward Robert Drury who was Manager of the Queensland National Bank in Brisbane from 1872 until his death in 1896. The gown may have been worn to the Vice Regal Ball held at Old Government House on July 21, 1892.

The gown consists of two pieces, a short sleeved, close fitting bodice, and a six gored skirt. Ten of the twelve bodice panels are made of pink and ivory silk brocade. The centre front plastron and short puffed sleeves are made of garnet coloured silk velvet. A narrow velvet ruffle hides the front opening. The low cut neckline is trimmed with a flat pleated collar and a double layer of gathered silk chiffon. (Note: The fragments of the original silk chiffon trim were replaced with new chiffon during conservation). The entire bodice extends below the natural waistline. The corset in vogue at the time gave the bust a rounded appearance and the illusion of a tiny waist.

The skirt is made up of two parts, a shot silk taffeta foundation skirt, and an overskirt made of alternating panels of silk brocade and silk velvet. The spaces left by the panel points have been filled with knife pleated copper coloured silk. Three full widths of velvet have used to form the centre back panel which also forms a slight train.

Wedding Gown, H22566

This gown is made of ivory silk satin, featuring magyar sleeve with side panel, raised waistline, and bias cut quarter circle skirt. The bodice is draped in ivory georgette and decorated with beads, pearls, lace, and two georgette roses. The skirt has a diagonal insertion of lace and a diagonally draped georgette sash attached to the left side seam. Suspended from this point is a bunch of georgette roses and rose buds. The back left side of the skirt extends to form a short train.

Wedding Gown, H22566 Wedding Gown
Wedding gown

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