An accidental heirloom

56 years. One gown. A family heirloom is born.

Below: Young schoolgirl carrying a Pike Brothers parcel and a travel rug, Brisbane, undated. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 251400

Below image - The Great Court 1960, Fryer Library University of Queensland Photograph Collection

It was 1960, and June MacDonald had finished her studies at St Mary’s College Ipswich and was heading off to university to continue her education.

She came from a hard-working Ipswich family – her dad was a railway worker at the local rail yards – so going to university was a proud achievement.

June and her mother made a special trip to Brisbane by train to buy a gown and cap for her matriculation ceremony – a ritual for those starting their studies at The University of Queensland.

June describes Brisbane’s Queen Street as the place to go and Pikes menswear store was the height of fashion for all discerning shoppers, especially for well-heeled Queensland graziers who made trips to the ‘city’ to trim their wardrobes.

Dressed in her new cap and gown, June has fond memories of her matriculation ceremony on the lawn at The University of Queensland.

“The ceremony was nowhere near the size of ceremonies today - there were probably a few hundred people - and chairs were set up in the Great Court,” June said.

“Everybody was at the ceremony, including the Governor of Queensland, Henry Abel Smith, who went around and spoke to everybody there.”

June spent her days at Kelvin Grove Teachers’ College before travelling to UQ to attend night classes while studying part-time for her undergraduate degree.

“I’d travel on the train from Ipswich every day and often I wouldn’t get home until late, although I did manage to meet for coffee with a friend at Café Milano.”

The Merlo family opened the Queen Street café that same year and had an espresso machine imported from Italy which was the first of its kind in Queensland.

June donned her cap and gown again in 1973 when she graduated from UQ with a Bachelor of Arts– her gown altered to become a graduate gown with the addition of a hood.

June MacDonald graduating in 1973

June MacDonald graduating in 1973

In 1976, the gown was pulled from the wardrobe and dusted off for another graduation ceremony – this time for June’s brother-in-law Maurice Keenan.

June's brother-in-law Maurice Keenan in the same gown in 1976

June's brother-in-law Maurice Keenan in the same gown in 1976

He’d completed his Bachelor of Arts degree, and by donning June’s gown and cap, a family tradition was created.

By then, UQ had streamlined its academic dress system to include new colours – instead of different colours for each faculty there was now white for all Bachelor’s degrees, royal blue for Masters’, maroon for professional doctorates, scarlet for PhDs, and gold for higher doctorates.

Seventeen years later, June’s nephew Mel Keenan was the next to wear the accidental family heirloom in 1993 when he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours).

Mel Keenan

Mel Keenan

So the Pike’s gown was again altered to add a pearly white hood before being wrapped around the shoulders of the next UQ graduate in June’s family.

Even though June would carefully wrap and replace the gown after each family graduation celebration, the hood was nibbled on by some hungry moths when it was lent to a friend.

But, the gown was made of tougher stuff and the moths were no match for the now decades-old garment.

Dr Thomas Keenan, son of Maurice, brother of Mel and nephew of June would be the next family member to wear the precious family gown. He graduated with a Bachelor of Business Communication (Honours); plus he received a University Medal.

Tom Keenan graduates

Tom Keenan graduates

The gown was to make the trek to Ipswich for the event and Thomas was among the first to graduate from the UQ Ipswich Campus in 2001, and then with honours in 2002.

The gown and cap returned to Brisbane and this time, June packed it away with moths in mind.

Fast forward to December 2016.

June’s great niece Marlena Litchfield was the latest to take part in the enduring family tradition.

The gown was treated to a dry clean, and while it looked a little worn, the loved and still strong gown made another graduation ceremony appearance when Marlena graduated with a Bachelor of Arts.

The gown is due to come out of the wrapping again for Marlena’s younger brother, and if all goes to plan, we can get a glimpse of this gown in 2019 – 59 years after its debut.