How What Will Be Worn came to be

For all who know Brisbane, McWhirters, a once celebrated department store in Fortitude Valley, is an icon. For Melissa Fagan, it's also the starting point for her book exploring her mother and grandmother’s lives, and a reminder of the ways in which retail stores and fashion have connected women’s lives across decades.

In the first year of the 21st century, Coles Myer Ltd, as it was then, donated its archive to the State Library of Victoria. At the time it was the largest complete collection the library had ever received: ‘one kilometre of company documents, accounts, reports, correspondence, minutes and catalogues’, including everything the company had inherited from the stores it had taken over.

I discovered the archive’s existence not long after I began my MPhil in Creative Writing. My project was to write – or attempt to write – a book about my mother’s family, the McWhirters, who once owned the Fortitude Valley department store of the same name. When I set off for Melbourne shortly after Easter 2012, the anticipation had been building for months. I imagined the bounty I would find there, the reams of correspondence, floor plans, meeting minutes, photographs and maybe even a few personal notes. Collectively these would, I believed, reveal the nuances and inner workings of how the business evolved over the first half of the 20th century, showing me how McWhirter & Son, ‘cash drapers’ became McWhirters, ‘Brisbane’s vast emporium and Queensland’s great mail-order house’.

The day after I arrived, I walked in through the colonnaded entrance way of the library and upstairs to the reading room, where the first ten of a total of 14 boxes were waiting. I carried one over to a table, lifted the lid, and began to rifle through its contents. I had assumed – somewhat naively, I realise now – that the entire contents of each box would be related in some way to McWhirters.

Box after box was filled with miscellanea, filed in no particular order, pertaining not just to McWhirters but to countless other variety and department stores that Coles and Myer had subsumed on their way to retail supremacy. As the minutes passed, I grew more and more dismayed: there was no bounty here. I had planned to spend four full days here, but within an hour or two I’d gone through all 14 boxes.

After I’d photographed everything I thought might be useful (and quite a few items I suspected wouldn’t be), I checked and double-checked with the librarian: had I missed anything? No, she assured me, that was it. I caught the tram back to my friend’s house in Toorak, deflated, wondering how I was going to fill my remaining three days in Melbourne, wondering whether that would be it for this story.

The next day my friend and I went to the Grace Kelly exhibition at the Bendigo Art Gallery. We saw the white bathing robe Kelly’s character Tracy Lord slips out of during a poolside scene in High Society, a black evening dress she wore during a pivotal scene in Rear Window, the original Hermès Kelly bag, and a replica of her famous wedding dress.

Back in Melbourne, I ate, drank, and spent time with friends. I shopped. At a Gorman sale in an Abbotsford warehouse I rummaged, alongside hundreds of other women in their 20s and 30s, through boxes of shoes and belts and hats, and racks that were teetering sideways under the weight of all those dresses and shirts and singlets and skirts and shorts and cardigans and trousers. After an hour I decided on a too-short dress with a high, narrow neckline that was flattering on my broad shoulders, which I have since worn twice. I bought a pair of baggy, pencil-pleated charcoal shorts; they have always been too big for me but I wear them still, loving their slouchy pockets and the way they rest comfortably, low on my hips. I bought a coffee-coloured silk crop top that tied in the front. A mystery stain appeared not long after I bought it, and refused to budge despite repeated soakings. It’s gone to Vinnies now.

The morning of the day I was due to leave Melbourne, I succumbed, finally, to a pair of suede ankle boots, taupe with a wooden heel, which had been beckoning to me daily from the window of a boutique on Malvern Road. They were not cheap, but they were exactly what I wanted, what I had been looking for, without knowing it, for some time.

The connection seems obvious doesn’t it? Yet I had long fancied I was immune –or at least resistant – to fashion, to the tricks and enticements of merchandising, to consuming for consuming’s sake. And so it was years before I saw that there was a connection between what I thought I was looking for in Melbourne and what I actually found. It was years before I realised that in succumbing to the apparently easy and traditionally feminine outlet of shopping to pass the time, I had inadvertently found another way to tell the McWhirter story, or at least part of the McWhirter story: the story of the women, and the clothes they wore.

 

Melissa Fagan completed her MPhil at the University of Queensland in 2016. What Will Be Worn: a McWhirters story (Transit Lounge) was published in September 2018.