While searching through the NGV’s collection of Australian cartes-de-visite recently we came across this image. The intricate hairstyles, ornate fashion and curiously casual poses of the unidentified people caught our attention. Their intense gaze seemed to provoke further investigation. Since the recent Australian Made exhibition we have been discussing the ways in which different curatorial narratives emerge from photographs such as these. In particular, we have been thinking about how our specific areas of interest – photography and fashion – can come together to enrich our understanding of certain artworks.
Designed to be held in the hand, or housed in custom-made albums, cartes-de-visite are small, humble objects. Despite this they can reveal unique information about early photographic and cultural histories, personal histories, as well as histories of the fashions and hairdos of the day. The term derives from the French for ‘calling cards’, and refers to albumen silver photographs adhered to a card measuring around 10×6 cm. Cartes-de-visite were hugely popular with the colonial population of Australia. The format and relative affordability meant that images could easily be posted back ‘home’, and helped to democratise the photographic process. The upper and lower classes, famous and anonymous people were all now able to have their studio portrait taken – many for the first time.
This image was taken in the studio of S. Spurling, one of a long-line of photographic studios operated by members of the Spurling family in Tasmania from the 1850s until the 1940s. Stephen Spurling (1847-1924) specialised in studio portraits, where he experimented with flash photography and electrical lighting. This is an interesting example of such studio work with a tightly composed composition that focuses our attention completely on the sitters.
Styles of dress, particularly in the more frequently changing women’s fashions, can assist in identifying a time period for photos such as these, which are usually undated. In this image, the woman’s dress and her hairstyle point to the first half of the 1870s. At this time dresses were typically cut with a separate bodice and skirt, with either a square neckline, or as here, in a V shape. A narrow upstanding collar, often with a frill, finished the neckline, and the bodice, sleeves and skirt were embellished with contrasting fabric or trims. The full skirts, having evolved from the crinoline of the previous decade, were supported by a bustle at the back. Another distinctive indicator of the era is the swept up hairstyle framed by coils of hair and a comb, which this young woman favours. At this time, dresses, including day dresses, were commonly made of silk taffeta or satin, a fabric we would consider today as luxurious. However it was still a number of decades before synthetic fabrics were developed and readily available.
One of the surprising things to consider when looking at these grey and brown, albumen silver photographs is that during the 1860s and 1870s, there was actually a preference for vibrantly coloured fabrics, spurred on by the discovery of aniline dyes. These synthetically produced dyes produced a range of, among others, bright greens, blues and mauves. Surviving dresses from the time attest to the popularity of these new-found colours. See for example this ‘day dress’ by Bright & Hitchcocks of Geelong.
Menswear is somewhat harder to readily identify, as men’s fashions tended to evolve more slowly and changes were more subtle to read. In the 1870s men’s tailored suits comprised a coat or jacket, a waistcoat and trousers. Our man appears to be wearing a morning coat which typically had a cut-away or angled front and a double breasted waistcoat. Full bushy beards and moustaches were the fashion and the man’s unusually high coiffed hair has been carefully combed into place with the use of hair oil.
Although Stephen Spurling ran a photographic studio in Launceston from 1873 in St John Street, his Brisbane Street studio (which is recorded on the mount of this photograph) opened in 1878. This invites questions about the earlier style of the woman’s dress, and whether the photograph could have been taken at the first studio and printed later. Our research into Australian fashion of the later nineteenth century indicates that there was not usually a significant time lag in the adoption of current fashions. As with many cartes-de-visite, more questions are raised than answered.
Laura Jocic (Assistant Curator, Australian Fashion and Textiles) and Maggie Finch (Assistant Curator, Photography)