Mavis Ripper was a talented designer and portrait painter. Trained at the National Gallery of Victoria, she lived in Melbourne, occupying a studio in Grosvenor Chambers, 9 Collins Street, in proximity to other artists, musicians, designers, and photographers during the 1930s and 1940s. The building was reserved for creative professionals and her presence there points to her inclusion in Melbourne’s artistic set. Yet her contribution to the story of fashion and movie costume design in Australia has never been fully explored.
Mavis was a fashion leader and a costume designer for Melbourne society women and for Australia’s fledgling movie industry. When she was asked to design for the film Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938), it was the opportunity of a lifetime to elevate her creations to a new and glamorous status. There was no more effective medium than film to reach a national audience of thousands. What better way to ensure a place in Australia’s fashion memory than clothing movie stars and starlets in her signature pieces?
Besides costumes for Cinesound films, she designed elegant fashions for formal and outdoor sporting occasions, demonstrating her confident ability to move from one form of design to another. One of her most important contributions to the history of Australian fashion was her vigorous belief that Australia had its own unique type of woman. Her clothes were best suited to the Australian climate and way of life, and of course her bright, courageous colors were distinctive. She promoted the Australian wool industry, employing local weavers to handweave her fabrics, and used Australian dyes. The types of fabric were reversible tweeds, woolens for beachwear, and gossamer-weight fabric threaded in gold for evening frocks.
Mavis was a woman of stunning looks and was photographed by Athol Shmith, perhaps the most well-known glamour photographer of the time. Twice married, she seems to have loved to wear striped gowns that reflected the confidence, determination, and independence of the Australian character.
The Melbourne suburb of Prahran, in which Mavis Ripper was born in 1908, was at that time undergoing construction of a major shopping precinct along the famous Chapel Street (to rival the Melbourne Central Business District 3 miles/5 km away) with a number of grand emporiums such as Reads, the Big Store, Love & Lewis, and Maples Corner. The influence of growing up in this wealthy social environment impelled Mavis’s career, which was based on providing high-end gowns for her salon clients and striking costumes for movie actresses.
City fashions in the early 1900s were strongly influenced by European designs from Great Britain, Paris, and Vienna. Ready-to-wear garments were available directly or by mail order from the many emporiums. European settlers wanted to look European, not like colonial Australians—so original fashion design was not a priority. Of course, up until the 1920s, corsets were mandatory undergarments for women, and strait lacing maintained the highest moral virtues in the wearer while constraining physical activity and individual expression. The fashion silhouettes Mavis would have been familiar with as a child emphasized a wasp waist and bust squeezed upwards by the reinforced shape of the corset.
Liberation for women’s figures and their clothing came in the 1920s, during Mavis’s schooldays, with new foundation garments that created androgynous lines. A report in The Australasian’s social pages reveals that the eighteen-year-old Mavis attended a dance at Caulfield Grammar School on 26 June 1926 where the outfits of the matriarchs focused attention on the new fabrics of the post-World War I era: black georgette embroidered with silver beads and fuchsia-colored satin lumineaux. Mavis’s parents moved in the social circles where people wore the most up-to-date fashion innovations and she was acquainted firsthand with the customers who were willing to purchase or commission garments regularly.
Mavis Ripper’s later designs for sportswear throughout the 1930s reflected the adventurous spirit born with the proliferation of the motor car from 1908, when Ford began mass production. Faced with the long distances between towns, the promise of independent travel galvanized women to learn to drive. Fashion writer Norma Martyn, in The Look: Australian Women and their Fashion, reminds us that women were quick to gain driving licenses and were enthusiastic entrants in the first car rallies that stretched across rough bush tracks, sparking the design of a wide range of driving headwear and dust coats. Improved transport meant women had better connections with city stores through mail-order services, and easier access for personal visits to the city.
Aviation was the next technological achievement to impact on Mavis’s generation. Women’s fashions and Australian women were at the forefront of much publicized, record-breaking flights. Trousers—usually jodhpurs and “spacesuit” all-in-one outfits, with streamlined hairstyles, were the hallmarks of the progressive woman’s unisex attire. In a masterstroke of a marketing initiative, Berlei, the Australian women’s corset manufacturer, sponsored the first Perth–Sydney–Perth flight made by Irene Dean Williams on 6 April 1932, promoting new, freer corsetry, as Martyn describes: “re-styled for freedom, without confinement, shaping the woman of the future.” The costumes of actress Shirley Ann Richards, who wore Mavis’s designs in four Cinesound films, embody the “liberated” wardrobe of the interwar Australian woman, including some glamorous, fluid evening gowns, as a reminder that romance was as important as adventure.
In the interwar period, Melbourne was the center of the visual arts in Australia because of the influence of its art schools, myriad small galleries, and the availability of rental accommodation suitable for studio spaces. Into this world Mavis stepped when she enrolled in the National Gallery Art School, School of Design in the early 1920s. Historian Tony Moore notes that: “While the National Gallery School taught old-fashioned academic aesthetics—frustrating students—its greater value was the extracurricular bohemian activity encouraged among students and many lifelong creative networks and friendships were forged there.” Mavis combined portrait painting, architecture, and dress design in her studies for five years, and in 1934, her friendship with Gallery School colleagues Fred Ward and Les Raphael transformed into a creative partnership to produce costumes and stage designs for Raphael’s “ultra-modern musical extravaganza,” Something Different.
This first large theatrical commission involved designing six sets of character costumes and two hundred dresses in a fortnight. Mavis told the Melbourne Herald of 21 February 1934 that her knowledge of construction acquired in her architectural studies, combined with knowledge of anatomy learned from her portrait painting, gave her “a quick eye for symmetry and help[ed] her to design costumes that accentuate the natural beauty and symmetry of the body.” She described the colorways for the dresses as being “built up like sonatas—variations on a theme in each set mainly in reds and black and white and silver, but there are greens and pinks and many other colors introduced.”
At the same time as Mavis was designing for Something Different, she registered her new company—Mavis Ripper Pty. Ltd., drapers and general warehousemen, costumiers etc.—at 22 Collins Street, Melbourne, establishing herself in the clothing trade. Melbourne was an established manufacturing center for the clothing industry in the 1930s, with many small factories in the Northern suburbs staffed by hundreds of women. The Tailoresses’ Association of Melbourne was Australia’s first female trade union, established on 15 December 1882, reflecting the large number of women employed in the clothing industry. The availability of skilled garment workers aligned with the creative stimulus of the art schools helped to create a fertile environment for homegrown fashions in Melbourne. Garment manufacturing workshops owned by large department stores also offered employment to skilled seamstresses and finishers. Protective international tariffs on imported fashion goods helped the local market flourish.
In the mid-1930s Mavis was becoming a presence in the social pages, where she appeared glamorously dressed for events and modeling swimwear. Her position in society gave access to a client—Mrs. Harold Clapp, wife of the Victorian Railway’s commissioner (whose portrait Mavis had painted two years previously)—with a charitable theatrical project, a budget to support lavish costuming, and the opportunity to design on a large scale for the stage. Mavis’s costumes for Joanna embodied the sensational, with skirts split provocatively. A vital outfit for the leading lady described in the Melbourne Herald of 8 August 1936 was in glazed linen split to the hips: “Orange colored trunks are to be worn with it, the skirt is to be lined with broad bands of orange and emerald green, and there will be a cummerbund—characteristic feature of New Orleans costumes—in green.” Costumes were required for a cast of seventy, including thirty ballet girls and a chorus of twenty-four.
The costumes for Joanna were excellent practice for an extraordinary opportunity offered to Mavis to design the costumes for It Isn’t Done by Sydney-based Cinesound Film Productions, announced in January 1936. Shirley Anne Richards was the young star of the film, and thankfully newspaper descriptions, such as the one in the Sydney Morning Herald of 14 October 1936, tell us the color schemes of the gowns (which were not visible in the black-and-white film):
As the gowns were to be made in Melbourne, Mavis took the measurements of each of the actresses while visiting Sydney in preproduction, and made canvas mounts to fit each model. When the casting decisions were finalized, she created the entire collection using the canvas mounts and brought the completed items to Sydney.
Hardest of all challenges was designing clothes for Nellie Ferguson in the role of Shirley Anne Richards’s mother—Mrs Blaydon—as the outfits had to reflect the poor taste of someone who has just come into money. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph of 14 October 1936, Mavis felt it necessary to clarify that the gowns reflected the fictional character, not her own impeccable design talent:
A strategic preview in the Brisbane Courier-Mail of 29 October 1936, assured readers that the costumes in It Isn’t Done “carry many advanced fashion notes, which will allow for the lapse of some months before the film’s release.” Shirley Ann Richards’s gowns were intended to inspire female audience members to purchase something similar.
In December 1936, Mavis married Paul Northey, who played the hero of the musical comedy Joanna in South Yarra. The Herald of 12 December described how, ignoring convention, Mavis wore her own design for the wedding, a gown of silver lace veiled with mist-blue chiffon in a Russian tunic effect, with the fullness flared at the back, complemented by a hat of blue horsehair straw.
Marriage did not stifle Mavis’s career. By February 1937, described in the Melbourne Argus of 6 February as “probably the cleverest and most successful dress designer Australia has yet produced,” she closed her Collins Street boutique and was installed in a “modern and beautiful new salon” on the second floor of Sidney Myer’s Bourke Street store, painted in a “symphony of blues, a huge white bear-skin across the stairs … with rich upholstery in magnolia-tinted tweeds, waxed wooden fittings, superb mirror treatment.” This was Mavis’s bold statement announcing her style, and the Argus article explained exactly the power of a skilled couturiere to transform a customer to appear her best:
A soupçon of raillery in one frock for a woman of vivacious personality, a demure touch for another whose charm is her repose, dashing touches for the high spirited—what a world of possibility it opens to those women who realize what a march they steal on their sisters when they fall out of the ranks of the regimented wearers of factory made clothes, and let the expert dress-designer express for them that elusive, fragrant beauty that almost every woman has—if only she will give herself the chance to show it.
For four guineas, a client could purchase a Mavis Ripper individual model for day, dinner, or morning wear in silks, velvets, cloques, lamé, light woolens, or choose a gold lamé cocktail frock with a black velvet jacket. This combination in gold and black just happened to be an ensemble similar to the gown worn by Elaine Hamill, star of the Cinesound film Lovers and Luggers, a romantic adventure in an exotic tropical setting. A Mavis Ripper day frock would be, as the Argus of 24 July 1937 enthused, “fashioned from fabrics that are different … Spiked with buttons and accessories that only this clever individualist can exploit and draped to suit your figure type, coloring and personality.”
Describing the connection between movie costume design and her new salon, the Melbourne Age, 31 July 1937, articulated the lesson that Mavis had long ago taken to heart: “There is no doubt at all that the screen today is the greatest influence on fashion, and that women study the lovely creations designed for their favorite star so that with each new production fashions are born that sweep throughout the world.” Perhaps the most outstanding outfit for Shirley Ann Richards was a white trouser suit in which the actress made her first appearance. Trousers continued to be worn by Shirley’s character—Lorna—distinguishing her as an independent woman in contrast to the vacuous and duplicitous society figure of Stella (Elaine Hamill). Slacks and tailored sportswear were important staples in Mavis’s salon collections.
Referencing the success in Hollywood of Australian designer Orry Kelly (winning three Academy Awards for Best Costumes), the Argus hailed Mavis Ripper as the first woman designer of screen fashions in Australia, echoing the Sydney Mail’s accolades on 14 July 1937. In an article lavishly illustrated with Mavis’s outfits for Shirley Ann Richards and Elaine Hamill, stars of Lovers and Luggers, the Mail enthused: “Australian producers realize the appeal of fine dressing to the women of their audiences, and, as the pictures on this page show, the dressing of Australian films is rapidly becoming distinguished.” The article also featured the wedding dress she designed for Richards to wear in the other Cinesound hit of 1937, the drama Tall Timbers—a film that required practical outdoor clothing rather than glamorous gowns.
It would be more accurate to state that Mavis Ripper was the first acknowledged woman designer for Australian films. Lottie Lyell supervised costuming for the silent films she made with Raymond Longford (1911–1925), and it is impossible that women were not involved in the costume design and manufacture for other films predating Cinesound’s more inclusive publicity campaigns, as women were the dominant sex in all levels of the garment making industry.
Throughout this period of her career, Mavis was establishing her own credibility as a designer who understood the body shape and lifestyle requirements of discerning Australian women, and as a couturier with impeccable connections to European fashion houses and luxurious fabrics. On 5 February 1938, the Melbourne Herald ran advertisements to inform its readers that at the Mavis Ripper Salon in Myer, “£15,000 worth of the most talked about new weaves from the most recent Paris Exposition of Fabrics would be presented,” artistically draped on living models. A selection of Schiaparelli’s frosted moiré, Mainbocher’s satin lamés, Worth’s tinsel bayadares, Paquin’s angel skin, Lelong’s rare frost brocade, and many others were described in tempting detail for affluent customers. As a point of price comparison, Mainbocher’s satin lamés sold for eighty-four shillings a yard, and a Myer’s ready-made “wash-frock” sold for four shillings and eleven pence.
Cinesound’s next production in 1938, Dad and Dave Come to Town, provided Mavis with a perfect opportunity to showcase her skill in the spectacular fashion parade at the climax of the film. One hundred and fifty yards (137 m) of white chiffon were purchased to construct five circular-cut dance skirts for a dance routine in the film, captured at a variety of angles by George Heath, Cinesound cameraman, as the mannequins whirled in a dance sequence.
With a staff of fifty seamstresses and assistants, Mavis created forty-five outfits for the parade, to be worn by eighteen mannequins, valued at a total of £2,000. Sports clothes were a feature of the parade to celebrate Australian country life: a stylish riding habit, skating outfit, skiing outfit, and daring bikini were paraded against evocative filmed moving landscapes. These moving backgrounds were claimed as a first in movie production, and the Camperdown Chronicle of 4 October 1938 hailed the innovation as “the most original idea ever used in fashion presentation.” A live cow and horse made cameo appearances to emphasize the practicality of the clothes in a rural landscape. The designs for evening gowns (publicized as setting the style for the coming season) referenced Victorian and Edwardian silhouettes, with simplified lines, stylized bustles, pared-down ruffles, and clever implementation of an accentuated Regency stripe in one gown. Bold stripes, often on the diagonal, were to become Mavis’s signature design statement as her collections progressed through the decade.
Consolidating her public persona, Mavis linked her movie career to her Melbourne salon, hosting the guest American starlet from Dad and Dave Come to Town, Leila Steppe, at a Myer’s Fashion Tea in September 1938, as she modeled a selection of glamorous in-house fashions.
In a promotional move at the end of 1938, Mavis was named as one of the judges for Myer’s Vogue Dressmaking Contest, a contest that continued for some years, encouraging women to experiment with new ideas and new fabrics purchased from Myer. In addition, she kept her profile in the public eye with her weekly column, “Beauty and Fashion,” in The Age newspaper.
As costume historian Margaret Maynard has noted, the outbreak of war in 1939 was the catalyst for Mavis to embark on a campaign to promote the use of Australian fabrics and designs in order to attain a unique place in world fashion. She delivered her manifesto in the Australian Women’s Weekly of 9 March 1941:
Mavis commissioned a special sheer woolen hopsack for summer wear, which was lighter and cooler than linen and uncrushable. Hopsack was also favored for sports clothes and her suiting fabrics were diagonal tweeds. She experimented in weaving cellophane and gold and silver thread into fine woolens for added luster. Hand-loomed linens were employed for furnishing draperies, with hand-blocked designs using Mavis’s designs applied. Wartime exigencies did encroach on her designs by mid-1941, as recorded in the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 1941:
Much has been written about austerity measures affecting clothing designs and production throughout the war years, but investigation of newspapers across the country and popular women’s magazines of the early war years, including The Australian Women’s Weekly, Fashion, Modern Beauty, The Garden of Fashion, and Every Lady’s Journal reveals that fashion was consistently discussed, promoted, and lavishly illustrated. Fashion and good grooming boosted wartime morale: for those at home without a role in the armed forces, looking meticulously smart was something that civilians could do to promote values of decency and Australian independence and innovation. The reference to the colors of the Middle East in Mavis’s statement was a small attempt to wrest back an aesthetic relationship with this region in the light of political events and keep that connection alive despite military conflict.
Collections from European fashion shows were reported in the media to prove that creative life was going on despite rationing, blockades, and air attacks, and Mavis forged ahead in commissioning wool fabrics woven to her designs and specifications. Mavis Ripper mannequins wore trim, well-tailored, formfitting daywear and sensuous, figure-hugging bodices and flowing skirts in their evening gowns. Not an inch of fabric was wasted, and the skillful detailing on pockets, collars, and evening-gown embellishments accentuated the healthy physicality of the models.
The year 1941 also marked Mavis Ripper’s move from Melbourne to Sydney to open a boutique with Hera Roberts, a painter, illustrator, designer, commercial artist, and milliner. They rented a three-story building at 12 Barrack Street with the aim of specializing in woolens handwoven to Mavis’s designs. Slack suits and trousers in line with wartime economies were featured alongside the evening gowns. It seems that the boutique was short lived, as in August 1941 newspaper advertisements were promoting Mavis Ripper designs as exclusive to David Jones department store, and there is no further reference to the boutique.
The opening show for the new collection at Prince’s on 3 April 1941 was hailed by the Sydney Daily Telegraph on 4 April: “Since the outbreak of war Miss Ripper … has been working on … printed silks, woolens, and fine jerseys—which she hoped would help put Australia among the leaders of those countries now competing for the new world fashion market.” It is pertinent to read that a seldom acknowledged cultural and economic battle, with fashion at the forefront of the campaign, was running parallel to the military engagements across the world at this time. Advertisements for “a small shipment of English gloves” and straight-off-the-ship “crinkly slubs in British rayon linen-like weaves” in 1941 document a nation valiantly continuing to export its textiles despite the dangers of enemy boats at sea.
Alongside establishing her new Sydney boutique, Mavis was designing the costumes for Mr. Smart Guy, a play at the Minerva Theatre, and in June, she designed a regimental tie for the Women’s Land Army, which she renamed the “Australian Land Girls.” Worn with khaki uniforms, the tie had a deep brick red background crossed diagonally with a wide stripe consisting of a wide bar of khaki on both sides with narrow lines of white, creamy pink, and dark brown. Crossing the stripe vertically were the initials “ALG.”
After a busy day in the office or doing war work, girls like to discard their trim frocks and emerge like a glamour girl in a little ultra-feminine frou-frou. So the new season’s party frocks are adorable … there’s beauty touched with portraiture in filmy nets, fragile waistlines and far-flung skirts … in dresses that bring back nostalgic glimpses of the romantic past but fit perfectly into the modern scene.
By August 1941, wartime restrictions on imported fashion goods were biting, but Mavis resourcefully found ways to improvise and fabricate buttons made from discs of cork laced with patent leather, and ribbons created by dipping bias binding tape into thinned-down lacquer to provide color and sheen. True to the earlier campaign to promote wool as the Australian fiber with great fashion potential, her three-piece beach suits, coats, and gowns were all made from light woolen fabric. The Sydney Daily Telegraph published an illustrated article to herald the new collection on 28 August and featured a dinner gown in heavy silk crepe patterned in ruby and white stripes: “beautifully draped for tailored simplicity.”
In her introductory speech at the collection launch at the David Jones auditorium, Mavis’s vision was undaunted by the trade restrictions of the war: “My ambition is to see the Australian girl always dressed like this—colorful and tailored.” In reference to the European conflict, the designer had created Stalinesque hip-length tunic effects “as worn by the Russian leader.” How these tunics were viewed by Mavis in light of subsequent political events in Russia after the war is not recorded! Stripes again were a continuous design motif featuring in evening and dinner gowns, afternoon and cocktail frocks, as the Daily Telegraph of 2 September illustrated.
As wartime austerity cut deeper into the fashion industry’s ability to create and market new collections, newspaper references to Mavis Ripper faded until after the war, when the Sydney Morning Herald of 2 February 1945 announced that Columbia Films in Australia would make a film about the famous aviator Charles Kingsford Smith. The article revealed that Mavis had returned to portrait painting during the war as textile commodities became scarce, but she was now returning to her career in cinema with her appointment as wardrobe supervisor for the new film, with a budget of £4,000 for costumes. Mavis designed sixteen outfits for costume changes for Muriel Steinbeck, who played Lady Smithy.
Life after Smithy was a time of marked change for Mavis. On 23 August 1947 she married her second husband, Jean-Pierre Saurer, vice-consul for Switzerland, in Sydney. Mavis wore her own design, a frock of rose Belgian tapestry with blue accessories and a hat made from roses. With her marriage to Saurer, Mavis’s career as a fashion designer ended. The Sydney Sun on 7 February 1950, announced that Monsieur and Madame Jean-Pierre Saurer had arrived in Naples on the first stage of their Continental vacation prior to taking up a new appointment. An article in the Canadian Medicine Hat News of 6 July 1963 confirms that in her role as a diplomatic wife in Ottowa, Mavis continued to paint and held a one-woman show there. The WA Government Gazette of 11 May 1990 reported that Mavis Essie Saurer, late of Kimberley Nursing Home, Leederville, Western Australia, died on 22 September 1989. Both she and Jean-Pierre Willy Saurer are buried at Karrakatta Cemetery, Perth.
Mavis Ripper’s name has faded from the prominence she enjoyed in Australian cultural life in the interwar years. As a fashion leader and costume designer for the fledgling Australian film industry she was at the forefront of creative endeavor at this exciting time. Her energy was remarkable, as she designed new couture collections for her Melbourne salon and crafted extensive wardrobes for Cinesound. Mavis defined Australian women as distinct from their European sisters mainly through striking color schemes and vibrant patterns.
Perhaps what is most striking about her is her genuine and unshakeable faith in Australian manufacturers, artisans, and primary producers to be able to create innovative textile weaves, original fabric designs, and unique statement pieces that would identify Australian fashion as a totally new and distinctive industry in the competitive world marketplace. For a few brief years at the beginning of World War II it seemed that the isolation imposed by the conflict would provide the stimulus to make the dream come true—a positive outcome in a time of darkness. Sadly, the war years dragged on and the window closed on what might have been a golden age of Australian fashion. Perhaps her most important contribution to the history of Australian design was the vigorous belief that Australia had its own unique type of woman, who married a love of outdoor physical activity with relaxed elegance in her choice of clothing. A freedom of movement for the wearer underpins Ripper’s designs, and bold color schemes to rivet the gaze of fashion watchers in the bright Australian sunlight were key. Mavis Ripper’s achievements helped define an assertive Australian style distinct from European archetypes, and as Margaret Maynard writes, “It is gracefully, if not willfully, ‘out of line.’ ”
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Find in Library . Out of Line: Australian Women and Style. Sydney: University of NSW Press, 2001.
Find in Library . Dancing with Empty Pockets: Australia’s Bohemians Since 1890. Millers Point, NSW: Pier 9, 2012.
Find in Library . Orry Kelly: Miss Weston’s Protégé—The Story of a Great Hollywood Costume Designer. Edgecliff: Impact Press, 2015.
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The Australian Women’s Weekly
Camperdown Chronicle (Victoria)
Daily Telegraph (Sydney)
The Herald (Melbourne)
Medicine Hat News (Canada)
The Sun (Sydney)
Sydney Morning Herald
Table Talk (Melbourne)
The Western Mail
Video Overview Lovers and Luggers (1937) on ASO - Australia’s audio and visual heritage online. https://aso.gov.au/titles/features/lovers-and-luggers/
Video Overview The Broken Melody (1938) on ASO - Australia’s audio and visual heritage online. https://aso.gov.au/titles/features/the-broken-melody/
Video Overview It Isn’t Done (1937) on ASO - Australia’s audio and visual heritage online. https://aso.gov.au/titles/features/it-isnt-done/
Video Overview Tall Timbers (1937) on ASO - Australia’s audio and visual heritage online. https://aso.gov.au/titles/features/tall-timbers/
Video Overview Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938) on ASO - Australia’s audio and visual heritage online. https://aso.gov.au/titles/features/dad-and-dave-come-to-town/
Video Overview Smithy (1946) on ASO - Australia’s audio and visual heritage online. https://aso.gov.au/titles/features/smithy/