We live surrounded by material things. Some are mundane and utilitarian, others exotic objects of desire, but all our belongings have something to say about who we are and how we live. Objects reflect both culture and history. Individually and collectively, they shape our lives, link us to others and connect us to the past. Yet objects are often strangely absent from accounts of past lives. This seminar series aims to unpack some of the stories that objects can tell about the present and about the past.  We also hope to provide a forum for discussion for those of us interested in material histories. We aim to cast the net widely, with no limitations on either time or space.

In presenting this series the Old Treasury Building is working in partnership with colleagues from Deakin University and the Australian Catholic University. We have chosen a lunchtime slot (1-1.50PM AEST), to keep presentations concise and focused, but still allow audience participation. This is a free digital seminar series, with recordings available after each seminar for anyone who cannot join us on the day. Access information will be provided on registration. To register for the next seminar in the series please click on the link below.

Each seminar will present two researchers who will speak for 12-15 minutes each on objects that are linked by a common theme. If you are engaged in research on any aspect of material history and interested in presenting in the series, please contact the convenors via the MHSS contact form.

View recordings of previous presentations here.

Fashion in Black and White

Friday 1 March, 2024 at 1pm


From the ‘little black dress’ to the ‘classic white shirt’, it seems as if black and white have been staples of fashionable wardrobes for ever. But was it always so? In this seminar, historians and curators Lorinda Cramer and Margaret Anderson take us on a journey through time. Their discussion spans the rise of the ‘white wedding’ and the demise of ‘mourning dress’, not to mention what went underneath! Along the way they consider the cultural, emotional, and even sexual meanings of black and white in fashion.


Lorinda Cramer:
Dressed in Black: From Funerals to Fashion

Melburnians are well-known for wearing black, so much so that some describe the dramatic shade as a uniform for the city. Across history, plenty others have worn black too: for religion or as royalty. It's now an enduring staple of a fashionable wardrobe - but how did it come to be this way? This talk explores black's different meanings across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ranging from formal wear to mourning a loved one, and from the chic elegance of the little black dress to the rebellious qualities of black leather.

Dr Lorinda Cramer is a lecturer in cultural heritage and museum studies at Deakin University. Across 2023-24, she has worked with the National Trust of Australia (New South Wales) on the Back to Black exhibition, opening in March at Old Government House, Parramatta.


Margaret Anderson:
‘The bride wore white’: the rise and rise of white in fashion.

Late last year an email arrived in my inbox from a well-known Australian fashion brand. It was advertising ‘New Season Linens’ and began with the byline: ‘It doesn’t get more classic than white linens’. Clicking through to the website (as invited) I encountered clothing in many colours, but only white was described as ‘classic’. Why? This paper explores the complex history of dressing in white. It ranges from the rise of the ‘white wedding’ in the late-nineteenth century, considers the advent of the white blouse, reflects on the dominance of white in women’s (and men’s) underwear and touches on the white pinafore, worn by many little girls until well into the twentieth century. Not to exclude men’s fashion, it also considers the dominance of the white shirt, in day wear until at least the 1960s, in formal wear until the present day.

Clothing is always a powerful signifier and dressing in white was no exception. A ‘white collar’ or white kid gloves identified the wearer immediately as middle class, while women’s white underwear reflected modesty and respectability. And the bride dressed in ‘virginal white’? Well, that is a more complex story!


A proud participant in the PayPal Melbourne Fashion Festival’s Independent Programme 2024


Material Histories is presented by Old Treasury Building in partnership with Deakin University and Australian Catholic University.

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