We’re excited to announce the launch of a new seminar series exploring material histories!

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 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 will be 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.


Unpicking Fashionable Objects

Friday 10 March at 1pm


First speaker:

Whalebone and its Afterlife: Fashion Innovation, Adaptation and Sustainability, c. 1600-1950 

For over four hundred years whale baleen (historically known as whalebone) was sought after for use in western fashion manufacturing where this plastic-like material was used to create a wide range of men and women’s garments and accessories, most notably corsetry. This talk draws upon objects of European and Australian provenance that utilised whalebone and its substitutes (reeds, cane, steel and plastics) between 1600-1950 to explore how the historical uses of whalebone intersect with concerns about innovation and manufacturing, economics and availability, and ethical questions about the environmental sustainability of fashion.

Sarah A Bendall is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, Australian Catholic University. She is a material culture historian whose work specialises in the roles of gender in the production, trade and consumption of global commodities and fashionable consumer goods between 1500-1800.

Second speaker:

Needs Must: German Paper Suits and the legacy of wartime woollen shortages.

New Jersey’s Newark Museum holds two suits made of spun paper yarns, donated in 1920 as examples of the response to cloth shortages faced by Germany and her allies during World War I.  As a fashion curiosity the suits have some interesting details of cut and construction. But the suits’ historical context takes us beyond fashion. This presentation explores their complexities and contemporary relevance, linking fashion with the murky worlds of politics, military strategies, economic warfare, and eventually, the triumph of synthetic over natural fibers: the subject of the speakers’ book-in-process, Fleeced: Wool, War and the Rise of Synthetics.

Madelyn Shaw is a textile curator, historian and author, recently retired from the NMAH, Smithsonian Institution. Trish FitzSimons is a documentary filmmaker, historian, author and adjunct Professor of Griffith Film School. They share a research project entitled Fabric of War: a hidden history of the global wool trade.

Presented as part of the PayPal Melbourne Fashion Festival’s Fashion Culture Program.

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