Tom McEvoy never intended to be a fashion historian. Only by a series of flukes did the photographer fall in love with the brands – long-gone and often forgotten – that were once the heart and beat of Melbourne’s thriving fashion industry before the 1980s.
These days Tom harvests, harbours and shares their stories like a temple custodian but not so long ago, he just wanted to be a photographer. Or a screenwriter. Or perhaps an archeologist…
“It really started because I always loved crafting photographs,’ he says. “Then one thing led to another…”
At university Tom doctored his project photographs with odd-ball chemicals, hot irons, butter, inks, anything for experimental effect; “to create new organic textures and colour distortions”.
The results were intriguing, often lovely, but most importantly for Tom – and here the series of flukes mentioned earlier begins – connectable to the hand-colouring techniques used by black and white photographers in the early 20th century. “Naturally,” Tom recalls, “I was drawn to this era.”
Naturally. In fact Tom was so drawn he began to shoot, then hand-colour in the same photographic style of early 20th century fashion editorials and advertisements. “I shot “phantom” editorials for labels that didn’t exist anymore,” he says, “I’d even put the watermark of the labels on the photographs instead of mine.”
His obsession with authenticity also included the modelled garments. “So I went to a vintage shop,” Tom recalls “And that was it. I started noticing the labels and was instantly sucked into this need to know: “Who are these people?”
Since 2015 he has accumulated an archive of almost seven thousand garments, documents and items mostly linked to the middle market brands considered too commercial to be preserved by museum curators. Without Tom cheerfully plunging into their pasts, most would be lost to the mists…
“I started online, couldn’t find anything, got into Google newspapers, then (the free newspaper resource of the National Library of Australia) Trove. “(The history) was so immense and deep I couldn’t stop…”
One day an exquisite 1950s frock posted online led to a meeting with its original designer, legendary couturier Elvie Hill. She was nearing her 100th year, still as sharp and elegant as she ever was in her heyday. Tom and Elvie hit it off.
Later, an article in The Age newspaper about their friendship cracked another barrier to Tom’s research. “People started calling,” he says, “Machinists, parents, friends..Debra Dascal, daughter of Simon Shinberg, Jill Kemelfield…”
Tom would later present a retrospective of Shinberg’s work with Debra, and restore an historic black and white photograph of Jill Kemelfield’s 1954 entry in Melbourne’s Gown of the Year with the delicate addition of its original fresh aqua colour (pictured).
Tom found himself enmeshed in Melbourne’s fashion history as he met and milked its ageing characters for stories sprung from Flinders Lane when it thrummed and clattered with sewing machines and racks of frocks being wheeled over cobbles to waiting trucks, or from the workrooms and factories dotted across the ‘burbs – Collingwood, Brunswick, South Yarra – humming with new Australians’ centuries-old tailoring and seam-stressing skills.
“If you found one family,” Tom says, “They’d know other families, and they’d know others, and they’d know…. “
His list of historic brands and fashion houses swelled and swelled. “When I met a guy called Neville Singh for instance, a designer for Mr. Simon, he put me onto others he’d also worked for: McWhirters, Deons, Ricki Reed, Zora, Gala Gowns, Louis Feraud, Fiorucci…”
Eventually Tom mapped a “landscape” of sorts, and a middle to up-market hierarchy of Australian brands. “I started to focus on the concept of the fashion house especially,” Tom says. “Like, (the house of) Lucas in the 1800s and the House of Shave in the early 1900s…”
From mountains of historic documents Tom winkled out a record, dated 1911, of couturier Charles Osbourn Shave whose fashion house would thrive for six decades. “He’s talking about Melbourne’s creativity,” he says, “And how its fashion scene is easily on the same level as Paris and London….”
Tom’s ultimate dilemma now his historic archive is growing fat like a living thing, is what to do with it, how to share its precious wealth of brands: Hall Ludlow, Mr. Anthony, Merco Davron, Hartnell of Melbourne , Noeleen King, Van Roth, Ecstacy Creations, Leon Haskin, thousands more. “I’d love to present a lot of my research so younger cultures can play an interactive role..”
He’s currently studying his masters degree but also playing with the idea, once it’s completed, of developing a “looter-shooter” style of digital game with colour-coded treasure values assigned to Australia’s historic fashion brands. “For example, if you found a garment from the House of Shave – and none exist that I know of – that’s mythical. That would definitely glow gold!”
For updates on Tom’s research and discoveries as a fashion anthropologist: www.instagram.com/tomlephoto.