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About Gwen Gillam

Gwen Gillam

Her Story

Gwen Gillam became one of the most popular fashion designers in Brisbane during the 1950s and 60s and her ascent was due to hard work and determination. At the age of eight Gwen and her family moved from Warwick to Brisbane so that her father could find better employment.

Despite her academic achievements at the West End State School, Gwen was forced to leave school at the age of thirteen following her father’s death. Her initial exposure to dress design began at a local department store where she was employed as a junior assistant.

By 1936, following the completion of her apprenticeship under the well known city dressmaker Evelyn Dixon, she had established her own business. From there, she went on to develop a career spanning 46 years and, at a time when women in business were a rarity, she established herself as a successful entrepreneur.

Detail from a dress by Gwen Gillam

Her Legacy

Gwen Gillam’s workrooms were situated on the top floor of the Brisbane Arcade and it was here that young apprentices learned their trade from the celebrated designer.

At one end of the workroom was a large table where Gwen Gillam would mark out the garment pieces directly onto the fabric, using a tape measure and tailor’s chalk. Following cutting, the pieces were given to a workroom staff member who would complete the garment to a stage that would enable the first fitting.  At the other end, the head of the workroom would cut out the shop stock and then supervise its construction.

Although the dress fabrics were always chosen by Gwen Gillam, junior staff were allowed to match sewing thread and linings which were purchased from Gardams, Queen Street.

New apprentices initially picked up the pins from the workroom floor, discarded the bent ones, and then washed the others in methylated spirits.

They were also taught hand sewing skills including, herringbone stitch used to hem woollen garments, invisible hemming stitch for rolled hems on circular skirts, and prick stitch for zipper insertion.

They then learnt to make rouleau which was the house speciality. It was used for piping, belts, Chinese knot buttons, and as a garment embellishment. Following the mastery of hand sewing, machine skills were taught using a Singer industrial machine. These skills enabled workroom staff to make up whole garments.

Gillam’s work continues to inspire young designers, and this exhibition also showcases the work of some of the next generation of Queensland fashion designers.