At my desk in the Mitchell Library Reading Room I picked out a small cardboard folder from the pile of books and boxes beside me. Opening it I carefully removed a thin envelope, an item I had been curious to inspect after finding it listed in the library catalogue. ‘The ‘invisible hair net’: fully sterilized / made expressly for David Jones Sydney’, was, according to the catalogue summary, a ‘Specimen of a hair net packaged in an envelope. The packaging includes a black and white illustration of a woman with styled hair, presumably the result of wearing the invisible hair net.’
Now I could examine it in detail, observe how the scrolls and ornamental flourishes around the lettering gave the envelope the appearance of an unusual kind of certificate. Opening the envelope revealed its delicate contents: a mesh of strands knotted together, folded over a slip of tissue paper to prevent the net tangling. The hair net was a humble item, intimate and a little macabre, not an object intended for posterity. It had been designed to keep permed hair neat and unruffled by wind or headwear, and perform this task until it tore or lost its shape and was discarded. Yet this particular hair net had been preserved, shrink-wrapped into a folder and filed among the hairdressing manuals, catalogued as an item of realia in the library’s collection.
In Spontaneous Particulars Susan Howe makes an argument for the particularity of physical engagement with archived objects. She describes her experiences of the ‘enduring relations and connections between what was and what is’ that physical encounters produce, and the kinds of intuitive, creative, and interpretive responses these can lead on to. As I examined the hair net a web of historical and personal associations began to thicken. I remembered objects from my grandmother’s dressing table, how as a child I’d covertly pick up and inspect the long hairpins and bottles of 4711 cologne. I held the hair net envelope with much the same caution and curiousity.
I had come to the library to research department stores of the 1950s, by way of The Women in Black by Madeleine St John. The novel traces the lives and fortunes of a group of women who work in the evening wear department at Goodes, a fictional Sydney department store. Brisk in pace and wry in tone, The Women in Black can be read as a coming-of-age novel centred around the young protagonist Lisa, as well as a novel about Sydney, one that reveals how understandings of the city can be transformed by attention to the lives that traverse them.
Reading The Women in Black during lockdown I envied the women their insouciance as they moved through the busy city. I recognised their trajectories, knew the paradoxical solace of being both part of the crowd and intent on my own course. There is one unusual city scene that held particular resonance for the moment in which I was reading it. Lisa attends her job interview at Goodes after the store has closed at midday on a Saturday. She leaves in the mid-afternoon when the city is ‘so silent, so deserted as to suggest a terrible and universal disaster, the visitation of some dreadful plague…’ The pandemic had me noticing such descriptions as if they were a foreshadowing of the present.
Rather than find the quiet city disconcerting Lisa regards it as emblematic of her own transformation to adulthood. St John was in part portraying her own past aspirations through Lisa, who escapes the constraints of her family life through her literary ambitions. Lisa reads Anna Karenina, recites William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ as a personal mantra, and dreams of becoming a poet with the skill to capture the subtle shifts of feeling within her experiences. Walking through the deserted Saturday afternoon city she has a sense of how place and self might echo each other. She knows she is on the path of change, even if she does not yet have the right words to describe it.
It is fitting she takes up a job in a department store, for they deal in transformation, in desires and their fulfilments. The presence of the department store in The Women in Black is expansive; it catches upon my own memories. Goodes was modelled on the stalwart retailer David Jones and its flagship store on Elizabeth Street which was, at the time of its opening in 1927, thought to be the utmost in modernity. As I read accounts of its opening, descriptions of the building and all it held and promised, it seemed both a complicated machine and an opulent jewellery box. Newspaper articles listed superlatives, how it contained the most window glass of any building in Sydney at the time, that the interior was furnished in elegant walnut wood, and even the carpet underfelt had been chosen for its exceptional cushioning of shoppers’ steps. Behind the scenes the building was brought to life by a circulatory system of lifts, pneumatic tubes and parcel chutes.
In early-twentieth-century Sydney, emporia such as David Jones, Mark Foy’s, Anthony Hordern and Sons and Grace Brothers were conspicuous amid the low-rise city. Department store buildings were solid and capacious, vaults of commodities presented as family institutions, carrying the names of their patriarchs. Spectacular window displays, modish restaurants, and in-house art galleries aligned these stores with leisure and culture as well as commerce. In 1936 Grace Cossington Smith chose the Soda Fountain Cafe, on the ground floor of David Jones, as a subject for her painting The Lacquer Room. She portrayed the diners with angular faces, sitting on red chairs at green tables in a bright room decorated with art deco fanlights, an archetypal modern city scene.
As a child, on the occasions I visited David Jones with my mother, I experienced the wonder the store had been designed to inspire. A sweet cloud of perfumed air enclosed us as we walked in past a shiny grand piano at which a man in a tuxedo sat, his hands cascading over the keys. I thought it a palace with its high ceilings and floral displays and multiple levels, the plenitude of which I viewed from slow journeys on the central escalators. Even as a child I recognised it as a luxurious dream from another era. Despite this – or likely because of it–- David Jones was a key city destination for women of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations, who came of age during the early-to-mid-twentieth century. It was an institution both sumptuous and reliable, a showcase of requirements for a comfortable life. Even if the goods were beyond our means, visiting the stores to witness their array was satisfaction in itself.
For me the merchandise was secondary to the imposing interiors which framed it. During one childhood visit, as my mother examined shoes, I climbed onto a lounge underneath a tall window and looked down over the dense canopy of the fig trees in the park below. Beyond the dark-green spread of the trees the arches of the cathedral were visible. The gothic character of this scene was like a key turning a lock, and for the first time I had a sense that a city could contain many versions of itself. The window framed a Sydney of imposing buildings and great trees that seemed to have emerged from the pages of a fairytale. This was in contrast to the labyrinthine impression the city had made upon me up until that point, as a network of bustling streets and underground arcades which I could only navigate with an adult by my side.
Although Sydney is central to The Women in Black Madeleine St John left the city in the 1960s and spent the rest of her life abroad, settling in London where she wrote her four novels, and lived until her death in 2006. Sydney was the city of her upbringing, her unhappy relationship with her father, and her mother’s early death by suicide. It is surprising that The Women in Black is so conspicuously light-hearted, which leads to an interpretation of it as a work of restitution. St John’s mother, who was born in France to Romanian parents, and died when St John was twelve, is idealised in the character of Magda, the manager of the ‘Model Gowns’ department of Goodes and a post-war migrant from Slovenia. Magda takes Lisa under her wing, educating her in matters of appearance and sophistication and Lisa flourishes under this attention, even if the other shop assistants remain suspicious of Magda’s difference.
With Magda, St John satirises the conservatism of post-war Sydney and the embedded racism within Anglo-Australian society. St John also reveals her Eurocentrism, showing Australian sensibilities as gauche in comparison to Magda’s elegance. This dynamic, and the narrative voice – fond but curt, as if delivered by a wry, erudite great-aunt – make the novel seem so hermetically of the time it represents that I was surprised to learn it was first published in 1993. But, like a dressing-table drawer of handkerchiefs and stockings still in their packets, stored up for decades unused, The Women in Black is a time capsule of past sensibilities, objects, and ways of life. The immediacy of the women’s nylon nightgowns, silver-plated teapots and hallway telephone tables, or their after-work conversations over toasted sandwiches at Repin’s Coffee House, is that of objects and moments that have been etched by recollection. At the time of her writing The Women in Black St John worked as a sales assistant at an antique shop, which perhaps also contributed to her furnishing of the novel’s scenes and settings. Within the secondhand market memory objects are returned to present-day circulation even as they suggest the past, and the objects of the novel are similarly present and distant.
In the library I put the hairnet to the side and reached for a bound volume of David Jones catalogues from the early 1960s. Page after page of miracle fabrics, demure, below-the-knee hemlines, and short hairstyles. In the summer catalogues models smile and pose wearing ‘Good Morning’ or ‘Betty Lynn’ dresses patterned with flowers or stripes. The dresses have lustrous finishes, resist creases, are made of easy-care cotton that will be ‘indispensable in summer’s heat’ or ‘take you happily to any occasion’. It is suggested how these garments might shape the lives of their wearers: the ‘softly draped’ Henley dress is ‘the smartest way to go to town’, the ‘casual Deauville sheath takes you anywhere with just a change of accessories’, and the shirtdress in fine pinwale corduroy velveteen sees the wearer ‘buttoned up for a snug future’.
The catalogues provide a generous amount of detail, intending to simulate the shopping experience for mail-order customers who were not able to visit the store in person. They contain hundreds of items matched with descriptions of their features, whether it be shoe polish, a baby’s bonnet, tins of paint, or the many pages of women’s fashions. An unintended consequence of this comprehensiveness is that I unconsciously began to pick out my favourites from the carefree Terylene skirts or dresses made of Arnel, ‘America’s miracle fabric’, as if I could send the order form back through time.
Amid the listings are ‘feelers’, glued-in swatches of cloth the size of postage stamps that provide examples of the fabrics. I stroked my fingers over a swatch of brown corduroy shirt material, then the pale pink synthetic of a nightgown. As with the hair net I suspected that I was examining something never intended for future scrutiny, although the catalogues gave me a different sense of particularity. These dresses, shoes, bottles of talcum powder and poodle-patterned shower curtains listed in the catalogues had existed in multiple, attended many different lives, and the suggested trip to town, or snug future, had been translated through all the variety of individual experiences.
I turned to a page of models wearing paisley shirts with ‘two-way’ collars. This, I realised after a moment, meant simply that they could be worn either buttoned up or open at the neck. One of the models, a woman wearing a shirt with a sharp, ornate pattern like something from under a microscope, had dark hair and wore thick eyeliner, and in her I recognised something of myself. I scrutinised her face, trying to decode her life beyond the page, imagining us as sisters. Some afternoons we would meet up in town to sit across from each other in a booth at Repin’s Coffee Inn, to drink iced coffees, share a slice of Moka Creme Torte, and compare our fortunes.
Looking up I blinked back into the present. I was sitting at a desk in the reading room with the daylight beaming down from the roof skylight high above. At the surrounding tables were researchers absorbed in bundles of correspondence, or carefully turning the pages of books that were supported on cushions to preserve their binding, or standing to examine prints inside oversized cardboard sleeves. Reading room etiquette is to not be inquisitive about other peoples’ materials, and my glimpses always leave me with curiosity I cannot satisfy.
The librarians have license to share in the researchers’ investigations. At the circulation desk, when I had asked the librarian to open the shrink-wrapping on the folder containing the hair net, she asked what I was researching.
‘Department stores’, I said, ‘in the 1950s in Sydney.’ I pointed out ‘made expressly for David Jones’ on the hair net’s envelope to establish the connection.
‘I used to work in David Jones,’ she replied, as if the memory had taken her by surprise. ‘A long time ago, in the confectionary department.’
Our conversation paused as we considered this. I also had a connection to the David Jones confectionary counter, although not through firsthand experience. As a temporary sales assistant in the 1960s my mother had dressed in the black uniform and been deployed first in the small electricals department, then in confectionary. To those who bought bags of peppermint creams or buttered brazils from her she would have been one of the many young assistants employed by the store, her life beyond it a mystery.
It is this mystery that The Women in Black unpicks as it moves between characters, charting their private thoughts. Behind the uniformity of their black dresses the women are distinguished by their hopes: Lisa of attending university, Fay of falling in love, Patty of having a child, and Magda of leaving Goodes to set up her own boutique. They hold modest, near-future aspirations, and as the year progresses through the end of 1959 and the turn of the decade, each woman moves closer to what she desires. The climactic events hinge around Christmas and New Year, the release of Lisa’s exam results, and the pre-Christmas rush and post-Christmas sales at Goodes. Obstacles arise and ultimately fall: the novel is a fantasy, a catalogue of small steps to potential happiness and fulfilment, and of the potential futures these women could pursue.
On her first shift, after making the mistake of admitting to Fay and Patty her ambition to become a poet, Lisa is saved from extended ridicule by the task of sorting a rack of cocktail gowns into size order. While she sorts them she mentally recites ‘The Tyger’, a grounding habit to return to the core of herself, retreating from her black dress disguise. In 1959 a young woman like Lisa would have been one of thousands of staff working on the shop floor or in back of house operations at David Jones. In the library collection are a set of photographs of David Jones employees taken by photographer Ivan Ive for PIX magazine in 1955, capturing scenes from their working lives. Among them are men in overalls loading vans in the delivery docks, cooks piping meringues in the kitchen, and women assembled for a training session for a new cash register. The women sit in rows with their gloves and handbags on their laps. All have similar short, curled hairstyles that make me suspect they would have been no strangers to the invisible hair net. They look up towards the poster displaying the new machine, a solid contraption inside a curved wooden case that it will be their task to operate.
To examine these photographs I too had retreated behind the scenes. Up until this year, when I’d received my expanded library privileges, I’d wondered where the door on the west side of the Mitchell reading room led. Staff often entered and left by it, followed by the loud, heavy click of the releasing latch, a sonic comma which interrupted my reading. Now I had a pass to swipe through it and follow the corridor to the study room reserved for the use of library fellows and visiting scholars. Here I sat at a computer, browsing through the digital photo gallery of 1955 workplace scenes. One photograph, taken in the evening wear section, shows a woman being fitted for a ballgown, admiring her reflection in a long mirror while two staff attend to her. The junior of the saleswomen, the Lisa, kneels down at the hem, straightening it, while the Magda stands to the side holding another dress on a hanger, satin with a wide bow at the back. The scene aims for elegance but I can’t help but notice the fingerprint smudges on the side of the mirror.
Many of the images have some such detail that captures my attention, clues to the life of these scenes beyond the moment of the photograph. The thick pale hairs on the arms of the man piping icing onto a tray of meringues, the pencil behind the ear of the propmaker, or the Christmas cards pinned to the wall of the studio in which women paint sales tickets for pyjamas and gloves, all suggest particular lives and times that could still resonate in memories. Perhaps the propmaker forgot the pencil was behind his ear, and at home put it in a drawer where it remained until the house was cleared out by an antique dealer decades later. Maybe one of the draftswomen sometimes recounts the story of her job writing out price labels, sitting at a drafting table until a hanging light onto which she had tied a small framed picture of her dog.
It had taken a number of views of the photograph of the studio before I noticed the detail of the dog picture. To see it clearly I zoomed in, enlarging the image until it reached maximum magnification. It would go no closer but I continued to click the magnification button, wishing I could slip in behind the pixels. With every object I inspected I came up against a point of restraint of some kind. It had happened when I opened the envelope to see the hair net folded delicately around the tissue paper, and when I touched the sample of corduroy, experiencing in my gesture an echo of how others would have done the same. In such moments I become aware of the collapse and expanse of time. An exchange occurs, what Susan Howe calls ‘the telepathy of archives’, where factual and intuitive knowledge comes together.
Leaving the library in the late afternoon, the city was quieter than usual, still in the lull of the pandemic restrictions. Like Lisa I was open to the feeling of strangeness this produced, and how it could be potential as much as disquiet. I walked with the knowledge that inside the present-day city are many times and layers, and that writing is a way of drawing them out. A novel and a department store, a hair net, a square of corduroy fabric in a catalogue, and a photograph of women at their desks in a drafting room form a constellation within this wider network.
I was walking in the city, the novel, and my memory all at once. Soon I was approaching Hyde Park, with its corridors of fig trees and the cathedral to the east. This was the scene that I’d contemplated as a child from the window of David Jones, in that moment when I’d felt my perspective on the city transform. When the David Jones building came into view on the corner of Elizabeth Street, I looked up as if I might see myself still there, watching from one of the high windows.
Vanessa Berry was an SRB Visiting Writer at the State Library of NSW in 2020. Special thanks to Rachel Franks and Linda Brainwood from SLNSW for their support and assistance.