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The Question of the Spotted Muumuu: How the Australian Women's Weekly Manufactured a Vision of the Normative School Mother and Child, 1930s–1980s

  • Heather Weaver and Helen Proctor

Abstract

This paper examines Australia's history of uniformed schooling as mediated by its leading mass-market magazine, the Australian Women's Weekly. This magazine was a significant cultural agent that served as an authority on everything from fashion to schooling, capitalizing on the matter of school dress by running advertisements for school uniforms, printing articles and letters on school wear, and featuring attractive images of uniformed schoolchildren. This paper argues that the Weekly used this content to provide textual and visual reinforcement for a powerful cultural trope of the proper, desirable, happy, and modern Australian schoolchild as uniformed. In doing so, it represented the normative school mother as working behind the scenes to produce or procure the school uniform as well as to arrange and manage the uniformed child. We contend that the magazine portrayed this work as part of a project to draw the mother into a respectable and ostensibly “Australian” community.

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The authors would like to thank the journal's three anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments as well as the staff at the Australian National Library in Canberra. Research was funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council Future Fellowship and a University of Sydney supplementary grant.

All figures in this article appear courtesy of the kind permission of Bauer Media Pty. Ltd. Figure 7 also appears courtesy of the kind permission of Workwear Group/KingGee.

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1 The magazine's spelling and punctuation varied between American and British English. For direct quotations, we have used the original style.

2 “Will Pay £100 For Ideas,” Australian Women's Weekly, June 10, 1933, 6.

3 Bridget Griffen-Foley situates the Weekly’s various readers’ contributions in a longer history of “participatory media,” arguing that “the appearance of a dialogue with readers was an important component in the publication's attempts to … project a feeling of communality.” Griffen-Foley, Bridget, “From Tit-Bits to Big Brother: A Century of Audience Participation in the Media,” Media, Culture & Society 26, no. 4 (July 2004), 533, 540.

4 According to the 1947 Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, the country had just over 1.9 million households. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census Bulletin No. 25: Dwellings Summary for the Commonwealth of Australia, Cat. no. 2109.0, Canberra, 1947, 5. The Weekly’s circulation at that time was 700,000. See Griffen-Foley, Bridget, House of Packer: The Making of a Media Empire (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1999), 299.

5 O'Brien, Denis, The Weekly: A Lively and Nostalgic Celebration of Australia through 50 Years of Its Most Popular Magazine (Melbourne: Penguin Books Australia, 1982), 6; and Sheridan, Susan et al. , Who Was That Woman? The Australian Women's Weekly in the Postwar Years (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2002), 1.

6 “Teacher Objected to Muu-Muu,” Australian Women's Weekly, March 13, 1963, 14. The Australian school year typically runs from late January through early December, both beginning and ending with summer weather. In the northern state of Queensland, where the muumuu letter came from, summers are especially hot and humid, with frequent top temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

7 “School Muu-Muu,” Australian Women's Weekly, April 17, 1963, 28.

8 The terminology of government schooling varies throughout Australia. In this paper, we use public with a lowercase p to denote government or state schools. For the period covered here, Australian public schools were administered by strongly centralized public service departments in each of the six states.

9 Meadmore, Daphne and Symes, Colin, “Of Uniform Appearance: A Symbol of School Discipline and Governmentality,” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 17, no. 2 (Aug. 1996), 209–25; and Parliament of Victoria Education and Training Committee, Inquiry Into Dress Codes and School Uniforms in Victorian Schools, 56th sess., (Melbourne: Victorian Government Printer, Dec. 2007), 926.

10 Queensland Department of Public Instruction, The State Education Act of 1875; Together with the Regulations of the Department (Brisbane, AU: James C. Beal, Government Printer, 1880), 24. New South Wales had a similar policy from the late nineteenth century to about 1950; the state's Department of Public Instruction permitted Aboriginal children to be excluded from its public schools if they were not assessed as “clean” and “decently clad.” See Fletcher, J. J., Documents in the History of Aboriginal Education in New South Wales (Carlton, NSW, AU: J. Fletcher, 1989), 7392.

11 Sharon Kinsella's work in the field of fashion studies is instructive in its cultural analysis of the trope of the sexualized Japanese schoolgirl. Kinsella, Sharon, “What's Behind the Fetishism of Japanese School Uniforms?Fashion Theory 6, no. 2 (May 2002), 215–37. On the rendering of schoolchildren and classroom objects as symbols in American culture, see Weaver, Heather A., “Object Lessons: A Cultural Genealogy of the Dunce Cap and the Apple as Visual Tropes of American Education,” Paedagogica Historica 48, no. 2 (April 2012), 215–41; and Weaver, Heather A., “‘Spirit of Education’: The Gendered Vision of Compulsory Schooling in Mass Magazine Art, 1908–1938,” in American Education in Popular Media: From the Blackboard to the Silver Screen, ed. Terzian, Sevan G. and Ryan, Patrick A. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 5984.

12 Meadmore and Symes, “Of Uniform Appearance,” 211.

13 Craik, Jennifer, Uniforms Exposed: From Conformity to Transgression (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2005), 5758.

14 In South Korea, national regulation required all schools to use the same uniform styles until the 1980s, but since then have diversified. Park, Judy, “Do School Uniforms Lead to Uniform Minds? School Uniforms and Appearance Restrictions in Korean Middle Schools and High Schools,” Fashion Theory 17, no. 2 (April 2013), 159–77.

15 Synott, John and Symes, Colin, “The Genealogy of the School: An Iconography of Badges and Mottoes,” British Journal of Sociology of Education 16, no. 2 (June 1995), 139–52; and Symes, Colin and Meadmore, Daphne, “Force of Habit: The School Uniform as a Body of Knowledge,” in Pedagogy, Technology, and the Body, ed. McWilliam, Erica and Taylor, Peter (New York: Peter Lang, 1996), 171–91.

16 According to Ann Bodine, up to 25 percent of elementary and middle school students were in uniform by the early twenty-first century, albeit mostly in uniforms that are on the less formal/elaborate end of the international scale. Bodine, Ann, “School Uniforms and Discourses on Childhood,” Childhood 10, no. 1 (Feb. 2003), 4363; see also William J. Clinton, The President's Radio Address, Feb. 24, 1996, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=52449; and Craik, Uniforms Exposed, 13. President Clinton and others advocated uniform policies as an element of remedial policy reform aimed at addressing gang violence. In a historically grounded analysis of contemporary American uniform regulation, Bodine, however, argues that this reasoning is misleading at best and coded racism at worst. She found family convenience and visual egalitarianism (including protecting children from the influence of consumer advertising) to be reasons more commonly evoked by policymakers and parents at the local level of school administration for adopting a common dress.

17 McVeigh, Brian J., “Uniforms, School,” Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, ed. Steele, Valerie (Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2005); Hertz, Carrie, “The Uniform: As Material, as Symbol, as Negotiated Object,” Midwestern Folklore 32, nos. 1-2 (Spring-Fall 2006), 44; and Meadmore, Daphne and Symes, Colin, “Keeping Up Appearances: Uniform Policy for School Diversity?British Journal of Educational Studies 45, no. 2 (June 1997), 174–86.

18 Craik, Jennifer, “The Cultural Politics of the Uniform,” Fashion Theory; The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 7, no. 2 (June 2003), 127–47; and Ewing, Elizabeth, History of Children's Costumes (London: B. T. Batsford, 1977), 112125.

19 May, Josephine and Proctor, Helen, “Being Special: Memories of the Australian Public High School, 1920s-1950s,” History of Education Review 42, no. 1 (June 2013), 5568; and McCalman, Janet, Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle-Class Generation, 1920–1990 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1993).

20 Craik, Uniforms Exposed; and Spencer, Stephanie, “A Uniform Identity: Schoolgirl Snapshots and the Spoken Visual,” History of Education 36, no. 2 (March 2007), 227–46.

21 For an example of the history of education of images and materialities, see Lawn, Martin and Grosvenor, Ian, eds., Materialities of Schooling: Design, Technology, Objects, Routines (Oxford, UK: Symposium Books, 2005); Vick, Malcolm, “What Does a Teacher Look Like?Paedagogica Historica 36, no. 1 (Jan. 2000), 247–63; Burke, Catherine and de Castro, Helena Ribeiro, “The School Photograph: Portraiture and the Art of Assembling the Body of the Schoolchild,” History of Education 36, no. 2 (March 2007), 213–26; Weaver, Heather A., “‘The Teacher's Unexpected Bath’: Plumbing the Meaning of Mayhem in the Celluloid Schoolroom,” History of Education Quarterly 54, no. 2 (May 2014), 145–71; and Sevan G. Terzian and Patrick A. Ryan, eds., American Education in Popular Media.

22 Inés Dussel, “The Shaping of a Citizenship with Style: A History of Uniforms and Vestimentary Codes in Argentinean Public Schools,” in Materialities of Schooling, 97–124 ; Dussel, Inés, “When Appearances Are Not Deceptive: A Comparative History of School Uniforms in Argentina and the United States (Nineteenth-Twentieth Centuries),” Paedagogica Historica 41, nos. 1-2 (Feb. 2005), 179–95; and Dussel, Inés, “School Uniforms and the Disciplining of Appearances: Towards a History of the Regulation of Bodies in Modern Educational Systems,” in Cultural History and Education: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Schooling, ed. Popkewitz, Thomas S., Franklin, Barry M., and Pereyra, Miguel A. (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001), 207–41.

23 Dussel, “School Uniforms and the Disciplining of Appearances,” 207.

24 Thompson, Elaine, “Change Without Innovation: The One Dimensional Female of the Australian Women's Weekly,” in The Pieces of Politics, 2nd ed., ed. Lucy, Richard (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1979), 490.

25 In 2010, the National Library of Australia (NLA) confirmed the magazine's status as a cultural icon when it made digitized copies of the first fifty years of issues freely available on its website, Trove. The NLA described this as a “Christmas gift to the nation.” National Library of Australia, “Our Gift to the Nation: The Australian Women's Weekly Goes Online,” Nov. 22, 2010, https://www.nla.gov.au/node/1066.

26 O'Brien, The Weekly, 6; and Bell, Johnny, “Putting Dad in the Picture: Fatherhood in the Popular Women's Magazines of 1950s Australia,” Women's History Review 22, no. 6 (Dec. 2013), 904–29.

27 Sheridan et al., Who Was that Woman?

28 Sheridan, Susan, “The ‘Australian Woman’ and Her Migrant Others in the Postwar Australian Women's Weekly,” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 14, no. 2 (July 2000), 121–32.

29 Proctor, Helen and Weaver, Heather, “Creating an Educational Home: Mothering for Schooling in the Australian Women's Weekly, 1943–1960,” Paedagogica Historica 53, nos. 1-2 (Jan. 2017), 4970.

30 By the mid-1980s, in a more crowded and diversified popular media marketplace, the Weekly had lost both its extraordinary market dominance and its warrant to speak for the nation's women.

31 Australian Women's Weekly, Jan. 20, 1934, 40.

32 See, for example, Australian Women's Weekly, Aug. 12, 1933, 31; July 7, 1934, 27; and June 13, 1936, 58.

33 “School Uniforms,” So They Say, Australian Women's Weekly, Dec. 15, 1934, 21.

34 “Children in Uniform?,” So They Say, Australian Women's Weekly, Aug. 17, 1935, 19.

35 For Britain's influence see Meadmore and Symes, “Of Uniform Appearance.”

36 The idea of American students as “sloppy” would persist internationally in the decades to come. For example, the 1965 Japanese work Take Ivy (now something of a cult classic) framed the dress style of Ivy League college students as “uncouth” and “casual.” It should be said that such style was portrayed positively in this book, in part by being framed as the effective opposite of compulsory school dress: “As a Japanese man, I struggle to conceive of ‘campus wear’ or ‘college fashion.’ It is because we Japanese have been put under the spell of having to wear school uniforms… . In the Japanese academic regime, students are not granted an opportunity to learn what dressing through life is about.” Hayashida, Teruyoshi, Ishizu, Shosuke, Kurosu, Toshiyuki, and Hasegawa, Hajime, Take Ivy, trans. Ayabe, Miho (1965; repr., Brooklyn, NY: powerHouse Books, 2010), 122–23.

37 Clinch, Lindsay, “U.S. Dress Designers Fight ‘Sloppy Sue’ Craze,” Australian Women's Weekly, Oct. 28, 1944, 9.

38 “Our Baby Show of Quads & Quins,” Australian Women's Weekly, June 13, 1936, 15.

39 Betty Sara would go on to win a competition held in celebration of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II for the woman who most resembled the new monarch. Mrs. Betty Sara Most Like Queen Elizabeth,” Coffs Harbour (New South Wales) Advocate, June 5, 1953, 1.

40 The last of the rationing to be abolished in Australia ended in June and July of 1950 for butter and tea, respectively. Rationing for sugar ended in 1947 and for meat and clothing in 1948.

41 O'Brien, The Weekly, 79–93.

42 The celebrity formula served the Weekly in good stead for decades. See Turner, Graeme, Bonner, Frances, and Marshall, P. David, Fame Games: The Production of Celebrity in Australia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 116159.

43 The Weekly covers featuring the Sara quads proved to guarantee a best-selling issue. They appeared on four covers in 1952 alone. The following year, the Consolidated Press further capitalized on their popularity by producing a book, Bingham, Margaret, The Story of the Sara Quads (Sydney: Australian Women's Weekly, 1953).

44 Georgina O'Sullivan, “Normal Family Life Planned for the Children,” Australian Women's Weekly, Sept. 9, 1950, 17.

45 The use of the term grammar school in this context signaled a relatively socially privileged and academically focused institution and curriculum. The boys’ school Percy Sara attended is one of the oldest secondary schools in Australia.

46 “Paddle for Preference,” advertisement, Australian Women's Weekly, Jan. 23, 1952, 4.

47 Australian Women's Weekly, July 6, 1955, 1.

48 Bailey, Janet, “Big Day for Sara Quads,” Australian Women's Weekly, July 6, 1955, 15; and “Four Little Quads at School Are They!” Australian Women's Weekly, July 6, 1955, 16–17.

49 “The Quads Are Growing Up,” Australian Women's Weekly, March 26, 1958, 48.

50 This is an example of the conflicting messages so commonly found in women's magazines; such contradictory content aims, when taken together, to create a sense of instability and consumer desire in the readership. See Ballaster, Ros et al. , Women's Worlds: Ideology, Femininity and the Women's Magazine (London: Macmillan, 1991), 815, 124–25.

51 “Letters from our Readers,” Australian Women's Weekly, Feb. 2, 1955, 10.

52 This localized practice was in marked contrast with the centralized state government bureaucratic school of most public schooling matters during this period. See Campbell, Craig and Proctor, Helen, A History of Australian Schooling (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2014), 178210.

53 “Uniform Revolution,” Australian Women's Weekly, Jan. 22, 1958, 29.

54 “Back to School in a Joyce Double-Way Blouse,” advertisement, Australian Women's Weekly, Jan. 22, 1958, 29.

55 “Cesarine Fabrics,” advertisement, Australian Women's Weekly, Sept. 16, 1953, 30; and “Australian Cotton Textiles Industries,” advertisement, Australian Women's Weekly, Sept. 17, 1958, 56.

56 “Efco,” advertisement, Australian Women's Weekly,  Jan. 19, 1966, 2.

57 “Tootal Tooform Fabrics,” advertisement, Australian Women's Weekly, Jan. 24, 1968, 42, 44, 45.

58 “Caesar Fabrics,” advertisement, Australian Women's Weekly, Jan. 22, 1969, 38.

59 “King Gee,” advertisement, Australian Women's Weekly,  Jan. 30, 1974, 44.

60 “Exacto Children's Wear,” advertisement, Australian Women's Weekly, Jan. 29, 1964, 31.

61 “Bonds,” advertisement, Australian Women's Weekly, Jan. 30, 1974, 43.

62 “Bonds,” advertisement, Australian Women's Weekly, Jan. 22, 1975, 46.

63 “Clothing Clues for the Classroom Set,” Australian Women's Weekly, Jan. 22, 1958, 53.

64 “Keeping the Uniforms in Order,” Australian Women's Weekly,  Jan. 22, 1969, 38.

65 A. M. Kleeman, “School Gear—What to Buy,” Australian Women's Weekly, Jan. 19, 1972, 57.

66 Mildred Eden, “How a U.S. Girl, 15, Sees Us,” Teenagers’ Weekly supplement, Australian Women's Weekly, Aug. 2, 1961, 9.

67 Nan Musgrove, “Why It Is So With U.S. Science Students,” Australian Women's Weekly, Feb. 1, 1967, 17.

68 The majority of these letters appeared in a teen-oriented section of the Weekly rather than in the standard Letter Box section. The Teenagers’ Weekly 16-page supplement ran from 1959 to 1964. It was followed by a smaller section of teen pages that ran through the early 1970s.

69 Ross Holmes, “Why Have School Uniforms?,” Letters, Teenagers’ Weekly supplement, Australian Women's Weekly, April 29, 1964, 2.

70 Jon Boyd, “Useless Uniforms,” Australian Women's Weekly, May 18, 1966, 76.

71 “For and Against Uniforms,” Letters, Australian Women's Weekly, June 22, 1966, 60.

72 “Uniforms,” Australian Women's Weekly, May 13, 1970, 101; “Top Marks to Uniform,” Australian Women's Weekly, Jan. 27, 1971, 85; “Uniforms,” Australian Women's Weekly, July 21, 1971, 77; “Uniformity,” Australian Women's Weekly, Dec. 22, 1971, 97; “Uniformity,” Australian Women's Weekly,  Jan. 5, 1972, 61; “Like Peas in a Pod,” Letter Box, Australian Women's Weekly, July 31, 1974, 56; and “School Uniforms … For and Against,” Australian Women's Weekly, Sept. 25, 1974, 47.

73 “Equal Chance,” Australian Women's Weekly, Oct. 2, 1968, 85; “Those School Uniforms,” Australian Women's Weekly, Aug. 15, 1973, 47; “Student Reaction,” Australian Women's Weekly, Aug. 21, 1974, 63; and “School Uniforms … For and Against,” Australian Women's Weekly, Sept. 25, 1974, 47.

74 “School Uniforms,” Australian Women's Weekly, May 28, 1975, 61.

75 Annette Morris, “Are School Uniforms Really Necessary?” Australian Women's Weekly, April 16, 1975, 7.

76 “King Gee,” advertisement, Australian Women's Weekly, Jan. 26, 1977, 60–61.

77 Australian Women's Weekly, covers, Jan. 30, 1974, Jan. 22, 1975, Jan. 21, 1976, Jan. 26, 1977, Jan. 31, 1979, and Jan. 28, 1981.

78 Australian Women's Weekly, Oct. 20, 1954, cover.

79 The perceived suitability of blue as a color for school dress can be traced back to its use in many British charity schools as well as in elite institutions such as Harrow School, Oxford, and Cambridge. See Ewing, History of Children's Costumes, 32–35; and Meadmore and Symes, “Of Uniform Appearance,” 212–13.

80 “Poll on School Uniforms,” Australian Women's Weekly, Jan. 30, 1974, 47. Although the Weekly was a mass-market magazine with a wide reach, it nonetheless pitched itself at the Anglo-Australian middle-class wife and mother. For more on the “implied reader” of women's magazines generally and of the Weekly specifically, see, respectively, Ballaster et. al., Women's Worlds, 9; and Sheridan, Who Was That Woman?, 1–8.

81 Buttrose, Ita, “At My Desk,” Australian Women's Weekly, Jan. 26, 1977, 3.

82 Ita,” track 9 on East, Cold Chisel (Sydney: WEA, 1980), http://www.coldchisel.com/ita/.

83 Le Masurier, Megan, “My Other, My Self: Cleo Magazine and Feminism in 1970s Australia,” Australian Feminist Studies 22, no. 53 (July 2007), 192.

The authors would like to thank the journal's three anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments as well as the staff at the Australian National Library in Canberra. Research was funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council Future Fellowship and a University of Sydney supplementary grant.

All figures in this article appear courtesy of the kind permission of Bauer Media Pty. Ltd. Figure 7 also appears courtesy of the kind permission of Workwear Group/KingGee.

The Question of the Spotted Muumuu: How the Australian Women's Weekly Manufactured a Vision of the Normative School Mother and Child, 1930s–1980s

  • Heather Weaver and Helen Proctor

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