5 January 2018

Women of Empire Exhibition Canberra: Not all WWI Heroes Wore Khaki

| Nina Gbor
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Women of Empire Exhibition. Photo: Supplied.

Seldom are we told stories of WWI heroes who stayed behind and replaced the menfolk by keeping businesses, households, farms, banks and the economy afloat. The Women of Empire Exhibition 1914 – 1919 brings us the stories of over thirty Australian and New Zealand women whose experiences of the First World War transformed their lives forever.

To mark the Centenary of World War One, Dressing Australia Museum of Costume is telling the stories of these women through this unique costume exhibition, Women of Empire, at the National Film and Sound Archive from January 6th – 14th. This is the only exhibition in the world dedicated solely to the Women of the First World War and has already been seen by an estimated half a million people in ANZ, in venues ranging from small town halls to Sir Peter Jackson’s Great War Museum in Wellington.

Women of Empire Exhibition. Photo: Supplied.

The exhibition features original costumes bringing to life the incredible stories of these women. The costumes are from Dressing Australia Museum of Costume Collection which has a range of everything from Jane Austen to World War I era. The costumes display ranges from women who did voluntary work raising money for women and children displaced by war, to women who made comforts and clothing for the troops. Some of the costumes are of women in uniform, women campaigning against women in conscription and even women in mourning.

Fiona Baversock is the Exhibition Curator. Fiona and her husband Keith Baverstock, founded Seams Old about twenty years ago. They sell antique and vintage (really old stuff) that they have been collecting for two decades at fairs in Canberra and around the country. Their love for social history stems from forty plus years of involvement in teaching, writing and lecturing in the industry. For exhibition visitors who want a costume souvenir or anyone who likes vintage, the old NFSA shop will host the Vintage Fashion Rumble, selling antique, vintage and retro costumes, clothes and accessories from Seams Old all week and other similar vintage sellers on Sunday the 14th.

Women of Empire costume. Photo: Supplied.

Regarding his overall experiences with the exhibitions, Mr. Baverstock says it’s “wonderful to tell the women’s stories in WWI and to see people moved by them.”

Mr. Baverstock can recount so many characters and stories but a particular favorite of his is that of Jane Sam.

“Jane Sam was a child prostitute on the streets of Grendel on NSW Goldfields. Sent to multiple correctional institutions, she escaped abuse by marrying a Chinese immigrant twenty years her senior. (They) went on to have 16 children and five of her sons and two grandsons went on to fight for Australia returning as heroes.”

The Women of Empire Exhibition and Vintage Fashion Rumble sale is on at the National Film and Sound Archive on:

6 – 7 January: 1 pm – 5 pm
8 – 12 January: 9 am – 5 pm
13 – 14 January: 10 am – 5 pm.

Will you be visiting the ‘Women of Empire’ exhibition? Let us know by commenting below.

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My grandmother joined the women’s army in the UK and was in Rouen, France for two years. Not all women were nurses. There was a general section that would undertake non-medical work, such as cooking, cleaning and administrative roles. My grandmother worked in an officer’s club. Waitress likely. I have photographs of her in her uniform, and she had service medals.

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