Box of buttons, cardboard / plastic / possibly vegetable ivory / cotton, used by Ron and Maxwell Gillman, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia, 1918-2003
The craft of tailoring gradually developed in Europe from the twelfth century. In Australia, tailors were once a common sight in country towns and suburban main streets. Before the 1800s a suit 'made to order' was reserved for the wealthy. By the late 1800s increasing numbers of Australian working men had at least one good suit as a sign of respectability. Suits could be purchased ready-made, made to measure from a local tailor or the fabric and style could be chosen at a men's wear store and then sent to a manufacturing tailor in the city. Today independent tailors are a rarity, as evidence, the Master Tailors Association had to close down in 1965 due to insufficient members. It could be argued that clients of the few tailors left today are like those before the 1800s, wealthy and often famous. The decrease in the number of tailors was due to the availability of ready-made clothing as well as the cheap imports that have flooded the Australian market since the 1970s.
The significance of this collection of tailoring equipment lies in its provenance and its documentation of a now rare craft that has diminished in the contemporary world. The provenance of this collection is from a country tailor shop in Wagga Wagga. It was owned by Ron Gillman a third generation master tailor. His family had run tailoring businesses in the Riverina since 1883. The tools of the tailoring trade from this collection date back to 1918 when Ron's father, Maxwell, opened a tailoring business in Wagga Wagga. Other tools date from the 1960s and 1970s highlighting the changes in tailoring over the twentieth century. For example, the introduction of electric irons meant that the old flat irons and gas stove no longer had to be used. However, some tools remained unchanged and were used by Ron until 2003 when he closed down his business. In addition, some of the objects illustrate retailing tools a tailor used such as fabric books from which customers could choose their material and a window dummy display that was used in the shop window to exhibit partially made and completed suits.
As a whole, this collection shows the different tools and materials needed to make a suit, jacket or pants, from measuring the client to pressing the seams and the first fitting. How each object was used is well documented through an oral history with Ron Gillman. The objects are a reminder of a time when most men owned one good suit and service was personalised. This personalised service was illustrated in Ron's workroom where many paper patterns hung from a partition behind where he worked. They belonged to different clients who had their own pattern marked with their name on it, dimensions and the date.
This box of buttons came from Ron Gillman's tailor shop in Wagga Wagga. Ron was a third generation tailor. His grandfather, Joseph Gillman was a master tailor who arrived in the Riverina in 1883 from England. He established a tailoring business in the same year at Cootamundra and later in Hillston, Narrandera and Lockhart. Joseph and his wife had eight children, three of them boys. The three sons joined Joseph in his business and he taught them the trade. Two of the sons, Joseph Jnr and Maxwell opened a tailoring shop at 216 Baylis St Wagga Wagga in 1918. After eighteen months Joseph Jnr decided to start his own business and Maxwell carried on at Baylis St as M M Gillman. In 1932 Maxwell's son, Ron, went to work for his father at age 14 during the height of the Depression. During 1938 the business moved next door to 214 Baylis Street and in 1946 the business name was changed to M M Gillman & Son. Maxwell retired in 1949 and Ron took over the business.
Ron was trained to cut but did not do so until his father retired in 1949. Work done in the tailor shop was strictly divided along clear lines. For example, only the men did the 'tailoring' which was the hand sewing. The women were employed to machine sew straight seams and their wages were about half that of the men. There were eight people, the highest ever number, working in the shop in 1940. These included Maxwell, Ron and six women, two of whom were Ron's sisters.
Half of Ron's clients were farmers and half were working men. Professionals in the area took their tailoring requirements to Sydney. Much of a tailor's profit came from selling the material to make the suit. If a customer supplied the material profits were reduced. Ron said: 'that's the cream ... selling the material was the cream, making the job was the skim milk.' Prices were based on a day for a tailor to make a pair of trousers and four days for a two-piece suit.
Ron was a high class tailor. The styles of suits, jackets and pants that he made remained conservative over his career. Tailors sat cross-legged on their work bench, supporting the garment on their knees while they finished off by hand. Ron's workroom and those of his father and grandfather were behind the retail area that was at the front of the shop.
In 1970 Ron moved to the Nelso Arcade at 117 Baylis Street and he took as much of the old shop as he could. In 1992 he made his last suit, however he kept his shop open for alterations until November 2003 when he closed up shop.