The 1956 Olympics and the FJ Skirt.

Australia is a sporting nation which has always taken a keen interest in its athletes, their victories and of course what they are wearing! In recognition of the sixtieth anniversary of the Melbourne Games in 1956, many of Victoria’s collecting institutions are running public programs to celebrate the occasion, and in a moment of timely serendipity the ladies skirt made by Fletcher Jones worn at the opening of the games has recently been uncovered at the University of Melbourne Archives. Little has changed since the 1956 Olympics and if anything our fascination with fashion and sport has grown during that time.  The media coverage of the 1956 Melbourne Games and its athletes was extensive and many artifacts and objects eventually found their way into the archive, a testimony to their popularity and significance. This is the story of the FJ skirt.   Melinda Barrie, Archivist Collection Development, The University of Melbourne (July 2016).

FLETCHER JONES: HOW THE 1956 MELBOURNE OLYMPICS SKIRT CHANGED EVERYTHING!  

The public, have long been fascinated with the Olympic uniform and its media unveiling has become an integral part of the excitement leading up to the opening ceremony. Top Australian fashion designers are especially selected by the Australian Olympic Federation (AOF) to produce the green and gold attire for our sporting greats. In 1956 the AOF was well aware of fanfare and intense public attention associated with the outfitting of our national sporting heroes. So in the lead up to the Melbourne Games, AOF Secretary Sir Edgar Tanner approached well-respected, Victorian garment manufacturer Fletcher Jones with a proposal to produce both the men’s and women’s Olympic uniform. Fletcher Jones accepted the commission and publically acknowledged what a great honour it is for a ‘country factory’[1] to be selected.

Jones circulated an advice to his staff, excitedly announcing the news about the Olympic uniform commission;

‘Yes. It is official!’

‘We have GOT the Games Contract.’

‘Hooray, all 400 Aussie athletes will march in the grand Olympic parades wearing immaculate cream coverdines.’

‘Plus 8 greys have also been chosen to “steal the show” for Australia.’[2]

However this jubilation at been offered the job is not all as it seems. Accepting the trouser commission was fine, but moving into ladies skirts and slacks was uncharted territory for the company. Jones initially demurred on the offer and reasoned that he had ‘enough on his plate’[3] and worried about how to produce a flattering feminine pleat. He also had concerns about how the move into ladies wear would affect his brand and the company slogan ‘no man is hard to

fit!’[4] Not deterred by Jones’ reservations Tanner persisted and in a move that would ensure the company’s place in Australia’s fashion history, Fletcher Jones finally conceded to public demand and entered the skirt market. Thus Tanner’s proposal provided the ideal opportunity for the company to expand its product range beyond the traditional trousers.

Sixty years later a vintage pleated pale grey skirt was unearthed from deep within the repository at the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA) by Archivists working on the Fletcher Jones collection transferred to UMA in 2012. With care the skirt was unpacked revealing a pink label zigzag stitched to the inside pocket which showed the unmistakable five interlocking coloured rings of the Olympic brand. A memo called ‘Tale of a Skirt’[5] pinned to the item confirmed that it was indeed the ‘first skirt made for the 1956 Olympic team’. Over the course of many decades the original purpose of this mustard yellow office circular has been transformed into a chronicle about skirt’s journey. Told in Jones’s upbeat, colloquial style it documents changing fashions and how the skirts travelled around the countryside, before it finally arrived at UMA.

In a letter dated 16 October 1956, Fletcher Jones asked Barbara Cunningham, a Melbourne based gymnast[6] with the Australian Olympic team, to model the first skirt produced by the FJ factory in Warrnambool. Jones writes; ‘This is the first skirt that has been completed and we are anxious to inspect this one on you, before completing the other orders we have on hand’[7]. Very little correspondence survives in archives about what became of Barbara Cunningham after 1956, but we do know that she kept the company’s first skirt for many years. When she returned it to the company, it was in a faded state with its hem line shortened and ragged. The inside of the skirt is in good condition having retained its original colour and the styling features that the company is known for. The pleating, shape and adjustable waist highlight the quality of this garment.

Carefully stitched on to the inside of the skirt are the distinctive/descriptive FJ labels, which provide insight into the unique materials and methods used to make the skirt. The ‘Fabrilastic Comfort Waist’ and ‘Coverdine styled by Fletcher Jones’ were essential to the finished product worn by Olympians such as Betty Cuthbert and Lorraine Crapp at the opening ceremony, which was televised for the first time into Australian homes at the Melbourne Games. In characteristic style, an inscription on the label carrying the Olympic insignia implores the athlete to ‘care for this skirt always’.

In a memo to staff dated 17 December 1956, Jones reports on his encounter with Olympic Gold medalist Dawn Fraser on a flight to Adelaide. He describes how Fraser and ‘the girls were all most impressed with the high quality finish of the skirts, and the way they draped beautifully.’[8]

After the 1956 games the skirt went on to become a well-regarded staple in the Fletcher Jones product range. Today Fletcher Jones skirts can still be found in vintage shopping outlets and are still popular. Even now the mere mention of Fletcher Jones evokes a flood of memories and reminiscing about quality fitted garments, designed to last.

Caption: 1956 Melbourne Olympics Skirt & Note, University of Melbourne Archives, Fletcher Jones Business and Family Records, 2012.0031

[1] Jones, F. (1956a) ‘Yes, It is Official!, Do You Know, 2012.0031.00456, Fletcher Jones Family and Business Records, University of Melbourne Archives.

[2] Jones (1956a)

[3] Jones, F. (1977) Not by myself, The Wentworth Press, NSW, p. 141.

[4] Jones (1977) p. 141.

[5] Jones, F. (c. 1956b) ‘Tale of a Skirt’, 2012.0031.01141, Fletcher Jones Family and Business records, University of Melbourne Archives.

[6] SR/Olympic Sport. ‘Barbara Cunningham’, http://www.sports- reference.com/olympics/athletes/cu/barbara-cunningham-1.html, accessed on 1 July 2016.

[7] Jones (1977) p. 144.

[8] Jones, F. ‘Further Olympic Congratulations!, Do You Know, 17 December 1956, 2012.0031.00456, Fletcher Jones Family and Business Records, University of Melbourne Archives.

Photo:Warrnambool Standard
Warrnambool Standard Advertisement: Wednesday November 21, 1956.Thanks to Rebecca Riddle of the Standard.
The 1956 Olympic Uniforms designed and made by FJs.  This was FJs first manufacture of women's skirts.  Photo: David Owen
FJ Olympic Skirt banner.  Melbourne University Staff Student E-News, September 16, 2016.
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