Harold Cazneaux’s fashion portraits

Harold Cazneaux’s fashion portraits
The art of Sydney style and social change
31 May 2017

Jazz, cocktails and cigars. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) interpreted America’s experience of the post-WWI era with a heady energy. But what was happening in Australia? The transformation of our cities, society and sense of fashion was also underway. Thanks to the photographer Harold Pierce Cazneaux (1878-1953), we can see these changes as they happened. Through his photographs of Sydney Harbour Bridge, Cazneaux demonstrated his sympathetic eye for the architecture and atmosphere of the developing city.

Sydney Harbour Bridge being built

Harold Cazneaux (1878-1953), Arch over Dawes Point, Sydney Harbour Bridge, arch incomplete 1930, b&w glass negative photograph, nla.cat-vn3801612

But he was also a keen observer of Sydney's people. Through his lens we see the fashion and style adaptations that accompanied the social changes of the early 20th century.  

Poised for the turn of the century

Working as a commercial portrait photographer for Freeman’s Studio from 1904-1918, Cazneaux would have taken many portraits similar to this image:

Woman wearing a long frilly dress

Harold Cazneaux (1878-1953), Portrait of an unidentified woman, Freeman's Studio, Sydney c.1900, b&w glass negative photograph, nla.cat-vn6007148

The S-bend shape caused by this woman’s corset is emphasised by the ruffled detail of her sleeves and the trail of the skirt behind her. We can see how fashion for women was not concerned with practicalities of movement. Women did not work unless they had to, so if she is from a wealthy family she will not do any housework or physical activity. Therefore, fashion at this time is focussed on showing a particular type of feminine figure.

The definition of fashion forward

Woman wearing a sleeveless dress, bob haircut and pearl necklace

Harold Cazneaux (1878-1953), End of the story 1931, b&w glass negative photograph, nla.cat-vn4300228

This woman has paired a sleeveless dress with elongated layers of jewellery and a finger wave hairstyle to create the classic flapper outfit. Whereas the woman in the 1904 portrait wore multiple layers of clothing, this photograph shows the flapper’s minimalist interpretation of the dress. It flattens the figure by rejecting petticoats and corsets in favour of a drop-waisted design. This change to a simpler style was influenced by wartime restrictions; the limited availability of fabric created a preference for outfits that did not require so many layers of clothing. 

Woman standing in the sunshine in front of a tree, wearing a patterned dress and finger wave hairstyle

Harold Cazneaux (1878-1953), Autumn leaves [Portrait of Patricia Minchin] 1931, b&w photograph, nla.cat-vn464019

Cazneaux often moved between the studio and the natural light of the outside world. He has captured the sunshine falling across this patterned dress, which has been designed so the woman can move her arms comfortably. Movement, physically and socially, is an important aspect of fashion at this time. With their participation in the workforce during WWI, social expectations of women began to change. This meant they were able to take up publicly visible activities such as sports and dancing, which required clothing to become less restrictive. 

Style adaptations for men

There is plenty of art which demonstrates the changes in women’s clothing, but men’s fashion also saw a variety of modifications during the 1900s-1930s. It is worth seeking out these examples in Cazneaux’s photography, for they indicate noticeable sartorial adjustments. 

Men wearing bowler hats sitting on a ferry going to work

Harold Cazneaux (1878-1953), Please do not spit 1906, b&w glass negative photograph, nla.cat-vn2996284

As if the morning commute to work was not stressful enough without worrying if your shirt collar was properly starched or your moustache combed just right. Yet this was part of the day-to-day outfit for men in the early 1900s, along with bowler hats, ties and waistcoats. This look is about fitting in with the crowd in order to look professional. It seems like Cazneaux couldn’t resist the urge to take a candid photograph of the office workers.

Man leaning against a wall, wearing a cap, striped shirt and scarf

Harold Cazneaux, Apache 1926, b&w photograph, nla.cat-vn1986732

By comparison, this man’s clothes are made out of softer, non-starched material which allows for a relaxed posture. He has paired tweed pants and a cloth cap with a striped skivvy and scarf, and oxford shoes complete the outfit. Cazneaux has created a portrait out of this subject matter, hopefully titling the work in jest – ‘apache’ was used in early 20th century France as jargon to refer to street criminals.

Looking through the lens of fashion is one way to interpret the photography of Harold Cazneaux. You can find out more about the Library’s Cazneaux Collection and discover more of his photography through the catalogue. 

Thank you Brooke ! Such a fan of HPC's aesthetic and beautifully rendered photographic images. This is such an interesting piece, in the way it highlights and makes readily accessible other facets of his practice and making, and also an insightful contextualization by drawing on the social conventions, fashions and vestiges of the people he documented. Good work you !
Hellloooo Miss Brooke...lovely work on your blog.
Great blog Brooke. I love photography in general but I am a huge fan of b&w so seeing these images, its timeless and elegant.
Patricia Minchin is my mother. Lovely to see this portrait of her. She was a favourite of Harold Cazneaux.