Hilda Smith's black silk satin and lace dress

Contributed by: Griffith Pioneer Park Museum

Hilda Smith's dress - the image has been lightened to show details
Photographer Gordon McCaw Hilda Smith's Dress- Back View
Photographer Gordon McCaw Hilda Smith's Dress- Back Oblique View
Photographer Gordon McCaw Hilda Smith's Dress - Detail of the Bodice
Photographer Gordon McCaw Studio photograph of Hilda Mabel Smith (nee Spencer) c. 1908 Hilda Smith - studio photograph c. 1910 Hilda standing with her friend Jessie Wilson c. 1909 Hilda & Neil Smith.  Wedding day 22nd April 1914 Hilda's horse showing her winning Show ribbons.  The child is her daughter Gladys. Children of Hilda & Neil Smith c 1970's. Back Row (L-R) Ceci, Pat Jessie, Dick and Ernie.  Front Row: Tommy and Gladys. The Area News, 2.5.07 - 'Mission Breathes Life Back to Rare Vintage Garment'
  • Australian dress register ID:

  • Owner:

    Griffith Pioneer Park Museum
  • Owner registration number:

  • Date range:

    1908 - 1912
  • Place of origin:

    Braidwood, New South Wales, Australia
  • Gender:

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Object information

Significance statement

This dress is a significant example of a well provenanced stylish dress worn for special occasions by a pioneering woman. This well-made black dress belonged to Hilda Mabel Smith, nee Spencer who was born in Braidwood in 1884. The dress may have been made during a trip to Sydney between 1908 and 1912.

Hilda came from a family of pioneering horsemen of the Snowy Mountains river region and married Neil Smith in April 1914. Hilda and Neil spent several years travelling and working in rural NSW. They opened a butchery in Woolarma in 1926 and the family lived in a tin shed. In 1927/1928 the family moved to Goolgowi, opened a butcher's shop and lived in a new home behind the shop. Hilda had seven children, among them horse racing identity, Tommy Smith.

Black was a fashionable colour choice for the early 1900s and it is known Hilda loved beautiful clothes. The dress was worn to functions in Braidwood, Berridale, Ivanhoe, Narrandera and the Goolgowi area. Its luxurious and elegant nature is interesting in contrast to the rough conditions in which Hilda lived and worked with her family.

Author: Shirley Norris and Heather Waide, 6th May 2010.


This full-length black silk satin and lace dress has long sleeves and a high boned collar. The outer bodice is a magyar style with elbow length sleeves, made of cotton net lace lined with polished cotton. The bodice features a v-shaped front and back section enclosing heavily embroidered cotton net lace, faced in silk satin with decorative covered buttons, as are the outer sleeve ends.          

The inner bodice is made of polished cotton, with set-in full-length sleeves. There are four darts across the front with two bones stitched over and another on the centre front seam. The back is made with three princess-shaped panels; the middle reaching the shoulder line. A machine-stitched bone is attached midway across the back. Centre back seam is boned. Each bone top has four long hand stitches in yellow thread, meeting at a point. Two small pieces of woven tape are attached to the side seam and mid-back bones at waist level. Centre back hook and eye closure on lower part, with hooks and thread loops on upper lace section. Woven tape is hand-stitched down the centre back seams.

The collar has a narrow satin binding, embroidered with a row of French knots 1.5cms apart. The bodice pieces are hand-stitched together at shoulders and hooked together lower on the bodice.

The dress has a replica A-line black satin skirt lined in black cotton voile, with a shorter, shaped hemline lace overskirt. A lace border follows the shaped hemline up to the waist on the left side opening. A triangular satin piece held with a covered button decorates and weights the lace skirt's lower corners. Skirt closes at the centre back with hooks and thread loops. The two skirts are joined onto a band with hooks attaching to loops on the bodice.

The replica silk satin belt has a twisted silk cord sash with tassels, stitched to the belt, falling on the left where the lace skirt opens.

The dress features four different designs of the same heavily embroidered cotton net lace. Collar, centre front and back bodice, and sleeve ends have the same design. The main part of bodice and skirt are of a simpler design, with matching groups of four vertical pin-tucks. The skirt border is a third pattern. The collar base has a narrow border lace stitched over the top.

History and Provenance

Hilda Mabel Spencer was born in Braidwood, NSW on 16 November, 1884. Her family were pioneering horsemen of the Snowy Mountains region.  Hilda was an accomplished horsewoman, riding side-saddle to many dances and parties and competing in local shows and horse events in Braidwood and surrounding districts. This black dress was worn to functions in Braidwood, Berridale, Ivanhoe, Narrandera and the Goolgowi area.

Hilda's father, John Spencer was a landowner and a hotel keeper, holding the license for the Royal Hotel in Ivanhoe for a time. From 1907 - 1909 Hilda worked for her father at the Royal Hotel and it's likely that Hilda met her future husband there.

Neil Alfred Smith was born in Hillston on 15 February, 1887. He was an accomplished horseman, being selected in 1912 to represent Australia in the Canadian Calgary Stampede rodeo, but was unable to attend due to his financial situation. It appears throughout Neils's life he had an interest in horses and bullocks. In early years he owned a team of Clydesdales used to cart wool over the salt bush plains. Later he found work with his bullock team. 

Hilda and Neil married at Braidwood on 22 April, 1914. They had seven children, Gladys, Thomas, Cecil, Neil (Dick), Jessie, Ernest and Patrick. Hilda and Neil spent several years traveling and working in NSW, settling in Goolgowi in 1927.

Neil Smith died in 1935 aged 48 years and Hilda died the following year, aged 51 years. Hilda and Neil's eldest daughter, Gladys, guided the younger children through to adulthood. Thomas left Goolgowi at age 13 to pursue his horse training career. Younger brothers Dick and Ernest followed later, working alongside Tommy during his successful years as a leading horse trainer. Tommy's daughter, Gai Waterhouse continues this family heritage.

Births, deaths, marriages, children or family information

Hilda Mabel Spencer born at Braidwood on 16th November, 1884, died 1936, aged 51.

Neil Alfred Smith born at Hillston on 15th February, 1887, died 1935, aged 48.

Hilda and Neil married at Braidwood on 22nd April, 1914.

They had seven children, Gladys, Thomas, Cecil, Neil (Dick), Jessie, Ernest and Patrick.

Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?

After marriage in Braidwood the family traveled to Narrandera where Neil worked in the flourmill. The next move was to Darlington Point where Neil dragged logs with his bullock team, for timber cutter Norman Dixon.

In January, 1925 they traveled to the Goolgowi district. Neil and his eldest son, Thomas drove the bullock team, Hilda drove a horse and buggy with the other children. The family settled and worked for a short time at Dixon's sawmill at Yoolaroi where Neil carted logs to the mill. The timber was used in constructing buildings for the new town of Goolgowi. The family accommodation at this time was crude, mostly living in tents or make-shift huts with dirt floors and rooms divided by hung hessian. Clothing (including Hilda's black dress) and precious possessions were stored in tin trunks. The family's supplies came from Griffith and were collected at the Goolgowi railway station.

By 1926 the family had moved to Woolarma (referred to as Willarma, 25 klms N/W of Goolgowi) where they opened up a butcher's shop and a killing yard. An advertisement in the 'Area News' 1926 reads, 'Willarma & Goolgowi. N. Smith begs to notify the public of Willarma and surrounding districts that he has opened an up-to-date Butchery at Willarma - Primest meat, moderate prices - A trial order solicited'. Neil ran a cutting cart around to the farms; the eldest children helped their father by holding lanterns at night butchering and at weekends, delivering the meat on horseback to surrounding properties. 

School was held in the Woolarma Hall and the Smith children attended lessons there.

In 1927/28 Hilda, Neil and family moved into Goolgowi where they opened the town's first butcher shop in Stipa Street, and resided in a new home behind the shop. Hilda cooked for the family on a 'Dover' stove making homemade bread and buns. She also made all the children's clothes on her new 'White' sewing machine.

After selling the butcher shop, the family moved to another new home in Zara Street, Goolgowi and Neil and Hilda began the first mail run from Goolgowi to Gunbar. After Neil died in 1935, son Cecil drove the mail run for his mother. Hilda died in 1936, aged 51. The family continued with the mail run until 1941. 

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

Hilda's black lace dress was a very fashionable outfit for the period, as quoted in "The Girls Own Annual" XXX, 1909, p.318, "Dress Fabrics for the Coming Season. Those who favour black will be pleased to know that entire black dresses are to be very fashionable."

It is known Hilda loved beautiful clothes. Prior to her marriage she regularly traveled to Sydney, had clothing made and attended photographic studios. Hilda's Wedding photo appears to have been taken in a photographic studio, possibly in Sydney, as small country towns even up to the late 1940s did not have these facilities. It was common to be married in the country, then board the train to Sydney with packed wedding clothes so photographs could be taken later. Hilda's wedding dress has some fold marks visible on the skirt, indicating this possibility.

In her short lifetime, Hilda undoubtedly passed on her love of fine dress to her children. Eldest son, Tommy Smith, famous Australian horse trainer was reported as being a 'dapper, debonair man who is very proud of his appearance'. (Ibis Links 1991 p.6). Tommy's daughter, Gai Waterhouse continues to be a leader of fashion on the racing circuit. Hilda's daughters, Gladys and Jessie and her sons Cecil, Dick, Ernie and Pat were also well known for their stylish and distinctive attire. Grandchildren and great grandchildren continue this heritage.

When Hilda died, her eldest daughter Gladys, who was only 21, kept two special dresses belonging to her mother. One dress was pale blue with lace trimming, the other, this black lace dress. Over the years, these dresses were loaned for formal occasions and dressing up purposes for historical local events, including the Goolgowi Jubilee celebrations.

The black lace dress was donated by Gladys to Pioneer Park Museum Griffith, in 2003. It was in a fragile condition with pieces missing though obviously a beautiful quality garment. With guidance from Powerhouse Museum staff, research, conservation and restoration was commenced by volunteer Heather Waide and Museum Curator, Shirley Norris.

On completion of the work, the dress was exhibited at the Griffith Museum with a formal unveiling ceremony on 28 April, 2007. Many of Hilda's descendants attended, including Hilda's eldest daughter Gladys, aged in her nineties. Having cared for her mother's dress for seventy years, Gladys was happy to see the beautiful dress in its restored condition.

Where did this information come from?

Interviews with family members, media reports, photographs.

This garment has been exhibited

On completion of the conservation and restoration work, this dress was exhibited at the Griffith Museum with a formal unveiling ceremony on 28 April, 2007. Many of Hilda's descendants attended including donor of the dress, Hilda's daughter, Gladys Myott.

The dress was a feature of an exhibition of early 1900s clothing held at Pioneer Park Museum, Griffith in November, 2007.

  1. Place of origin:

    Braidwood, New South Wales, Australia

  2. Cost:


  3. Owned by:

    Hilda Mabel Smith nee Spencer. Passed to eldest daughter Gladys Myott and finally given to Pioneer Park Museum, Griffith.

  4. Worn by:

    Hilda Mabel Smith. Later loaned for dressing up and historical occasions.

  5. Occasion(s):

    Special occasions

  6. Place:

    Braidwood, Berridale, Ivanhoe, Narrandera, Darlington Point, Goolgowi, Sydney

  7. Designed by:

    Unknown. Most probably made in Sydney.

  8. Made by:


  9. Made for:

    Hilda Mabel Smith nee Spencer

Trimmings / Decoration

Lace: The lace on the centre front and back bodice is a heavily embroidered floral, leaf pattern. The same lace has been used on the collar and the lower sleeves. The base of the collar has a narrow border lace. Centre back closure features this same lace on the lapped over section of the upper bodice. The narrow border lace also finishes the sleeve ends and two pieces of it are stitched side by side and feature further up the sleeve near the elbow.

A simpler lace design has been used on the remainder of the bodice and skirt.

The shaped hemline of the lace over-skirt has a heavily embroidered lace border of a different pattern again and this comes up to the waist on the left side opening.

Buttons: Covered satin buttons are featured on the v-shaped front and back bodice and elbow length sleeves of the outer bodice.

Tassel: A twisted silk cord sash with tassels attaches to the satin belt and falls on the left hand side of the dress.


Woven tape 9cm x 1.5cm wide stitched on side seam bone at waistline and onto next bone across the back.


Machine made embroidered cotton net lace. Four different patterns of the same lace.


Groups of four vertical pintucks on net lace on bodice and skirt. These appear horizontal on sleeves.


A row of French knots 1.5 cm apart around the collar satin binding.

Fibre / Weave

Bodice: Black cotton net lace over polished cotton. Black silk satin facing following front and back v-shape. Black silk satin covered buttons at intervals along the front and back facing.

Lining: Black cotton.

Skirt: Black cotton net lace. Black silk satin underskirt (replica).

Lining of underskirt: Black cotton voile.

Belt: Black silk satin (replica). Black twisted silk cord sash with tassels.

Notes: The black cotton lining has two distinct sides. One side is quite shiny and satin like, the other side has no shine. The shiny side has been used underneath the bodice lace and is quite visible.

The shiny side has also been used to construct the inner bodice. Seam allowances and darts face away from the body, bones machined over the top.

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye


The seams of the dress are machine stitched. Pin-tucks are machine stitched.

Hand stitching has been used to hold together the inner and outer bodice sections on the shoulders and lower centre front and back.

Facings are hand stitched - neck, sleeves and lower bodice.

French knots around neckline facing are hand stitched.

Tape attached on both sides of centre back bodice enclosing part of the hooks is hand stitched.

Inner bodice sleeve seam allowance has hand overcasting.

The lace border on the skirt hemline and side opening has been attached by hand with a running stitch.

Hand stitching in yellow thread has been used at the top of the boning to secure.




No major alterations were made to this dress. The dress was worn by Hilda and later used for dressing up purposes and historical events. The centre back seam on the lace skirt had been machine stitched together with orange thread. Hooks remained in place.

  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other


The bodice and skirt have been cut on the straight grain.

Centre back seam on the inner bodice is on the straight grain. The facing section on the centre back seam forming the boning channel is cut slightly off grain, possibly to allow outward flexibility of the boning.

  1. Bias
  2. Straight


Centre Back bodice: Hooks and thread loops on upper lace section.

Hooks and eyes used on lower bodice.

Collar: Hooks and thread loops.

Skirt: Hooks and thread loops.

Belt: Hooks and thread loops.

Skirt waistband has hooks which attach to loops on the bodice, joining skirt and bodice.

  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

The outer bodice is lined with black polished cotton. This is visible through the net lace on the bodice.

The lining on the inner section also uses the polished side of the cotton. Boning is stitched to this.

The inner bodice has nine bones, five are broken.

The upper sections of the centre back boning are missing.

The broken bone was sharp and splintered so it possibly is whalebone.

Cotton tape is hand stitched down the centre back seam on both sides, covering part of the hooks and stabilising the garment.

The replica belt has 'Shapewell' stiffening.


belt bodice skirt
Neck 320 mm
Chest 850 mm
Waist 650 mm 650 mm
Hip 880 mm
Cuff 230 mm
Hem circumference 1640 mm
Front neck to hem 1350 mm
Front waist to hem 990 mm
Back neck to hem 1335 mm
Back waist to hem 1020 mm
Sleeve length 460 mm
Neck to sleeve head 170 mm
Cross back 300 mm
Underarm to underarm 450 mm
Convert to inches

Dress Themes

It is thought that this dress was worn for special occasions.

Additional material

Articles, publications, diagrams and receipts descriptions

Local Media coverage:

Griffith Area News 29th August, 2005. "Volunteer dresses up her textile skills"

Local newspaper article on the early restoration work of the Hilda Smith dress and a week long internship offered by the Powerhouse Museum for volunteer Heather Waide to seek advice on the restoration.

Griffith Area News 2nd May, 2007 "Mission breathes life back into rare vintage garment"

Unveiling of Hilda Smith's dress at Griffith Pioneer Park Museum with many family descendants present, Powerhouse Museum staff members and many local residents.

Hillston Spectator 6th June, 2007 "100 year old dress restored and unveiled"

History of the Smith family and the dress.

Griffith GO Magazine June, 2007 "Dress Donation"

History of the dress and a picture of Gladys Myott, eldest daughter of Hilda Smith and carer of her mother's dress for 70 years.

Other related objects

Framed painted portrait of Hilda Smith c.1930's

A special model was needed to display this dress as Hilda was a very small women. Shirley Norris, Griffith Pioneer Park Museum curator carved this from "ethafoam". It was then covered in stretch cotton fabric and mounted on a stand.

A purpose built display cabinet was constructed to accommodate the dress.


The dress was in a fragile condition with parts missing when given to the Museum.

The cotton net backing for the lace had mostly disintegrated on the centre front and back bodice v-shaped sections and the sleeve ends. The embroidered motifs remained, some hand tacked together with long threads, other motifs held together with a common thread from the machining process. The cotton lining supporting the net lace was split in many places. Woven tape stitched on side seam bone at waistline and onto next bone across the back show wear - possibly used for hanging.

Two small pieces of lace were missing in the lower section of the v-shaped centre front and back bodice.

The bodice has nine bones, five of these were broken but in place.

The centre back boning was broken on both sides and the upper sections were missing.

The collar has seven bones, all intact. Collar lining needed repairing.

Cotton lining on the back bodice was split.

Satin skirt was missing.

The skirt band was split - hooks still in place.

The twisted silk cord sash had many loose threads attached to it indicating a belt.

The lace over-skirt was torn in several places near the band.

A number of covered buttons were torn.

Evidence of repairs

The dress was in a fragile condition with parts missing when given to the Museum. (See condition notes)

Repairs were undertaken as follows:

New black net inserted underneath lace remnants and the embroidered motifs were re-arranged in their original pattern and hand-stitched in place. Any remaining pieces of the original net were left in place.

New black lining was stitched enclosing the original fabric and stabilising the bodice and sleeves.

Repairs were needed to cover sharp ends of centre back bone, strengthen the centre back tape and reinforce the hooks.

New fabric was used to enclose and stabilise the cotton lining on the back bodice.

The silk binding enclosing the bottom of the bodice had split and was mostly missing. The remains were enclosed in net.

The silk satin underskirt was missing. A replica was constructed in silk satin with black cotton voile underlining.

New net was used to repair the lace over-skirt and the entire skirt was backed with new net to stabilise it.

A new band was made to join the lace skirt to the replica silk skirt.

Hooks were removed from the original band and added to attach the skirt to the bodice.

A replica belt was made from silk satin and the original sash attached.

Two small pieces of lace were missing in the lower section of the v-shaped sections on front and back bodice.

Two replica lace pieces were created.

Damaged buttons have been re-covered.


  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor


  1. Brittle
  2. Worn
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