Dawn Waterhouse's Ball Gown

Contributed by: Canberra Museum and Gallery

Dress - Full View Dawn Waterhouse wearing the dress to Parliament House Ball, in Honour of the Royal Visit (1954) Dress - Bodice Detail - Zip Fastener Detail - Stiffening in Bodice Detail - Fabric Pattern Detail - Lining in Bodice Detail - Petticoats Detail - Dart inserted in bodice Alteration - Shoulder Strap
  • Australian dress register ID:

  • Owner:

    Canberra Museum and Gallery
  • Date range:

  • Place of origin:

    Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
  • Gender:

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Object information

Significance statement

This ballgown, sewn from red satin and tulle and trimmed in white silk, was worn by Dawn Waterhouse to the State Ball in honour of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954. The gown forms part of the Calthorpe House Collection, itself historically signficant. Not only does the house document fifty years of continuous occupation by the Calthorpe family, but is a relatively intact example of Australian domestic architecture and interior design originating from the 1920s. Its contents, funishings and gardens represent the competing forces of continuity and change in our history, as well as reflecting the character of the family who lived there.

The ball gown is exceptionally well-provenanced, being purchased in Canberra by Dawn Waterhouse in 1954 and remaining in the family's possession until the wholesale transfer of the collection to the Federal Government in 1988. The gown is also signficant because documentation exists to confirm where the gown was worn and for what purpose.

Finally, the historical significance of this dress is evident in its connection to an important milestone in Australian history: the inaugual visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954. Though members of the Royal Family had toured Australia previously, this was the first time a reigning monarch was recieved and was an immense source of pride for the nation, fondly remembered by thousands of Australians and becoming indelibly etched on our national consciousness. At the ball itself, Mrs Waterhouse's gown made such a strong visual impression that it was described by a reporter covering the event for ABC Radio.

Author: Amy Butterfield, 4.3.2015.


Ballgown, with a fitted bodice and floor-length, full skirt. Skirt consists of nylon base and net petticoats. Top of bodice lined with white satin. Whole gown covered in tulle decorated with white print depicting native flora. White shoulder straps added to gown at a later date and white corsage (pictured in photograph of Dawn Waterhouse) removed.

Link to further information about this object

History and Provenance

The Calthorpes married in 1917 at Saint Alban's Church Belmore, establishing themselves in Queanbeyan with Harry entering into business as a stock and station agent in 1917 with his partner Robert Everson. In 1918, the company merged with W.G. and T.E. Woodger to form Woodgers and Calthorpe. During the First World War, Harry had served with the First Light Horse Regiment in Egypt, where he was wounded by an exploding shell. Following his convalescence, Harry was assigned to a recruitment campaign in Southern Highlands, which brought him into contact with the people living and working on the stations and farms in the district.

The family relocated to Canberra from Queanbeyan in July 1927. The Calthorpes' two daughters, Del and Dawn were eight years and three years respectively when the family moved into the house at Mugga Way and both girls were educated at the Canberra Church of England Girls Grammar School. 

Dawn, unlike her sister, chose to pursue a career following graduation, working as a laboratory assistant at the CSIRO, which is where she met her husband Douglas. Throughout her life, Dawn devoted herself to the collection of objects relating to the capital's history, as well as the ongoing restoration and preservation of her parents' house at Mugga Way, establishing herself as a authoritative source on the subject.

Dawn Waterhouse was invited to arrange the flowers in preparation for the State Ball in honour of the Queen's visit in 1954. She was invited to attend as a reward for her contribution. 

Births, deaths, marriages, children or family information

Dawn Waterhouse was born in 1923 to John Henry "Harry" Calthorpe (1890-1950) and his wife Della Elizabeth Ludvigsen (1892-1979); the younger sister of Dell Calthorpe (b. 1918). Dawn married Douglas Waterhouse on 4 March 1944, with whom she had four children: their daughter Jill, and sons Douglas, Jonathon and Gowrie.

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

When Canberra was established as the nation's captial in 1913 it had a population of less than 5000. Known affectionately as the 'bush capital', its founders intended that it should be a perfectly planned 'garden' city, adorned with parks, wide bolovards, and free-standing houses, avoiding the pollution, overcrowding, and poor infrastructure which had plagued other cities around Australia. 

The city's expansion initally was very slow, hindered by the economic impact of two world wars and the Great Depression; the Federal Parliament was only transferred to Canberra in 1927. However by the 1950s, Canberra was growing rapidly, as more federal departments were relocated from Melbourne, new federal institutions were established (e.g. Australian National University in 1946) and new suburbs were established to house the growing population. 

In 1954, Canberra welcomed Queen Elizabeth II as part of her Australian Tour, where she officially opened Parliament and attended (among several other engagements) a State Ball at Parliament House, which Dawn Waterhouse attended. 

Where did this information come from?

Kate Gardiner, 'Interview with Dawn Waterhouse', Canberra Museum and Art Gallery, recorded 5 December 2012. Source: <http://www.museumsandgalleries.act.gov.au/calthorpes/virtual_tour/html/dells_room_dressing_table.html>.

This garment has been exhibited

Gown has been exhibited as part of exhibtion "Selections from the Dawn Waterhouse Collection" (31 October 2008-25 January 2009) at Canberra Museum and Art Gallery.

  1. Place of origin:

    Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

  2. Cost:

    No cost price listed, but Dawn Waterhouse remembered purchasing the garment from a store located in Civic Centre.

  3. Owned by:

    The gown was purchased by Dawn Waterhouse in 1954, before being gifted to her daughter Jill. The gown was part of the entire collection of Calthorpe's House which was donated to Canberra Museum and Art Gallery in 1988.

  4. Worn by:

    Dawn Waterhouse, then her daughter Jill.

  5. Occasion(s):

    1954 State Ball held in honour of Royal Visit at (Old) Parliament House. 

  6. Place:

    Old Parliament House, and later the Royal Military College at Duntroon.

  7. Made for:

    Dawn Waterhouse, later altered to fit her daughter Jill.

Trimmings / Decoration


Originally white corsage was decorated with two long strips of white ribbon. Since removed.


Piping along waistline of dress, separating skirt from bodice.

Fibre / Weave

Gown is sewn from red nylon satin, red net petticoats and overlain with red tulle, decorated with a white print depicting native flora. Edge of bodice lined with ivory artificial satin. Bodice reinforced with polyster wadding. 

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye


Garment is machine sewn, with french seams. The shoulder straps were attatched by hand. 


No manufacturers' label, suggesting that it was designed and made specifically made for Mrs Waterhouse. 


Removal of corsage on bust, as shown in photograph, and addition of shoulder straps, sewn from similiar fabric to bodice edging, attatched by Mrs Waterhouse's daughter, for a ball at Duntroon military college. The bust line has also been altered to accomodate smaller chest size, with fabric around both the left and right armpit folded over and sewn together, and two extra darts inserted on the left and right side of the bodice.

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


Skirt appear to have been cut on the bias, as indicated by the direction of the weave and seam. Bodice is straight cut. 

  1. Bias
  2. Straight


Dress fastened with a single zip, at the back, and a single hook and eye fastening inserts at the top of zipper.

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

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

Bodice has been stiffened with terelyne (polyster) wadding. 


Chest 753 mm
Waist 660 mm
Cuff 425 mm
Hem circumference 5500 mm
Front neck to hem 1360 mm
Front waist to hem 1060 mm
Back neck to hem 1245 mm
Back waist to hem 1070 mm
Underarm to underarm 360 mm
Fabric width 1006 mm
Convert to inches

Cuff refers to the length of the shoulder strap.

Dress Themes

Ball gown worn by Dawn Waterhouse for State Ball at (Old) Parliament House in 1954, then by her daughter Jill to a ball at the Royal Military College, Duntroon. 


Shoulder straps are stained pink hue, possibly from wear (sweat stains?). Stitching is coming loose around the bust line, with white edging poorly attatched to the wadding underneath. 

Insect damage

Unsure if holes in net petticoats around the hem of skirt are due to wear or insect damage. 


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


  1. Fading
  2. Frayed
  3. Holes
  4. Parts missing
  5. Torn
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