Merle Hadley's Black Dress

Contributed by: Canowindra Historical Museum

Dress without jacket side view Dress and jacket back view side dress detail detail Line drawing of Dress and bolero.
  • Australian dress register ID:

  • Owner:

    Canowindra Historical Museum
  • Owner registration number:

  • Date range:

    1954 - 1964
  • Place of origin:

    Forbes, New South Wales, Australia
  • Gender:

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Object information

Significance statement


Enid Merle Hadley (known as “Merle”) lived in Canowindra from 1968 to 1971. Her husband, James (“Jim”) Hadley, was manager of the then Rural Bank of New South Wales in Gaskill Street. The manager’s residence was above and behind the banking chamber. They led a very busy life, actively participating in many local organizations and functions.

Merle and Jim married in Sydney on 23rd September 1944 when Jim was able to take leave from his wartime posting to Thursday Island – Merle was 18 and Jim was 24. On his discharge, they set up house in Inverell, New South Wales and then spent their married life moving around the state to many postings with the Rural Bank of NSW. From Inverell, they moved back to Sydney, living first in Parramatta then Lakemba. After Sydney, the Bank sent them to Griffith, Forbes, Lithgow, Temora, Westmead, Goulburn, Canowindra, Rylstone, Walcha and Gilgandra, before retiring to Echo Point, Katoomba in 1980 and Bilyara Retirement Village, Cowra in 2008. They celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary on 23rd September, 2014. Merle died on 19th January, 2015.

The dress is of interest because it represents aspects of the life of a rural bank manager. She was expected to attend social functions and be fashionably dressed, while existing on a limited budget, as bank staff were not well paid. Such expectations encouraged creativity and making the most of whatever was available. Like many women of her generation, Merle taught herself to sew, becoming a highly skilled dressmaker who made most of her own clothes, as well as those worn by her daughters and granddaughters. The dress represents a level of skill in hand-finishes now largely lost.  

In addition to being of interest because it represents lost skills in domestic dress-making, Merle Hadley's black dress and jacket are significant because they are testimony to the ongoing echoes of World War II, well after the event. The black fabric had served as blackout curtains for the windows of Merle's parents' home in Sydney and was re-used for this evening ensemble. Therefore, the war could be said to be present in the fabric of the dress and in the mentality of its owner who refused to be wasteful.         


Author: Marian Warden (Cowra), Janet Hadley Williams (Canberra)., 2016.


Jacket and dress made from blackout curtain material used during World War II. This ensemble was made by Merle Hadley, the wife of the Manager of the Rural Bank in Canowindra during the 1960s.

Empire waist dress with bolero jacket. Dress has cross over bodice with two underbust darts joined to skirt above waist. Skirt has long double darts on each side seeming to continue from bodice darts. High waist seam trimmed by band of self fabric joined with flat bow at front. Calf length dress has short maygar sleeves and a slightly lowered back neckline.

Bolero jacket has three quarter magyar sleeves. Single breasted, rolled, notched collar, 3 self-cover buttons and pocket flaps.

History and Provenance


How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

'Life for the wife of a bank employee was quite a social affair in a New South Wales country town, despite the fact that bank staff were not well paid. This led to much improvisation and making do in the areas of entertaining and fashion. Merle taught herself to sew as a young bride in the forties. Over subsequent years, became of necessity, a very skilled dressmaker, sewing most of the clothes herself for her two daughters and two granddaughters over a sixty year period. She was always proud not only of the quantity of her sewing but also the quality of finish.' Provenance: A Black Dress and Jacket - Enid Merle Hadley.

Before her death in 2015, Merle donated a black dress and bolero jacket to Canowindra Historical Society which she had sewn for herself between mid-1950s and early 1960s. The black fabric had been previously used as blackout material for windows in Merle’s parents’ home in Sydney during World War II and was then carefully stored for future use. The outfit was worn once or twice at an evening cocktail party or other dressy evening social function. It was probably worn in Forbes or Lithgow, when Merle was in her early 30s.

During the early years of WWII, it was feared that Australia would come under direct attack. Civilians took measures to thwart evening bombing raids by covering windows with thick, black fabric, known as 'blackout curtains' and driving motor vehicles with minimal use of headlights. The war not only necessitated precautions to limit the risk of attack, it also brought about restrictions in the availablility of food and clothing. The deprivation experienced by the generations who survived the war led to a mentality of frugality that continued long after the war years.      


Where did this information come from?

Details contributed by daughters Marian Warden, Cowra, and Janet Hadley Williams, Canberra.

This garment has been exhibited

Canowindra Historical Society and Museum Inc

  1. Place of origin:

    Forbes, New South Wales, Australia

  2. Owned by:

    Enid Merle Hadley, wife of Rural Bank Manager Jim Hadley at Forbes, made this ensemble.

    Daughter Marian said, 'Mum would have made the dress for an evening function in Forbes as Mum never wore black in the daytime.'

    Information re, Black Dress –

    Jill McDonald – telephone conversation with Merle Hadley’s daughter, Marion Warden of Cowra 2015.

  3. Worn by:

    Merle Hadley to evening functions in Forbes.

  4. Occasion(s):

    The outfit was worn once or twice at an evening cocktail party or other dressy evening social function.

  5. Made by:

    Merle Hadley, who was good at embroidery and approached a professional standard in machine sewing, making many of her own clothes. Merle made almost all of her two daughters' clothes including a whole wardrobe each for a cruise that they took with their grandmother. She even sewed some for her grandchildren, as well as curtains, bedspreads, cushions, and the odd complicated costume. Eulogy - M. Hadley.

  6. Made for:

    Merle Hadley

Trimmings / Decoration

High waist seam trimmed with band of self fabric joined with self fabric flat bow at front.

Fibre / Weave

Blackout material used for curtains during World War II was saved, and later used to make this ensemble. It is densely woven black cotton fabric with a sateen weave on the right side.

Merle's daughter Marion said the material would have been kept by her mother or grandmother as they were all accomplished needlework ladies and no material was ever wasted.

See link:

State Library of Queensland, Image No. 112037.

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye


Made by Merle Hadley at home using domestic sewing machine.

All machine sewn except zipper inserted by hand and some seam edges overstitched by hand.

Shoulder seams and inside underarm seams pinked. Long darts and skirt seams pinked.

Facings hand tacked down.

Collar hand stitched at neck edge.

Jacket cuffs finished with self bias strip, 20mm wide.


No Label.


Hem changed from 20 mm hem to a 40 mm hem.

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


All pieces of fabric cut on the straight, except the under collar which is cut on bias.

A bias strip has been used to face sleeves.

  1. Bias
  2. Straight


Zipper at centre back, cotton twill tape and fine toothed metal zip, 520mm in length.

3 self-covered fabric buttons on jacket. The buttons are 20mm in diameter and cushion shaped. Appear to be manufactured. Buttonhole 25 mm in length.

Buttons are 90 mm apart. Top button 100mm from top, bottom button 35 mm from hem.

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

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

Frock:  Front and back facings interfaced with lightweight vylene.

Jacket: Collar interfacing tailor tacked to under collar.

            Front facing and hem interfaced with lightweight vylene and cut as one piece. Back hem interfaced.


dress jacket
Neck 620 mm 610 mm
Chest 890 mm 1020 mm
Waist 580 mm 875 mm
Hip 1070 mm
Cuff 345 mm 310 mm
Hem circumference 1670 mm 875 mm
Front neck to hem 930 mm 320 mm
Front waist to hem 630 mm
Back neck to hem 1030 mm 385 mm
Back waist to hem 630 mm
Sleeve length 275 mm 550 mm
Cross back 410 mm 430 mm
Underarm to underarm 440 mm 500 mm
Convert to inches

Jacket has magyar sleeve.

Dress Themes

Cocktail frock with 3/4 sleeved short jacket.

Additional material

Articles, publications, diagrams and receipts descriptions

Jacket has pocket flaps near waist edge, 105mm x 40mm placed over centre front darts and 60 mm from lower hem.

Button holes made by machine.

Jacket has small dart in elbow at back.

Underarm sitching reinforced on both garments.

Undercollar edge slightly rolled under outer collar.


Insect damage

There could be minor insect damage.

Mould damage



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


  1. Dust
  2. Crease
  3. Worn
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