National Archives of Australia

Issue 7 August 2012

Archives vintage: the good wife

Do you take care to remove all your make-up and the nicotine stains from your fingers before you go to bed? Are you a back-seat driver? In 1956 the Australian Women’s Weekly published a quiz where eager readers had to simply answer a series of yes/no questions to find out ‘how near to perfect’ they were as wives. Michaela Forster looks back at what made a ‘good’ wife in the mid-20th century.

Wife dressing

In 1959, Wife Dressing: the art of being a well dressed wife by fashion designer Anne Fogarty was published. In this style guide, Fogarty revealed the secrets of ‘wife dressing’ – the art of looking chic on all occasions, be it at a cocktail party, on the tennis court, when receiving guests or even when cleaning the house. She argued that a ‘well dressed wife plays an important role in the advancement of her husband’s career’.

Anne Fogarty instructed women to always dress to please their husbands because when his ‘eyes light up as he comes in at night, you’re in sad shape if it’s only because he smells dinner cooking’. The original caption for this image reads: ‘Short evening frocks were worn … for home entertaining during the 1956 Olympic Games’. NAA: A1200, L21528

Underpinning Fogarty’s expert fashion advice was the little-questioned assumption that wives serve their husbands, maintain an immaculate and stylish home, raise the children and be a gracious hostess. In fact, Wife Dressing was published at a time when women working in the Australian Public Service had to resign once they married, and the concept of ‘equal pay for work of equal value’ was not realised for another 10 years.

How good a wife are you?

In 1956, the Australian Women’s Weekly challenged readers to find out how they measured up as wives. Quiz questions on ‘your looks’, ‘your clothes’, ‘your husband’ and ‘serving food’ indicate the expected duties and preoccupations of the 1950s wife.

The Archives holds a vast photographic collection documenting many aspects of the Australian lifestyle during the 1950s. These photographs were commissioned by the Australian Government for overseas publicity in the interests of commerce, finance, tourism and especially immigration. With many of these images depicting blissful scenes of 1950s domesticity, they illustrate perfectly the expectations of a ‘good wife’.

Can you always provide food for the unexpected guest? NAA: A1200, L21293

Do you always take the trouble to match your lipstick to the clothes you are wearing, and to your nail polish? NAA: A1200, L23236

Do you always warm the teapot before making tea? NAA: A12111, 1/1958/21/2

Do you look at yourself from behind when trying on clothes? NAA: A1200, L23235

Do you think your husband should always help with the housework? NAA: A1200, L16385

Do you take the trouble to get properly fitted for new bras and girdles? NAA: A1200, L34903

Do you show boredom when he tells you golfing stories, or what sort of day he has had at the office? NAA: A12111, 1/1960/21/2

Postscript: For those wives who dutifully completed the Australian Women’s Weekly’s quiz and scored highly in the ‘Husbands’ and ‘Food’ sections, the Weekly encouraged them to ‘be a little more self indulgent, spend more time on yourself and let the chores go hang for once.’ But readers were then sternly warned: ‘But remember, when it comes to a new hairstyle and burnt potatoes, it’s the potatoes your husband will notice first.’

Want more?

For more fashion advice from the Australian Women’s Weekly, see this Find of the Month

See more retro fashion in Strike a Pose

Australia in Focus: Photographs in the National Archives (pdf 5.9 mb)

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