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V&A/RCA History of Design (MA)

Melissa Spreadborough

Interdisciplinarity has always played a large role in my academic career, and this is very much reflected in my work as a design historian. My undergraduate degree was in Liberal Arts (English), which allowed me to explore a wide range of disciplines, including history, cultural studies, and philosophy, as well as topics beyond the humanities, such as psychology and criminology. Being given the freedom to explore such a broad range of subjects has given me the flexibility and confidence to engage with diverse academic approaches and types of evidence, which has greatly informed my work on this course and my subsequent identity as a budding design historian. My undergraduate degree also provided my first introduction to design history, as I was able to take a module exploring postwar Italian art and design, which ultimately inspired me to pursue design history at a postgraduate level.  

My interest in design history largely focuses on fashion and textile history, initially emerging from a personal interest in using historical knitting and sewing patterns in my practical work. It will not come as a surprise, therefore, that the process of making has also translated into my academic study, with my object essay focusing on domestic embroidery in the sixteenth century and my history as public practice work involving making items from Victorian knitting patterns as a gateway to exploring women’s history. More widely I have engaged with themes of identity, political and social status, and symbolism in clothing, with my dissertation specifically exploring how the meanings that we place onto specific types of clothing can be used to control and ostracize certain groups of people.  

As part of my history as public practice work on the course, I acted as a Collections Care and Conservation volunteer with the National Trust, and it is these practical skills of collection care that I hope to continue developing following the course. In line with this, as of June 2023 I will be working as a Collections Project Assistant at the House of Lords Library.  

Header Image: Augustus Earle, A government jail gang, Sydney N. S. Wales, 1830, The National Gallery of Australia.

Photograph of Melissa Spreadborough - a young white woman with blue eyes and light hair, wearing a grey jumper

Orange is the New Outback: Government-issued Convict Clothing as Uniform in 1830s New South Wales

Uniforms utilise clothing’s ability to convey personal identity as a way to distinguish the wearer from wider society and signify their belonging to a group, subsequently implying their alignment with the roles or opinions expressed by that group. As such, uniforms can be used as a method of control and, specifically in the case of prison uniforms, of punishment and dehumanization. The public labour transported convicts were forced to do in colonial New South Wales meant that convicts were a very visible part of life public life, with clothing being one of the main methods of distinguishing the free from the imprisoned. My dissertation argues that the British government utilised convict clothing as a social tool of distinction, control and punishment when issuing clothing to the convict men labouring in the public works in 1830s New South Wales.

Many academics have suggested that unreliable shipments of clothing during this period prevented the creation of a cohesive convict uniform. My dissertation challenges this by viewing the uniform as a flexible series of symbols displayed through clothing indicating the wearer’s convict status, rather than focusing on the necessity for complete uniformity of dress. As the concept of a convict uniform was still in its infancy during this period, a cohesive image of what convict clothing should look like did not exist as it does today. To ascertain the importance of design in the purchasing and issuing of clothing then, as well as the compromises when challenges occurred and the subsequent interpretation of convict clothing by the wider public, I consulted government correspondence, contemporary newspaper articles, and contemporary depictions of convicts.

Ultimately, my study takes a rather broad view of what constitutes a ‘convict uniform’ in that, so long as the wearer could be identified as a convict, the actual uniformity of convict clothing was less significant. In this way, although the government’s aim to consistently issue uniform clothing was rarely successful, consistent elements such as the fabric used or the ‘broadmarks’ signifying that the clothing belonged to the government became shorthand for convict status to the external viewer, and thus could be considered a uniform. My dissertation, therefore, calls for a re-examination of this subject beyond our modern understanding of a convict uniform

Ink drawing of two men in yellow and black parti-colour uniforms and straw hats writing letters outside prison barracks
Philip Doyne Vigors, Convicts Letter writing at Cockatoo Island N. S. W. 1849. Mitchell Library 'Although yellow and black appears to be the most commonly discussed combination in academia, as well as that most commonly depicted in contemporary art, an 1835 call for suppliers only specifies ‘one-half of the Cloth to be either, Black, Oxford Mixture, or Dark Grey; the other half of any Light Color, but Yellow would be preferred’, suggesting that it was not necessarily the colours, but the parti-colour pattern itself that gives the uniform the intended humiliating effect.'
A white cotton shirt with blue stripes. The shirt is stained and has many holes. A red stamp is on the lower right side.
Unknown maker, Convict Shirt, c. 1840. Striped cotton, with ‘BO (and broad arrow)', Sydney Living Museum 'In 1836, [Assistant Commissioner General William] Miller notes that ‘shirts are used only of one kind by all Workers, assigned Servants, and Convicts Clothed by Government [...].' The shirts to which Miller is referring were of plain unbleached cotton with blue weft stripes of alternating thicknesses running vertically down them. Several examples of such shirts have been discovered in convict barracks across Australia, either in relatively complete condition or as remaining scraps.'
A watercolour painting of Hyde Park Barracks in colonial Sydney. The sky is blue and the ground is orange.
Artist unknown, Hyde Park Barracks’ from Drawings in Sydney, ca. 1840-1850. Mitchell Library 'Despite the different artists and dates, all these images depict the main barrack building from beyond the main wall surrounding the compound, physically demonstrating the barrier between convicts and the rest of society. In these images the barracks are displayed as symbols of effective colonial control over the convicts. The lack of convicts [...] is telling in itself as it indicates [...]a desire that those who had been convicted should be completely removed from the public eye.'
A woolen parti-colour jacket and trousers, with two leather caps. The trousers are stamped with broad arrow markings.
Unknown maker, Convict uniform and two caps, ca. 1830-1849. National Library of Australia 'The primary association made by both contemporary newspapers and current academics is the similarity of the parti-colour uniform to the image of the medieval jester [...] convicts in parti-coloured uniforms visually belonged to a homogeneous class outside of society, whose defining traits were disruptiveness and treachery.'
A close-up photo of a white shirt with blue stripes, showing a red 'BO' stamp with a broad arrow marking
Unknown maker, Convict shirt (detail), c. 1840. Striped cotton, with ‘BO (and broad arrow)’, Sydney Living Museum 'broad arrows are relatively sparse on remaining clothing, even that which has evidence of wear, as the intention of the broad arrow and similar markings was not necessarily to distinguish the wearer from the rest of society, but to prevent the item itself from being resold. Despite this [...] these broadmarks [were] adopted as what Nathan Joseph has termed ‘salient symbols which differ from the officially designated ones’, but essentially carry out a similar function of denoting the wearer’s status'