Paula Stafford & Helene Walder: Fashion Pioneers of the Past 


The golden sands of the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia have long been home to Hollywood movies, theme parks and scandalous fashion. It’s where the city met the surf and where iconic prints, designs and most notably the bikini, were introduced to Australia. 

Australian fashion designer Paula Stafford had been crafting bikinis for herself since the 1930s, long before French automobile engineer and clothing designer Louis Réard, introduced them in 1946. A need to save fabric emerged as a result of wartime shortages and thus, skimpier clothing was born. After a passer-by expressed interest in Stafford’s original swimwear, Stafford began releasing her designs to the public. Selfridges, Liberty of London, Myers AU, Georges, and David Jones all bought Paula Stafford’s garments and by 1952, an iconic incident involving model Ann Ferguson pushed Paula Stafford’s bikinis further into the spotlight. Ann Ferguson was escorted from a beach in Surfers Paradise due to her outfit being deemed “too revealing”. 

 “Once a beach inspector told a Sydney model, Anne Ferguson, that her two-piece was too brief,” chuckles Paula. “Well, it wasn’t any smaller than what the others wore…she was just too sexy!”

 Indeed, the 40s was a turning point in fashion as the bikini turned heads left right and centre. Banned in Sydney, welcomed in Melbourne and celebrated on the Gold Coast, Paula Stafford masterfully designed her bikinis from curtains and tea towels to preserve fabric. In the 40s and 50s, bikinis were celebrated by beachgoers, parading their freedom of choice and self-expression. To this day, The Gold Coast Historical Society celebrates the iconic Paula Stafford, who passed away in June of 2022 aged 102, showcasing her array of early designs and photos in their museum. The woman who pushed boundaries, had a passion for architectural and fashion design, and paved the way for designers like Helene Walder and Hilma Weller.

In the 1950s, Helene Walder fell for the allure of the Gold Coast. Co-founded with Robert Walder, her husband, Helene opened a store in Surfers Paradise in 1958 named “Helene of Surfers Paradise”, where she designed sportswear, swimwear and resort wear. Helene’s passion for design prompted her to create original prints that adorned her garments. The uniqueness of Walder’s designs made her the first woman to export to Canada, further exporting to Hawaii and the US. Not only was Helene a prolific designer, but she also supported countless women within the community by offering positions at her studio. 

Both Helene Walder and Paula Stafford played a prominent role in promoting the Gold Coast via Fashion Parades and Promotions around Australia. It was a ground-breaking time for all Surfers designers who shared their slice of paradise with the rest of the world. 

 An exhibition that delves into the Surfers Paradise fashion scene in the 50s and 60s is now showing at HOTA on the Gold Coast until the 20th of April. GLITCH was lucky enough to have a peek inside this glamorous, scandalous and revolutionary era of fashion. 

Written by Ashley Jade Callahan from GLITCH Magazine


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