Carolyn Fraser is a writer and letterpress printer in Melbourne, Australia. She is a regular contributor to UPPERCASE Magazine. She can be found on Twitter as @girlprinter. This piece was originally published in UPPERCASE, Issue 14.
Years after Ida Atchison and her friend Bessie Stevens were photographed together in fancy dress, Ida remembered almost nothing about why or how the costumes came to be made. She did, however, remember being glad she was the one wearing the dress – Bessie, she recalled, suffered the indignity of not being able to use the bathroom because her paper pantsuit wasn’t easily removed. (But you’d never know it from her expression, above left.)
The photograph from 1928 shows two girls dressed in costumes, covered in the brand insignia of Bryant & May’s famous Crown safety matches. The girls are wearing paper crowns pasted with Bryant & May’s box labels, and even Ida’s shoes are decorated with labels. A placard in the form of a giant match is propped between them, with an oversize replica of a box label and a hand-lettered sign that exhorts “Buy Australian Made.”
Ida and Bessie’s photograph is one of a series of images of people in Bryant & May-inspired costumes found in the archives at the State Library of Victoria. But why? What was this costume fad and how did it come to be?
The Bryant & May match company was established in Melbourne in 1909, when representatives of the English parent company took over an existing match concern and proceeded to build what became known as the “model” factory of Australia. At the height of production, it employed 800 workers, 500 of whom were women. In addition to its first-class machinery, ergonomically-correct work stations and clean, well-ventilated work spaces, the company became famous for its workers’ amenities, including dining halls, club rooms, a ballroom, tennis and basketball courts and a bowling green. The archives for the Empire Works Social Club contain pages and pages of letters between the Club and amateur orchestras, vaudeville agents and dance troupes, making arrangements to engage their services for social occasions. But nothing in the archive explained Ida and Bessie’s curious costumes. An explanation was found in their small town newspaper, in a report about the fancy dress ball they attended.
As it turns out, poster balls were a subset of a broader phenomenon of fundraising fancy dress balls. They specifically required participants to dress as advertisements of the day or as the advertised product itself. At the Children’s Poster Ball held in Atherton, North Queensland, in September 1947, poster costumes represented iconic brands including Aspro, Bex Powders, Capstan cigarettes, Yates’ seeds, Reckitt’s Bag Blue, Bon Ami, Sutall soap, Persil washing powder and Bryant & May matches. A special prize of 10/6 was given by Mr. Hopper of Hopper’s Radio to Marion Evans, who wore the championship-winning costume of the evening – “a perfect depiction of a tube of Ipana toothpaste.”
The period of the poster ball fad saw an explosion both in the availability of consumer goods and the printed materials used to promote them. That people of the period chose to embody these goods and revel in the saturated colours and imagery of the products and their promotional materials speaks to the particular enjoyment we find in things and our sensual relationship to them. The poster ball craze was a marketer’s dream, and one that contemporary advertising professionals can only hope in vain to emulate in our far more cynical age.
What do you think? Brilliant marketing ploy, or an example of irrepressible creativity?