Australian History

Controversial Slacks

Driving with her mother and sister from Sydney to Canberra in 1933, 23 year old Dorothy Henderson-Smart of Johannesburg thought little of the black slacks she wore throughout the journey. Comfort was her main priority on a drive that would take many hours.

They arrived in Canberra and on 21 November 1933 they took a tour of Parliament House. Still wearing slacks, Dorothy noticed a few men looking at her but she had no idea why. It wasn’t until later that day that she was informed that the wearing of slacks by women in Parliament House was inappropriate.

Old Parliament House circa 1927. Courtesy of the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner’s Advocate archive.

The controversy was raised by Senator J. P. D. Dunn (NSW) who mentioned that Senators were not allowed to smoke in Chambers and were required to be properly dressed. He then questioned whether the same standards applied to women who were walking around wearing slacks.

The President of the Senate personally objected to women wearing slacks but nevertheless gave the matter some thought. After five minutes, he banned them.

This garb, in my opinion, is most unbecoming, and anybody wearing it should not be allowed within the precincts of this Parliament. The control lies in the hands of the Speaker and myself, but, as far as I am concerned, I am not going to allow Parliament to be made a place for women to parade about in such types of dress.

Singleton Argus (NSW : 1880 – 1954); 22 November 1933; Page 1; Women in Slacks

Dorothy, having since changed into a dress, was interviewed by a reporter in the gallery of the House of Representatives. Amazed at the drama that had occurred, she admitted she had no idea that she had caused offence. Slacks were popular in Sydney so she bought a pair and wore them without giving it a second thought.

Seeing as though they were officially the first pair of slacks to be banned, the reporter jokingly asked her if she would consider presenting them to Parliament as a gift. Dorothy laughed in response and stated that she would make much better use of them than the Senators.

While the ban was enforced in the Senate, it was not put in place by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. He too objected to women wearing slacks and believed that “Women who wore such apparel carry their own condemnation, and their action brings its own penalty, I should imagine, in the isolation they suffer from sensible people who do not approve of the style.” He decided to leave it up to the police to determine whether the clothing worn was appropriate or not. The Chairman of Committees agreed.

Unless the attention of members is distracted from business, I see no objection.

Singleton Argus (NSW : 1880 – 1954); 22 November 1933; Page 1; Women in Slacks

Unsurprisingly, the news of the controversial slacks made national headlines. Newspapers reported on the story with glee which resulted in a number of amusing headlines.

Several months later Dorothy left the country and headed home to Johannesburg via the ship, Ascanius. Much like her slacks, her departure also attracted the attention of the press with Western Australian reporters having the last opportunity to interview her.

Dorothy Henderson-Smith (left) with her mother and sister at Fremantle.

When questioned with regards to the incident she declared, “I nearly died when I heard I had given the ‘old boys’ such a thrill!” She believed some reports were exaggerated and was initially amused by the affair until newspapers picked up on the story; seeing her name in print was a surprise.

I’ve hardly been ‘game’ to wear the slacks since we left Canberra!

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954); 24 January 1934; Page 6; Slacks at Canberra

Dorothy had formed a high opinion of Australia during her travels but she made sure she had the last word with regards to Canberra and the Senators who were astonished to see a woman in slacks.

From what I saw of Canberra I do not imagine that it takes very much to astonish it…

The Herald (Melbourne, Vic : 1861 – 1954; 13 January 1934; Page 11; Wore Trousers at Canberra



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