Preserving Sister Lummer’s Ward Dress Part 1- History

26 September 2014 by Eleni Holloway

Sister Lummer’s dress has two buttons on the bodice, and evenly spread gathers at the waistband, rather than pleats. The thick gathers at the shoulders, back and waste band allowed the necessary free movement.  RELAWM14065.001

Sister Rosalie Agnes Lummer was a distinguished nurse of the First World War. Born at Riverton, South Australia, she enlisted with the AIF on 27 July 1915, aged 29, and embarked for Bombay, India, in August 1916. A year later, she transferred to Salonika, Greece, and worked as Temporary Sister at the 42nd British General Hospital. In early 1919 she was promoted to Sister and served with the Australian 3rd Auxiliary Hopsital at Darford, England. She saw over five years of service with the Australian Army Nursing Service until late 1919.

This uniform was one of several grey cotton zephyr ward dresses that Sister Lummer wore as a nurse. For four years she labored in this dress, and the signs of heavy use and wear are preserved in the fabric and fibres.

Sister Lummer’s dress in full view. As Australian nurses were given an initial allowance to buy their uniforms, there were many variations on the grey cotton ward dress. RELAWM14065.001


Close up of cuff and sleeve. The cuffs are particularly worn down, and the button hole torn.   RELAWM14065.001

A close study of her dress provides insight into the fascinating life of a nurse, and of Lummer’s own experience. For instance, the machined top stitching along the waist band is in a contrasting white cotton and hem is not straight or carefully finished off. A study of the sleeves revealed that the right sleeve is four centremetres wider that the left. One major repair had occurred, which reduced the width of the sleeve from the cuff with a long inset seam. The fabric is thinned from wear and boiling, especially at the elbows and cuffs. The sleeves are attached to the bodice with cotton thread roughly hand stitched into place. Why some parts of the dress are hand stitched, where others are machined stitched is not clear. It is likely hand repairs were made to prolong the life of the dress.

These clues, and many more, illustrate that it is not a fine example of sewing, nor was it a fine garment. As the name suggests, the ward dress was worn during periods of heavy work; in the wards tending to patients and the casualty operating theatres. Nurses were supplied with a small allowance to purchase the necessary ‘3 zephyr dresses, grey’, as instructed in the army order of 1915. It was an entirely pragmatic item of clothing; the equivalent of the soldier’s service dress tunic and breeches worn in the field.  

The ward dress, like other parts of the nurses wardrobe, reinforced the authority and professionalism of the nurses and the nursing service. As seen in photographs from the Memorial’s collection, the style and design of the ward dress had not undergone dramatic change since the Boer War. The cinched waist, high neck, long sleeves and long skirt of the ward dress, and cotton petticoat worn underneath, mirrored the respectable fashions worn by women during the period, and reinforced the enduring social values of the previous century.  

More than an example of period dress, this is a rarity. It is the only example in the Memorial’s collection of an original First World War ward dress; despite numerous appeals to former nurses in the 1920’s for uniforms for the national collection. Sister Lummer’s ward dress was donated by the Australian Nurses Association along with other uniform pieces, and is a significant uniform for its rarity and history.

As the only example in the Memorial’s collection of a nurses dress, it was selected for display in the Memorial’s new First World War exhibition. However due to its very fragile condition, a replica will be displayed underneath orginal pieces- a white starched apron, collar and cuffs which belonged to Sister Muriel Burberry, from Tasmania.     

Curators and conservators undertook a detailed process to faithfully recreate a dress, using Sister Lummer’s dress as the pattern. This is one way museums can approach the question of collection preservation in special cases, such as this one. Placing a replica on display will ensure that Sister Lummer’s dress is preserved for posterity.

I will detail how we replicated Sister Lummer’s ward dress in Part 2.

Faithful replica made from Sister Lummer’s ward dress. This dress will go on display in the new First World War exhibition underneath orginial pieces.  PROP05428

By Eleni Holloway, Assistant Curator, Military Heraldry & Technology