French in Australia

Discover the history of French in Australia dating from the arrival of the La Perouse expedition at Botany Bay in January 1788.

French community

French Australian League

The French Australian League of Help provided comforts for French troops and their families throughout World War I. Funds were raised locally and fortnightly shipments of clothing sent to France for distribution by the Red Cross. From 1915, Augustine Soubeiran (1858-1933) coordinated the League's work in Australia.

After the war ended, Ms Soubeiran extended the League's operations for three years to provide continued support for war widows and orphans and assist with the reconstruction of France. Winding up affairs in 1921, she wrote to the Mitchell Library offering the League's archive to ensure its preservation as 'the rightful property of New South Wales'.

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Henriette Lamotte Pty Ltd

French designer Henriette Lamotte, or Countess d’Espinay, was one of Sydney’s leading milliners from the early 1950s until the 1970s. Her exquisite hat designs were highly sought after by the city’s most fashionable and well-dressed women, as well as overseas visitors.

Born in Nantes in the province of Brittany, Lamotte trained and worked as a milliner in Paris before arriving in Sydney with her husband Comte Jean d’Espinay in 1938. A real-life countess, she traded under her maiden name and opened a number of millinery salons, selling her own designs and imported hats from Paris. 

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In the early 1950s, Henriette Lamotte operated in Rowe Street, Sydney’s bohemian quarter, amongst coffee lounges, fashion boutiques and galleries. She moved to a salon in the St. James Building, Elizabeth Street, in 1956. By 1969 she had opened a larger millinery salon and boutique in Double Bay, selling fashionable attire as well as her famous hats. Her sumptuous salons with lush interiors, including elegant sofas and mirror hung walls, complemented her exquisite millinery creations.

Her clients were the rich, the famous and the fashionable who sought hats for their elegant daywear or glamorous ‘after-five’ cocktail parties, dinners and balls. For women of the day, hats were an "essential part of a smart outfit" (Daily Mirror, 25 May 1961). “Lamotte is a name that no woman seeking a well-dressed title can afford to ignore – provided of course, her husband can afford to pay for it!” (‘Our Hat Dictators’, Smiths Weekly, 18 February 1950).

Lamotte also collaborated with leading haute couture fashion designers of the day such as Germaine Rocher and Madame Pellier. In addition to her own exclusive hat designs, she manufactured a more affordable range under the name ‘Mademoiselle Hermance’ available through department stores. In 1952, she contributed to the light-hearted French cookery book Oh, for a French Wife which featured recipes and advice from well-known French society ‘wives’.

A well-known Sydney identity, Lamotte charmed everyone with her vivacious personality and sophisticated French background. She was a successful designer, businesswoman, author and one-time actress, who brought colour, glamour and ‘A little bit of Paris’ to Sydney social life.

The Library's Henriette Lamotte collection, 1935-1975, includes business records, scrapbooks, design and fabric sample books, correspondence, photographs and realia, which provide an insight into this enigmatic and fascinating businesswoman.

Paris in Sydney

Henriette Lamotte brought some of the colour and excitement of Paris catwalks to downtown Sydney. Her glamorous salon shows and fashion parades were highly anticipated events in the Sydney social calendar. Featuring her own designs and the latest imports from Paris, the showings were often held in the luxurious surrounds of her salon or apartment – "in a setting as sophisticated as any Paris could offer" ('Paris in Sydney', Woman, 7 February 1955). The larger shows were held in fashionable restaurants and hotels. Her French poodle ‘Lillibelle’ was a regular feature at the events.

“Madame Lamotte…always manages to create what her Australian customers regard as a thrillingly genuine Parisian atmosphere…Everything at Lamotte’s is done in the grand manner. At her parades (two a year in Sydney and Melbourne) beautiful mannequins wear beautiful hats and champagne flows.” (‘Our hat dictators’, Smiths Weekly, 18 February 1950)

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Regular customers to her salons soaked up the ‘French’ atmosphere too, enjoying intimate viewings of her exquisite hat creations in an elegant setting. More than just buying a hat over the counter, it was a social occasion and an opportunity for ladies to catch up on the latest gossip – and scandal.

“A visit to the lush Sydney salon of Henriette Lamotte is like a little corner of Paris. Madame is a volatile little body, bubbling with a warm enthusiasm for her work of making hats for many of Australia’s most elegant women” (‘A little bit of Paris’, Woman, 1955?, from Henriette Lamotte scrapbook. MLMSS 3747).

Yani and Lillibelle

Henriette Lamotte’s exclusive champagne showings featured each season’s ‘must-have’ hats. Lamotte, or ‘Yani’ to her friends, was often accompanied by her French poodle ‘Lillibelle’ adorned in diamante collar and mink tie, no less! Proceeds from the events usually went to charity. Local celebrities and socialites were all in attendance – their photographs splashed across the society pages of the women’s magazines and newspapers the following week.

This gala dinner and fashion parade was held at Princes Restaurant, one of Sydney’s most fashionable dining establishments and meeting place for society ladies and the French community. An added attraction of the evening was "The Lamotte Story" told in hats worn by well-known Sydney women.

One fashion editor later enthused about a show:

"The hat show of the season, in fact almost THE fashion show, was Henriette Lamotte’s sparkling affair given for charity. It had all the ingredients: lush background of the elegant salon, all the ‘right’ people’ in the audience – the smart ladies (wearing their best hats) - and Sydney’s four leading mannequins, with their sleek aplomb and rather disdainful assurance. And the hats. Delicious creations, big, small…We all accepted that a hat show is a lot more than hats" (‘Easter Hat parade’, Women’s Day, April 1 1957)

> View the complete Henriette Lamotte scrapbook online

French in Australia is made possible through a partnership with Sofitel.

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