Maureen Cooke celebrated her 80th birthday recently in Port Macquarie, and it is hard to put into one sentence all that sums up a lifetime of dedication to the arts and the community.
A seamstress of her own fashion line, ‘Maureens Models’ in the ‘70s, Secretary of the Port Macquarie Arts Society, Reverend of the Spiritual Enlightenment Church, fundraiser, and much more to those who know this friendly, warm lady.
Focus finds out how Maureen celebrated her birthday, with a little help from Vicki Carnes, and dug out a few of the famed garments.
> Maureen, happy birthday! Tell us how you celebrated.
Thank you! Well, we celebrated it with a gala performance night at my friends’ home, Ruth and Alex.
> Back in the ‘70s you were a seamstress. What was it like being a seamstress then, and how have you seen the industry change over the years?
I certainly have seen the industry change over the years. I had my own workroom in Sydney, and while I started it off by myself, I ended up employing 12 people in my business. The fashions have changed, the industry has changed, the quality of the work has changed and life is not the same without the quality of work.
The ridiculous haute couture that you see on the television today, they are all very impressionable, but none of them are wearable. Where would you wear them?
My garments and fashion label were respected throughout the world, and the photos that you have taken show my impression of design. Quality of the workmanship has changed too, and the quality of the fabrics that are used has changed also – particularly in the country towns that want their fabrics to drip dry. So there is none of this couture image that I was introduced to, and I continued to make hand made garments.
> What sort of materials did you use to create the pieces?
Back in the ‘70s when I was designing my pieces, the materials we used were imported brocade materials, or they were hand made and had pieces with hand made jewels on the material – that cost me $300 a yard back then. All these garments, when you were using highly expensive materials, had to be hand stitched, because there were no machines available in those days that would ride over the top of jewels or through thicker materials.
> Did you study dressmaking, or did you just pick it up as a hobby?
There is no such thing as a hobby – just sheer hard work! I did my 4 year apprenticeship as a tailoress by profession. I started from sweeping the floor up and worked my way up to designing ladies’ fashion.
I got tired of handling heavy men’s pieces and fabrics, so I branched out into learning ladies’ fashion. My label grew after that, and some of my garments were made and sold through DJ’s, Seventh Floor, Baker’s, Pauls. They were the fashion outlets in my era.
I started my apprenticeship in Port Macquarie because I was born here, starting straight after I left school, then moved to Sydney to further my career, as Port Macquarie was just a small town back then. I moved on to see the wider world.
> Tell us about your label, Maureen’s Models and where you designed and sold your pieces.
I had a factory and street show room. The buyers from fashion outlets would come to me. My show room was on the corner of South and Reddy Street, at Edgecliff. I had an upstairs and downstairs factory, where the show room was upstairs and the workroom downstairs. As I said earlier, I had 12 employees, all of whom helped me design and hand make all of my garments.
> The clothes featured in the fashion parade at your birthday were some that you created in the early ‘70s. What was it like digging them all out and seeing them worn again?
Well, it was a great deal of nostalgia, and the applause that each garment received from the crowd there – they were blown away. It took them back to the ‘70’s, and even some of the younger ones there – they hadn’t seen anything like it, because they hadn’t experienced that era.
> You mentioned that some of the fabrics were worth over $300 in the ‘70s when you bought them. They don’t quite make them like that any more, do they?
I bought the fabric by yards, and it was $300 per yard. It would take three yards to make a frock. Things have really changed over the years. That was just the cost of the fabric without the lining and the zippers, buttons, and everything else that goes on them. Then we had the time to cut, sew and make the garment.
> As Secretary of the Port Macquarie Art Society, you raise money to help restore Manor House. Tell us about what you do and the markets you hold and what restoration is being done at the moment.
The markets are run for the Port Macquarie Arts Society to help raise money to look after two heritage buildings. They maintain the grounds at 198 Hastings River Drive, which is called Hamilton Green. We have two heritage buildings there that are in constant need of upkeep, and so the market site fees go to the maintenance of the two buildings.
At the moment, we still have left over restoration from the white ants invasion we had 18 months ago, and while we have done all the structural work and replaced it in the Manor house, there is still painting and plastering that needs to be done to the building.
The Port Macquarie Art Society’s aim is to offer help and support to aspiring artists and the community, and that’s why we put on the annual Easter Art Exhibition every year. This year was our 35th year. The Port Macquarie Art Society runs classes alongside the Alzheimer’s Australia NSW, called Creative Connections Art Group. For more information, please call into the Port Macquarie Art Society.
> What was it like to be featured on last year’s Yellow Pages cover?
Well, it was quite exciting, so I made sure some of the stall holders from the markets were in the background of the picture. It shows a wonderful photo of the front of the Manor House, which is the one that is under repair at the moment.
> Thank you Maureen.