Story of a dress

From Paris to eternity
 Miguel Gonzalez
Josef Bambach and Isabel McDonagh (wearing Kathleen Coen’s dress) in The Cheaters (1929).


This is the story of how a sequined dress bought in Paris by Yass woman Kathleen Coen in 1925 became part of Australia’s film history, and ended up being preserved in a vault in Canberra. It’s also a reminder that there are many treasures waiting to be rediscovered!

Isabel, Paulette and Phyllis McDonagh were pioneers of the Australian screen, defying and conquering an industry that even today offers limited opportunities to women (read more about them at australianscreen).

By 1926, they became the first Australian women to own and run a film production company, making feature films and documentaries. Paulette worked as the director and writer, Phyllis as a producer and Isabel, acting under the name ‘Marie Lorraine’, was their featured star.

In 1929 they produced The Cheaters (silent), starring Isabel as Paula Marsh – a thief planning her retirement from crime, who falls in love with Lee Travers, the man that’s supposed to be her final target!

In one of the scenes, Lee proposes to Paula. She’s wearing a beautiful sequined dress.

This wasn’t just any dress, made or purchased for this film. Isabel had borrowed it from her best friend Kathleen, whom she’d met when they were both students at the exclusive Kincoppal Convent (now known as Kincoppal-Rose Bay School) in Elizabeth Bay, Sydney. They were so close that Isabel would sometimes stay with Kathleen at her family’s property in Yass.
Kathleen Coen wearing the dress from The Cheaters. Courtesy of Meg Stewart.

In 1925 Kathleen joined a large group of Catholics making a pilgrimage to Rome, accompanied by a friend, a widow named Brigid Woods (known in public as 'Mrs John Woods’).

Kathleen and Brigid then did a six-month tour of Europe and the British Isles, which included a stop in Paris. There, Kathleen bought a flapper-style sequined evening dress.

Years later, Isabel wore that dress in The Cheaters, and Kathleen preserved it in a box until her death in 1974. It then went to her niece, Margaret Coen, who in turn bequeathed it to her daughter, author Meg Stewart.

Meg knew the history of the dress, and decided to contact the NFSA: ‘It was always remembered as a family story, and handed down to me by my mother.’

And now, thanks to Meg, the story and the dress are part of our national collection.

With thanks to Meg Stewart, for donating this dress to the NFSA so it can be preserved as part of the national audiovisual collection. Meg’s book Autobiography of My Mother is available from Random Books.