Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hordern, Ursula Mary (1911–1961)

by Caroline Simpson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Ursula Mary Hordern (1911-1961), fashion editor, was born on 1 April 1911 at Woollahra, Sydney, fourth daughter of five children of Herbert Henry Bullmore, a native-born medical practitioner, and his wife Elfride Henriette Victoria, née Büttner, from Melbourne. Always known as Mary, she was educated at Ascham School, Edgecliff, and excelled at French and sport. Her family was one of the earliest to build a house at Palm Beach for holidays. On leaving school, she worked as a receptionist for her father, and spent a year at Shanghai, China, with (Sir) Frederick and Laura Maze (her godmother).

At All Saints Church, Woollahra, on 3 March 1932 Mary married Anthony Hordern, a grazier and a widower. They lived at Retford Hall, Darling Point, and at Milton Park, Bowral, where Mary created a famous garden which was opened to the public every spring to aid the Bowral hospital. In the mid-1950s she commissioned the Melbourne architect Guilford Bell to design a round house, Wingadal, at Point Piper (completed 1956); the interiors were created by her friend Marion Hall Best.

Mrs Hordern was fashion editor (1946-57) of the Australian Women's Weekly, owned by her brother-in-law (Sir) Frank Packer. In 1946 the magazine decided to bring Paris fashions to Australia in a display of glamour and luxury after the lean, wartime years. She flew to Paris to organize an extensive parade of clothes, with mannequins from the leading French designers, save for Christian Dior. Over the next three years she produced three more French fashion spectaculars in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide which engendered huge publicity and sales for the Weekly throughout Australia. Dior's earlier decision to franchise with David Jones Ltd had caused a social schism between Mary Hordern and Hannah, wife of Sir Charles Lloyd Jones. In the summer of 1953 they made a public reconciliation as joint hostesses of a grand ball, irreverently referred to as 'The Drapers Ball'.

In 1953 Hordern was a founding member of the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales. She was president of the organizing committee for the French government's exhibition of art and industry, held in a new pavilion at the local Royal Agricultural Society's 1956 Royal Easter Show. Meeting 'frustrations at every turn', such as arguments between the Department of Public Works and the French architect over lighting, she solved the problems directly with H. G. Conde, chairman of the Electricity Commission. She was appointed to the Légion d'honneur in 1957.

Possessing a statuesque figure to wear the clothes she wrote about, Hordern was an attractive women with presence, brown hair, blue eyes and an acute mind. Her formidable attitude overrode dissenting opinions, and she became a powerful authority on fashion and an arbiter of taste. She dominated her family and associates with an iron hand. Survived by her husband and two daughters, she died of myocardial infarction on 5 June 1961 at her Point Piper home and was cremated; her estate was sworn for probate at £121,964. Mary's only brother Flight Lieutenant James Bullmore had been killed in action on 29 November 1942 over Papua.

Select Bibliography

  • B. H. Fletcher, The Grand Parade (Syd, 1988)
  • A. Imrie (ed), 1952-1980 Architecture of Guilford Bell (Melb, 1982)
  • V. Lawson, Connie Sweetheart (Melb, 1990)
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 26 Apr, 5 July 1947, 21 June 1961
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Oct 1933, 16 Nov 1934, 18 July 1954, 6, 7 June, 1 Sept 1961
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 6 June 1961
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 July 1994, 'Good Weekend'
  • Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales, minutes of meeting, 15 Feb 1956 (Royal Agricultural Society, Sydney)
  • private information.

Citation details

Caroline Simpson, 'Hordern, Ursula Mary (1911–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hordern-ursula-mary-10545/text18725, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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