12 April 2024

From farming to high fashion - how Jennifer landed a job sewing glamorous gowns for showgirl Carlotta

| Michele Tydd
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Woman sitting in a blue chair.

Jennifer Meharg relaxes at her Mt Kembla home. Photo: Michele Tydd.

Mt Kembla’s Jennifer Meharg’s life reads like an action novel that ranges from her childhood on an outback farm to her first job sewing for one of Sydney’s living legends.

Originally from Gunnedah and one of seven children, Jennifer was mustering on horseback by the time she was six at her parents’ sheep station in far western NSW.

“Dad, a fifth-generation farmer, was an aircraft mechanic in the war and afterwards was granted a plot of land in Brewarrina, where he pitched a huge tent for temporary housing,” says Jennifer.

“He had planned to build a house, but my father didn’t believe in overcapitalising so we ended up living in shearers’ quarters for most of the year, and then us kids slept outside during the shearing season.”

Jennifer, 76, described it as an idyllic life of home schooling, mustering and running wild.

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“When we got bored, we’d get out the guns and go shooting,” she says.

The only catastrophe was when her eldest sister was badly burned in a petrol fire and had to be rushed to Sydney for treatment.

“Mum was amazing and never stopped. She had a Singer sewing machine she used to sew all our clothes – her smocking was flawless,” says Jennifer.

By the time Jennifer had hit her teens, the family was living in Manly in Sydney where she fluked her first job at 15 sewing sumptuous gowns for the wealthy and celebrities including Kings Cross pioneer transgender showgirl Carlotta, of Les Girls fame.

“I saw a ‘wanted’ sign in a Brookvale workshop window, so I walked in, saw what they were doing and said ‘I can do that ’… I didn’t know if I could or not, but I still got the job,” she recalls.

Old photo of four little girls.

Jennifer Meharg as a young girl (third from left) with two of her sisters and brother. Photo: Supplied.

The business had five dressmakers, one designer and another person who cut out the gowns and supplied measurements to the dressmakers.

Jennifer took to the role quickly and loved working with the luxurious fabrics that included silk, chiffon, gold and silver lame and lace that were mainly imported from Europe.

“At first, I didn’t know who I was making these dresses for, and I was intrigued by the fact that one regular client was a size 12, but the waist measurements were quite large,” she recalls.

“I remember asking the designer who they were for, but he didn’t answer,” says Jennifer.

“Over time I learned the mysterious customer was Carlotta from Les Girls.

“The finished gowns were sent to Kings Cross for fittings so I never saw or met her.

“I also made a few dresses for Dawn Lake (a comedic actor of the 60s and 70s) and I did see one of my dresses she wore on TV – a lovely pale blue chiffon gown.”

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Jennifer left the workshop after five years and moved into other areas of work including shipping and bookkeeping.

She looks back on her first jobs as a brazen move, but one that fits into a family pattern.

“Like many of the women in our family, I love quality fabric, and working with it seems to come naturally,” she says.

“I have a sister who does exquisite quilting and another sister who works in formal hire.

“My niece, Renee Goodman, is a costume buyer and designer who is now working on the 2023 SBS series Ten Pound Poms,” says Jennifer.

Renee also worked on the 2020 film High Ground, a film about early race relations, which was shot in Arnhem Land.

Today, Jennifer and her husband Colin live an active community and sporting life – and she still sews her own clothes.

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