Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Monday, April 9, 2012

Sheila Scotter: A Life in Black and White (An Obituary)

Sheila Scotter was the original Anna Wintour. The first editor-in-chief of Vogue Australia, she was one of the most formidable, influential, frightening and famously fastidious and stylish women in fashion. She was also one of the most observant. I know tough-spined gay designers who would shake with nerves and change three times before they presented themselves at her impeccable front door. And even then they'd bring a change of clothes in case they spilled something on themselves on the way.

"Miss Scotter always knew if you had stained yourselves with nerves!" one of them told me with a laugh one day.

{Photo: Eric Blaich}

Known for her love of black and white – she wore no other colour – Sheila Scotter ruled Australian fashion for much of the 1960s and beyond. She took Vogue Australia and turned it into a must-have read, full of glamour, manners and the kind of poise many of us miss when we read fashion mags today. In the process, she put Australia's style on the international map. Go to any newsstand in London and you'll see it's still there.

I knew her briefly in the early 2000s and she terrified me. I was a columnist and she invited me to join a  club she had thoughtfully founded for women called The Busy Sheilas. Too intimidated to refuse, I turned up to a luncheon at Crown. Alas, we were on deadline that day and so I was three minutes late. The dressing down I received made everyone at the table quake. And then when I didn't have cash to pay my $20 share (I was in a rush on the way there), well... there was no going back to the Busy Sheilas then! Miss Scotter hated credit cards as much as she did tardiness. I was officially dismissed.

A few weeks after that incident, two distinguished gay guys I know went to pay a visit. They wore Dior. With white pocket handkerchiefs. "They need to be straighter," she said, and graciously refolded them. Then she began educating them on the importance of a good trouser cut. When she bent down to explain, one of them almost wet his pants in fear.

Surprisingly – or perhaps not – she had many gay friends. She respected their style. And she adored their gossipy stories. Some of them didn't make the cut, of course, to use a fashion pun. But several stayed by her side right until the end, tolerant of her relentless critiques and sartorial comments. I smiled when I heard that they used to visit in groups – "safety in numbers", as one quipped.

The Sartorialist's Scott Schuman shot her in 2009 for a Saba ad campaign (above). Like many, he became very taken with her. "She oozed intimidating old school charm," he said, and his photos clearly showed the respect. Look at the white gloves. And the cane! I suspect that's a Chanel camellia too. But look how she's dressed it up with a black-and-white ribbon. Oh Sheila. You still had it. Even at 88.

She knew it, too. She once said: "There is something about style, and I've definitely got it!" The quote still makes me laugh out loud.

One of her favourite outfits was a black Balenciaga raincoat. Have you ever seen such a glamorous mac? {Image by Richard Cisar-Wright}

Here's a model wearing the chic slicker. Nope. I like Sheila in it better.

The only style faux pas I ever saw her make was during one interview where she was filmed speaking with her chin resting on her hand (above). Those trained to speak in the media know you don't put your hands anywhere near your face when answering questions. I suspect Miss Scotter would have realised this in hindsight. Her face looks strangely tight. And the pose isn't her usual ladylike style. (Although her manicure looks magnificent!)

Like Anna Wintour, Sheila believed women should "tread lightly" on their feet. There was no clump-clumping along the halls of Vogue when Miss Scotter was in charge. I always remember tip-toeing whenever I was near her. I was terrified of wearing heels. Especially if floorboards were going to be in the way.

A remarkable woman, she planned her outfits to the very end. She even decided on her burial outfit: a white silk dressing gown – "to keep me warm", she said. I suspect the mourners will be wearing monochrome in fitting tribute.

Sheila Scotter passed away on Good Friday, aged 91. After all these years, she will finally join her mentors – including Diana Vreeland, with whom she worked – up there in the big Editorial Office in the sky.

Here's to an incredible woman. May she rest in peace.


  1. A fabulous tribute, with a brilliant insider's insight that just makes it all the more interesting!

  2. I second Glamour Drops comment. Also, how wonderful to see "age" outswank "youth" in the Balenciaga slicker (oh I hope that does not offend someone)!

  3. An incredible and stylish woman who will be greatly missed.
    Janelle a lovely tribute. xx

  4. Many thanks for a very interesting obit. on the passing of an Australian fashion legend. A very restricted palette for a whole life time, the black and white, but she really made it work for her. Also interesting that Scott Schumann was so taken with her, perhaps she had mellowed a little by then.

  5. An old obituary never fails to delight. I feel as if the entire community shared in the sadness at her passing. obituary


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