Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wightman, Edith Lillian (Lil) (1903–1992)

by Cassy Liberman

This article was published online in 2020

Lillian Wightman, by Rennie Ellis, 1983

Lillian Wightman, by Rennie Ellis, 1983

State Library of Victoria, 49303580

Edith Lillian Wightman (1903–1992), couture atelier proprietor, was born on 12 April 1903 at Ballarat, Victoria, third of four children of George Francis Wightman, engineer, and his wife Hannah Jane, née McCracken, both Victorian born. Lillian was twelve when her mother (d. 1920) was diagnosed with breast cancer. As a teenager she spent her days caring for her mother and younger sister and managing the household. In about 1918 the family moved to Kew, Melbourne. That year, while trying on a bridesmaid’s dress at the exclusive Melbourne fashion boutique of G. H. V. Thomas, Lillian so impressed the proprietor with her suggested redesign of the dress that he offered her a job as a salesgirl. She learned how to manage an atelier, to engage the customers, and to recognise quality.

In 1922 Wightman borrowed one hundred pounds from her father and opened her own salon in Howey Place. It was situated in a series of laneways in the fashionable city block bounded by Elizabeth, Collins, Bourke, and Swanston streets, where society ladies would come to ‘do the block’—to shop, lunch, and be seen. She named her salon ‘Le Louvre’ as she believed Paris to be the heart and soul of fashion, sophistication, and style. Her notable clients in the 1920s included Dame Nellie Melba and Anna Pavlova. With (Dame) Mabel Brookes, she organised a successful charity fashion parade in 1932, donating the proceeds to the Queen Victoria Hospital. She subsequently contributed to fund-raising campaigns for a range of causes, notably breast cancer research.

An astute businesswoman, Wightman was tenacious and determined, yet appeared to make no effort at all. In 1934 she moved Le Louvre to a three-storey terrace at 74 Collins Street. At the time the area mainly housed the rooms of medical specialists, whose wives she hoped to attract to her business. By the 1950s she employed thirty seamstresses and was known for her ability to provide for her clients ‘a modified couture version of the latest looks from Paris’ (English and Pomazan 2010, 26). The Austrian-born artist Louis Kahan, whom Wightman befriended in 1950, created the distinctive Le Louvre logo. She recommended him to her clients as a portraitist, and he subsequently designed twelve costumes that were made at Le Louvre for a royal command performance of The Tales of Hoffman during Queen Elizabeth’s Australian tour in 1954.

Until the 1970s Le Louvre operated as a traditional couture atelier. Wightman sat in the front salon where she would meet with clients, have tea, and discuss their requirements, before they were taken to the dressing room for fittings. There were no garments on display, clients came strictly by appointment, and neither clothing sizes nor money were ever discussed. Each item was made to order, and a bill was sent together with the clothing purchased. Wightman’s signature was an ocelot print, which she used for dresses, coats, handbags, and scarves, and for furniture and carpets in her salon.

On 23 May 1928 at the Presbyterian Church, Cotham Road, Kew, Wightman had married George McGeagh Collins Weir, a police constable and immigrant from Northern Ireland. It was an unconventional marriage: she continued to use her maiden name and did not wear a wedding ring, while he lived mostly in the country, where he became a farmer and grazier. In 1945 their only child Georgina was born but, as Wightman was not very maternal, she engaged a carer and housekeeper. She and Weir separated in about 1956 but they never divorced. In the late 1960s Georgina introduced her mother to the ready-to-wear revolution sweeping Europe. Wightman deplored nostalgia, so she encouraged Georgina to bring the fashions of European designers to Le Louvre, pivoting the business slowly over the next fifteen years away from couture.

Known to her clients as ‘Luxury Lil,’ Wightman helped to define the ‘Paris End’ of Collins Street. Having purchased the freehold for Le Louvre in 1952, she later refused to sell the heritage building to the developers of the fifty-two storey Nauru House (1977). It was classified by the National Trust in 1978. Wightman gradually handed control of the business to her daughter but continued to visit daily into her old age. During an interview in 1986 she reaffirmed her lifelong adherence to Parisian fashion: ‘Everything beautiful is made in Paris and everyone wants it’ (Perkin 1986, 28). She died on 3 November 1992 at South Yarra and was cremated. Georgina Weir moved Le Louvre from Collins Street to South Yarra in 2010.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • English, Bonnie, and Liliana Pomazan. Australian Fashion Unstitched: The Last 60 Years. Cambridge and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2010
  • Liberman, Cassy. Le Louvre: The Women behind the Icon. Melbourne: Brolly Books, 2016
  • Perkin, Corrie. ‘Lil of Le Louvre.’ Canberra Times, 23 March 1986, Good Weekend 26–30
  • Walker, Susannah. ‘A Nice Little Frock Shop.’ Age (Melbourne), 26 February 2010, Melbourne Magazine 36
  • Weir, Georgina. Interview by Cassy Liberman, April 2014. Copy held on ADB file
  • Whitfield, Danielle. ‘La Mode Française Australian Style.’ In The Paris End: Photography, Fashion & Glamour, edited by Susan van Wyk, 105–117. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2006

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Cassy Liberman, 'Wightman, Edith Lillian (Lil) (1903–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/wightman-edith-lillian-lil-30456/text37766, published online 2020, accessed online 3 December 2020.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Lillian Wightman, by Rennie Ellis, 1983

Lillian Wightman, by Rennie Ellis, 1983

State Library of Victoria, 49303580