Sonia McMahon only spent one year as Australia’s First Lady. Nevertheless, she goes down in history as the Australian political spouse with the greatest international fashion resonance and the engineer of one of this country's most iconic fashion moments. Part Princess Diana, part Bond Girl, one can only imagine the impact that the thirty nine year-old mother of three must have had on February 3 1971 when she emerged in “That Dress” at a state dinner at the White House, totally overshadowing Australia’s 20th prime minister and, presumably, the rest of the night’s proceedings. "My God, who is that?" Richard Nixon is reported to have spluttered, before noting – some three months after signing off on a covert investigations unit designed to put the kibosh on intel leaks to the news media - "I'll have her at my side. I'll have my photo in every paper in the US”.
McMahon got to wear the dress one more time in the US – thirty four years later in Los Angeles, this time on the arm of her son Julian at the Golden Globes. It was in fact a modified Jonathan Ward replica, created for Myer’s 100 years of Australian fashion retrospective.
The original dress, which is now housed inside Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, was created by Spanish designer Victoria Cascajo, who owned a South Yarra boutique called Balencia Couture.
Cascajo worked for legendary Spanish-born couturier Cristobal Balenciaga for 10 years in Madrid (Balenciaga originally opened in Spain in 1919, before moving to Paris in 1937 following the Spanish Civil War). Upon his retirement in May 1968, Cascajo told The Age that Balenciaga taught her everything she knows.
The thigh-high split and cutout detailing under the arms and on the sleeves, however, were far more in sync with the far younger Paris guns Pierre Cardin and André Courrèges, as well Austrian-born American Rudi Gernreich. Against the backdrop of the Mod fashion revolution of Swinging 60s London, their “space age” styles influenced a generation of fashion designers the world over – including, undoubtedly, Perth’s Ruth Tarvydas, who has claimed Cascajo copied her best-selling buckle dress of 1969.
In September, Tarvydas told The Australian:
"I think her dressmaker was definitely inspired by my dress, it was obvious. (Sonia McMahon) really was the first Rebecca Twigley, she just happened to be in the White House."
A reporter for The Washington Post is said to have described McMahon's gown at the time as:
"absolutely smashing. I think the dress is a breakthrough for fashion and a blow for women's liberation."
It was, at the very least, courageous.
Vale Sonia McMahon.