I am constantly amazed at the array of discoveries that are being made in the Australian National Maritime Museum’s collection. Some of them are just what you might expect from a maritime history collection, and others are just downright unusual. Until recently, the above photograph was catalogued as ‘unidentified Japanese woman’ posing on board the San Franciscan liner SS Sierra at an event celebrating the arrival of Australia’s first Movietone News truck on 8 August 1929. However, as one of our Flickr Commons followers demonstrated, Sydney photographer Samuel J Hood photographed his fair share of interesting characters from far away shores.
Curious about this series of photographs, I uploaded them on Flickr Commons, where a community of dedicated researchers we often call ‘super sleuths’ immediately set to work on them. Eventually, one of our followers, who goes by the pseudonym ‘quasymody’, discovered her identity. Introducing singer, comedienne and vaudeville performer Kono San (or Konosan).
Kono San belonged to a group of Japanese women known as the modan gaaru (‘modern girls’). These moga, as they were nicknamed, veered away from traditional Japanese social and cultural conventions and instead opted for the dress and lifestyle embraced by a group known as the flappers. Flappers were seen as brazen, modern women of the 1920s, who wore excessive makeup, smoked and drank alcohol freely and flouted traditional conventions prescribing behaviour and dress. Tasmanian newspaper the Examiner claimed:
The avidity with which foreign fashions and customs are being assimilated fills their conservative elders with despair … The Japanese “flapper” has been born and is doing well. Her skirts are as short as can be, her silk stockings, trim shoes, and tight little hat, her walk and her public devotion to lip-stick and powder-puff place her beside the “flapper” of the Western world.
Dubbed ‘Japan’s foremost flapper’ by the American press, Kono San appears every inch the ‘modern girl’. Looking directly at the camera, she poses on deck, hand on hip, lavishly made up and dressed in a coat and fox fur finished off with flowers, high-heeled shoes, jewellery and a hat. However, she is noticeably missing that all-important accessory – gloves!
In all this, there is the inescapable fact that without the help of the online community, Kono San’s identity would have remained a mystery. Quasymody went on to link this photograph with this one published in the Sydney Morning Herald, identifying the cameraman as Roy Vaughan.