The Myer Christmas windows hold a special place in the heart of most Melburnians. Many would recall with fond nostalgia gazing through the glass into the imaginary worlds of magic and movement, and the anticipation of what new wonders the Christmas windows would reveal each November. Christmas did not feel like Christmas without a trip to Bourke Street to marvel at the window displays. The much-loved tradition is now in its 63rd year.

Bourke Street Frontage The Myer Emporium Ltd - Stuart E. Wade, H2006.150/6

Bourke Street Frontage The Myer Emporium Ltd – Stuart E. Wade, H2006.150/6

The Coles Myer archive – a collection of over 30,000 items, stored across one linear kilometre of shelving – contains many items and photographs that chronicle the history of the Christmas windows. We also hold a collection of images taken by the photographer Lloyd Hull (1916-1996), who faithfully captured the windows for nearly forty years. In 2018 the Library lent some collection items to the Melbourne Museum for the exhibition: Make Believe: The Story of the Myer Christmas Windows.

The Christmas windows were the brainchild of Fred Asmussen (1913-1974). Fred began his career at the Myer emporium in 1928 as a ‘wheeler’ boy, moving products from one place to another in wicker cart. He had a great talent for visual merchandising and by 1939 he was in charge of the Bourke Street windows. Before the refurbishment of the Myer Bourke Street facade in the 1950s the windows were island windows, with arcades running between each window. Fred dressed 24-26 windows, which were sometimes changed twice a week. [1]

Freddie Asmussen, ca.1960, H39816

Freddie Asmussen, ca.1960, H39816

In 1956 Fred convinced management to allow him to create a grand Christmas display – where the use of merchandise was minimal – a bold idea when Christmas was a prime selling time for retailers. He was inspired by the Summer Olympics (known as the XVI Olympiad) which Melbourne had hosted that year, the first ever to be televised on black-and-white television in Australia. This led to his first theme: Santa and the Olympics. [2]

The response to the windows was overwhelming, and Fred was given a hefty budget and the task of creating a series of six windows for the following November. Fred – who had formerly studied ballet – chose The Nutcracker as the theme for 1957, followed by Aladdin for 1958, and Fairy Tales for 1959.

Santa and the Olympics, 1956, Lloyd Hull from Coles Myer archive MS 13468 (Box 3023)

Famous Fairytales, 1959 – ‘Cinderella’ from Coles Myer archive MS 13468 (Box 3634)

Famous Fairytales, 1959 – ‘Cinderella’ from, Lloyd Hull from Coles Myer archive MS 13468

Each year brought ever bigger crowds to the windows, delighted by the wonder that Fred’s ingenious creations inspired. Current world events often influenced the theme – in 1962 the theme was Santa goes to Space, with Santa appearing in silver space suit and perspex bubble helmet on his head. Australian writers and illustrators were celebrated – in 1976 Peg Maltby’s illustrated fairy tales were showcased, and in 1995 the theme was May Gibb’s Gumnut Babies.

Santa goes to Space, 1962, Lloyd Hull from Coles Myer archive MS 13468 (Box 3024)

"They call him Kind Midas", The Australian Women's Weekly, 17 May 1967, p.8.  

Alice in Wonderland, 1961 from: ‘They call him Kind Midas’, The Australian Women’s Weekly17 May 1967, p.8. 

Myer's Christmas windows, H88.33/122

Alice in Wonderland, 1961 from Myer’s Christmas windows, Lloyd Hull H88.33/122

The planning, design and execution would take the entire year, and required the skills of dozens of people including carpenters, engineers, artists, scenery makers, costume designers and sound technicians to name a few.

In the early days of the Christmas windows improvisation was common not only to create the sets and individual elements for the windows, but to enable movement. Chicken wire, paper mache, spun glass, clay, hidden magnets, a windscreen wiper – even a washing machine might be pulled apart to use the motor to drive the moving mechanisms. [3] Melbourne City Council gardeners were asked to keep the branches and twigs from the trees they pruned, and junior Myer staff were tasked with hauling them back to the store, sometimes on the tram. [4]

 "Spreading the festive spirit" The Australian Women's Weekly, 24 November 1976, p. 46.

"Spreading the festive spirit" The Australian Women's Weekly, 24 November 1976, p. 46.

Peg Maltby’s Fairy Tales, 1976 from: ‘Spreading the festive spirit’ The Australian Women’s Weekly, 24 November 1976, p. 46.

The Wizard of Oz, 1993, Lloyd Hull from Coles Myer archive MS 13468

Attention to detail was pain-staking. The Babes in the Wood window for the fairy tale theme in 1959 included a carpet floor of 1500 leaves which were dried, pressed, each painted gold and sprinkled with glitter. [5] Fred was uncompromising in the realisation of his artistic vision, with a former employee recalling: ‘I remember Fred coming into a window where there was a forest of real and artificial foliage mixed together. “Every leaf must face the glass,” he commanded. I can still hear him saying that.’ [6]

Fred Asmussen designed every Myer Christmas window display until his death in 1974. He was remembered as a man of incredible artistry and energy – the driving force behind what has become a cherished Melbourne Christmas institution.

See a list of past themes Christmas window themes here. Also see Pat Lawson-Black’s excellent illustrated history, referenced below.


References

[1] Making magic: forty years of fun: the Myer Christmas windows / Pat Lawson-Black, p.10.

[2] Ibid., p.10.

[3] Ibid., p.6.

[4] Ibid., p.7.

[5]  Ibid., p.20.

[6] Ibid., p.10.

This article has 3 comments

  1. Mrs Virginia Boon

    Kylie,
    I came to Melbourne in 1969 as a teenager and I was absolutely dazzled by the Myer Window creations. Freddy A. was a friend of my aunt Evie Hayes, a musical comedy star at the time. She took me to meet him.
    Never again has the standard of his beautiful, theatrical fairy tales been equalled. RIP the amazing Freddy, every single year when passing the store, I remember YOUR fabulous windows.

    • Thank you for sharing Virginia – Fred certainly was a man of exceptional talent and vision.
      Merry Christmas.
      Kylie

  2. I researched this topic some years ago and note that these windows had their roots in the USA where following the Depression and with a more Christian culture, US department stores decided not to promote goods in Christmas windows. Rather the first one to set the pace, had a snow scene with a single bell ringing out a peace on earth style message. I think this influenced Myer.

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