I was never one for school and bolted from its doors at 14, clutching a scholarship with As in algebra, geometry and pattern design. Some might consider that a strange combination of subjects, but I was good at numbers and had always made my own clothes – even my wedding dress – and would continue to do so for the next 10 years.
What to do with the rest of my life? Well, my first stop was the North Sydney Art School, where I was impatient to start my first artistic attempt: trying to be a designer. Then my experiences led me to the East Sydney Art School, where I started to emerge from my ‘shy’ cocoon.
I formed great friendships with fellow students and have a photograph of the group from when we appeared on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. I have no idea why we were featured; we were just sitting on the grass having lunch and a photographer appeared. It must have been a slow news day
After three years, I decided I wanted to learn about the advertising world, and I could only do that if I left art school and joined an agency. I was so lucky to be hired by Babs and Neville Corbett, a couple who owned a small advertising agency. I learnt so much from them.
A few years later, I was offered a job at Horwitz Publications and accepted. It was a strange job, working in the magazine section, in the 1950s. I retouched navels out of stomachs (the models weren’t allowed to have been ‘born’) and softened the cleavage between women’s breasts. In the comic section, cowboys being shot had to do it quietly (no ‘aaaahhh!’ speech balloon), and lovers could only kiss if they were engaged at the end of the comic. I became an expert at painting profiles when I had to separate the couples. All these skills I would use later in my career, but for now they got me exactly where I wanted to be: in the workforce earning my way. My first life, as I think of it now.
At 21, I married, still a virgin. I had met Dal when I was 14 and marriage was the expected thing to do. I wasn’t so sure about that, but I didn’t have the courage to stop it. We had our honeymoon in Queensland and I had a wonderful experience with a dolphin – when I lowered my arms into the water, the dolphin swam into them.
I’ll never forget the way it looked at me as it rolled around in my arms. That was the highlight of the honeymoon, and an experience I’d treasure and never forget. It too would play a part later on in life.
Dal and I settled into married life at our home in Turramurra. I tried to design an A-frame house for us to build, but the council wouldn’t allow it, so we had to settle for a boring box shape. The house was built with some of the insurance money from a near-fatal car accident I had experienced when I was 20, back when Dal and I were still engaged.
At that time, we had just finished apple picking at Bilpin in New South Wales. Dal was driving along a dirt road and we had a head-on collision with another car. My head crashed through the front windshield. I remember blood gushing from my neck and the ambulance man saying how lucky I was – the deep cut was so close to my jugular vein. I had smaller cuts all over my face, and all my teeth were loose, but I healed.
The marriage didn’t survive, however. Dal tried different jobs, though wasn’t sure what he even wanted to do. I focused on designing fashion and shoe illustrations for clients like Farmers and David Jones. I was earning a decadent amount of money and this created a problem between us. It was time to have the courage to recognise a turning point in my life and leave the marriage. We had grown up and now needed to go in different directions. Still, it was painful.
I found a tiny flat, just one room plus a bathroom. My first time living alone. My first time for many things…
Meanwhile, I was head-hunted. SSC&B Lintas Advertising wooed me with a big salary and, with no personal restrictions, I accepted. I was very nervous working for a large agency, which was divided into four groups; but they gave me wonderful clients and I soon discovered a creativity I didn’t know I had. I was given the task of designing huge food sets for Continental Soup’s recipes. These photographs would be featured as a double-page spread in Women’s Weekly. I always tried to slide a glass of wine into the food arrangement, and the client would always take it out! This was back when wine was considered ‘plonk’. Finally, I convinced the client that drinking good wine should be encouraged!
In contrast, it was fun creating a chocolate ice-cream design to celebrate The Beatles’ visit to Australia.
When I was given the challenge of competing for a new client, I was thrilled when my campaign designs won over the client! However, the Managing Director Bruce Harris then said, “Great idea, Jan, I’ll get one of the men to produce it.”
The glass ceiling was a cement block.
All great training for the future, where patriarchy was only the start – as I was soon to find out.
Jan Latta is the author of the memoir ‘Doing it My Way’ – a story of never giving up.