Danielle Whitfield, assistant curator of Australian fashion and textiles at the NGV, has put together an exhibition that contains mysteries worthy of a detective novel. Fashion Detective showcases more than 70 unattributed 19th-century garments and accessories from the NGV’s collection. It groups them into cases to be examined and encourages audiences to use their problem-solving skills while seeing the exhibition and learning about fashion from the past.

“When I was a child I wanted to be Nancy Drew. Years later, working as a curator with the fashion collection, it has often struck me that there’s a great deal of detective work to be done in this job,” she says.

Every piece invites you to imagine the life it may have had. There are tiny silk slippers and ice-skating boots, children’s mourning garments, platypus-fur muffs, embroidered samplers and much more. Detailed captions provide clues about items from particular eras and there is an e-book with historical case studies, stories and images from the show.

The art of counterfeiting features (as it does with designer fakes in modern-day fashion). In the 1920s people attached fake labels to garments or dyed and doctored ordinary furs to make them appear more valuable.

Pigments containing arsenic were used as green colouring agents in the early 19th century, too. Deliberate poisonings were sometimes the result; a tidy way to dispatch with one’s foe via his or her clothing. While purely speculative, Whitfield wanted to explore the idea that a group of green-hued garments and wallpapers within the collection might have been laced with arsenic. It’s quite fitting that Sherlock Holmes makes an appearance. Upon entering the exhibition you are greeted with a video installation of Holmes giving Watson a lengthy speech about the vital clues that can be uncovered in threads and sashes.

As part of their job, curators and conservators engage in real-life detective work. Storytelling often contributes to their investigations. Whitfield invited four crime writers to interpret different pieces and write narratives to go with them. “Everyone wrote a different story within the parameters of a detective tale and worked in their own writing styles,” she says. Authors Kerry Greenwood, Garry Disher, Sulari Gentill and Lili Wilkinson all created original work for Fashion Detective and it is presented in audio form. Audiences of all ages can engage with the recordings as they walk through the exhibition.

Get our pick of the best news, features and events delivered twice a week

“It’s supposed to be playful,” Whitfield says. “It isn’t an exhibition about definite facts – there isn’t one trail to follow, there are a whole lot of cases around exploring ideas. I wanted it to be very open-ended and for it to be a bit of fun.”

The Fashion Detective is a free exhibition at the Ian Potter Centre, NGV until August 31.