Floor-length fur coats, bedazzled balaclavas, a vest that read “Cate Blanchett smoking is my kink”: you couldn’t miss NGV’s inaugural Bowery Ball if you tried. Last Friday night, hundreds of guests rummaged through their costume boxes in homage to the late Leigh Bowery.

Born in Melbourne in 1961, Bowery was one of Australia’s most transformative and radical queer icons. In his 33 years, he worked across the creative arts, donning the titles of fashion designer, nightclub promoter, performance artist, actor and model. In celebration of his legacy, NGV’s entire ground level was transformed into a wonderland of free-flowing champagne, burlesque performances and high-octane camp energy. And while plenty of Melbourne’s fashion-forward events cater to local celebs and media personalities, the Bowery Ball opened its doors to Melburnians working in fields from social work to theatre.

A dress code demanding partygoers “dress as though your life depends on it or don't bother” (a classic Bowery-ism), turned out a wildly varied mix of deconstructed hoop skirts, skin-tight leopard print suits and dominatrix get-ups. “I love events like this in Melbourne, because it just shows off how stylish everyone is,” says comedian Aurelia St Clair. “[We’re] not afraid to go all out.”

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From fire-breathing and glass-walking in the Saltburn-esque garden, to the raucous rave in the Great Hall and the low-lit cabaret karaoke in NGV’s Garden Restaurant, it was a night of debauchery, queer celebration and fantastical fashion.

Inspired by Bowery’s own club, Taboo, and 1980s London club culture, Ant and Mark from Windsor wore matching head-to-toe houndstooth ensembles (à la 2009 Alexander McQueen), finished off with gloves and shoes they made themselves. When asked if they worked in fashion, the duo laughed. “I’m the chief risk officer for an insurance company!” one of them remarked.

In his first time using a sewing machine, Rhys from Seddon sewed himself a patterned balaclava and matching gloves. “I just felt I had to go to an effort because Leigh Bowery was incredible!” He says he grew up in Sunshine and, like Bowery, attended Melbourne High School. At 14 years old, Rhys saw a photo of Bowery the school corridor – all “pink face and wild make-up” – and, since then, he “hasn’t stopped thinking about” the iconoclast.

Ryan from Kensington is also a Melbourne High alum. Wearing an outlandish all-white ensemble starring a spiked headpiece and Bowery’s signature double Wayfarers, he says seeing photos of Bowery during his school years was extremely validating. “[He] was one of the first people – and one of the only people on that wall – who I was like, ‘That is a queer, that is one of my people’ … Leigh Bowery is just a massive camp, avant-garde Melbourne icon.”

Kieran from Hawthorn drew inspiration from Bowery’s Metropolitan – a full-length floral satin dress – to fashion a velvet frock with red high-vis circles (made from “reflective tape on the back of really cheap, flimsy chopping boards”). Completed with lashes that read, “Boo, you whore,” Kieran wanted to honour Bowery’s commitment to “kinky taboo”.

Geelong-based artist and designer Emily Rastas reused fabric from a theatre production she worked on last year, sewing together a dress with about 200 metres of fabric. Her companion, Geelong West artist and designer Lazarus Gordon, created a head-to-toe floral look with their own punk leanings, fabricating a mohawk headpiece and a biker jacket from 1950s bedsheets.

Benjamin from Southbank channelled his love of 19th century outfits and came in a big, regal ball gown. “I just love that fantasy being fulfilled: the frills, the ruffles, the absolutely incredible silhouettes,” they gushed. When asked about the importance of queer expression in their life, Benjamin said, “It’s just being exactly who you are. And in the face of adversity … it is just expression of oneself without any barriers.”

“If clothes are going to mean anything, they’ve got to threaten or challenge,” Leigh Bowery once said. “If they have that edge, they should provoke people into thinking. I don’t want the things I make to be merely flamboyant; that’s been done before. I want them to have that edge, to be absurd or ridiculous.” In all our excessive and garish wonder, Melbourne brought Bowery back to the city streets – sex-doll lips and frilly tutus to boot.