Louisa “Lulu" Jones was the last private owner of Melbourne’s historic Rippon Lea mansion. She renovated the 19th century building in the 1930s, and today the interior – home for the next three months to fashion exhibition Night Life – remains true to her vision.
“I like to think she’d be pretty pleased with the exhibition and would like to have seen it here, just judging by what I know about her,” says Elizabeth Anya-Petrivna, Night Life’s curator. “[Lulu] really enjoyed a good party – she threw heaps of them here.”
Melbourne’s 1920s and ’30s nightclubs and dance halls will be brought back to life in the new exhibition of treasures from the National Trust’s Costume Collection.
Mannequins will be dressed in silks, velvets and intricate beadwork dating to the ’20s, evoking a period of the city’s history that curator Anya-Petrivna says was marked by “modernity and dynamism.”
Drawn from a collection of almost 4000 pieces, the show is made up of about 50 garments and a trove of jewelry and accessories, all made locally. Although the National Trust’s collection does include daywear, Night Life doesn’t include it.
“The eveningwear really stood out,” Anya-Petrivna says. “There’s a reason it’s so embellished and elaborate and beautiful.”
Among the vintage silhouettes and fine beadwork, there’s also something familiar. “There’s a lot of black – I’m not insinuating that that says anything about Melburnians wearing black. It’s just interesting that so many pieces that have survived the decades happen to be black or dark colours.”
The dresses are at home in the mansion’s dining and drawing rooms, once the scene of spirited cocktail parties and soirees.
Working with local designers, photographers and stylists, Anya-Petrivna has pulled together an experience that is part history lesson, part reinvention.
“In some ways, the ’20s is a decade that has been really heavily scrutinised – we all have these clichéd images of what that decade looked like,” she says. But Night Life isn’t a page out of The Great Gatsby. Anya-Petrivna and her collaborators have tried to “push against some of those expectations and then sometimes work with them.”
As an example, Melbourne stylists Domenic Coloca and Stuart Wolford have curated a room of looks that “harmonise historical pieces from the collection with modern street fashion” for a contemporary take on the period.
Photographer Jessica Hood’s work takes inspiration from the floral themes of the 1930s, something that Anya-Petrivna says “creates a beautiful counterpoint to these very feminine, wafty, bias-cut evening gowns,” while the work of photographer Olivia Tran echoes the moody shadows of Australian Photographer Max Dupain’s 1930s work for David Jones.
“Rippon Lea is the 1930s,” Anya-Petrivna says. “We’ve got incredible lightscapes – it’s very dark and moody. We’ve transformed Rippon Lea into a night-time space.”
It’s a setting reflective of a time when Melbourne was still lit by gas lamps. “ If there was a full moon and a cloud covered the sky, and the gas had been turned off, a lot of suburbs would have been in darkness.”
Night Life runs at Rippon Lea Estate from May 5 to July 30. Over the exhibition’s three months, there will be a series of events at Rippon Lea as part of the exhibition. More information and tickets here.