Melbourne’s reputation as Australia’s fashion capital, whether imposed by the marketeers down at the city council or by the continuing stoush with Sydney, may in fact have a solid historical precedent that will be music to our southern ears.

At Labassa historic house in Caulfield, Melbourne’s place in fashion history is manifest. The house itself is a National Heritage listed building but what’s contained within – the famed costume collection – is the precedent.

The word costume can be somewhat misleading – something we dress up in or perhaps pretend to be somebody else in, on stage or at a party. And if you had access to this collection there wouldn’t be enough parties to attend. What makes the collection so unique is its historical breadth. Indeed, this is a collection of clothing, accessories and ephemera from Melbourne and Victoria. While it doesn’t necessarily need to have been made locally, it does have to be of local and historical significance.

In the mid-19th century, Melbourne was flush – a growing city with a burgeoning economy, riding high off the back of the gold rush. People were flooding Australia from around the world for a piece of the action and the chance to indulge their capitalist, entrepreneurial spirit.

At this time, the 1850s and 60s, Melbourne was considered fashion forward. We may bandy this idea around today like Melbourne’s unofficial doctrine, but it’s at this time – a time when trends took months to take hold and filter through society to actually represent an era – that Melbourne was an international trend-maker, a world mover and shaker, if you will.

In Melbourne, it wasn’t uncommon to hear French spoken at the city’s finer establishments and providers, the fine ladies of the upper set showing off their class and good breeding. At meetings at Como House, entire conversations would be carried out in the Gallic tongue and Table Talk, the women’s magazine dedicated to all things societal, published an issue in July of 1886 predominantly in French as a celebration of Bastille Day and a revealing display of high society. Mumm champagne featured prominently in the advertisements.

Then there was Buckley & Nunn’s senior costumier, from Paris, she didn’t speak English (or chose not to) and if you weren’t able to accommodate this caveat then chances are you weren’t getting a dress. We’ll never know if she was any good and it wasn’t all just a rouse, but from all accounts she was the best. To have a dress from this particular maker was the height of fashion and social standing.

So Melbourne was king of the world, spending like a sailor on shore leave and relishing in its position as the world’s wealthiest city. With this came art and design, a craving for culture and a desire to prove oneself amongst the old powers, as a civilised city.

Elizabeth Anya-Petrivna is the curator of the collections team at the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) and my lovely, enthusiastic guide. She is wonderfully stuck between the love and romance of storytelling and history and the practical, pragmatic approach it takes for one to be, as she puts it “the temporary custodian” of such a collection. Her presentation is personable and genuine, which she shyly admits is a result of “zeal combined with show and tell and a captive audience”. Even her explanation is lovely!

Wandering the archive conjures up a mix of disbelief and amazement. Labassa is the kind of place that you’d expect to come alive at night (the caretaker of the property even spins a yarn about the house being haunted), where the outfits are returned to their former glory and they go turning and twirling from room to room.

For anyone who remembers The Adams Family or The Munsters, Labassa is that house at the end of the street. It’s the kind of place your 10-year-old self would steer clear of, tell stories about and threaten friends with. Tennis balls would be lost and the groundskeeper would shake his rake at you and yell ‘stay off the property’ if you veered too close.

Parts of the property have been renovated, refurbished and revitalised, just like the costume collection, but it’s a painstaking process that not only requires money, but time and expertise in dying crafts.

Designed by John Augustus Bernard Koch for Cobb & Co owner Alexander Robertson, it is an astonishing example – particularly in Melbourne – of French Renaissance architecture. The interior is none too subtle combination of embossed wallpapers, mahogany timbers and mind-blowing attention to detail. The ‘gum-nut nouveau’ work of Australian flora and fauna artist Robert Prenzel even features prominently in the cornices of one particular room.

Anya-Petrivna walks me through several of the premier pieces of the collection and gives me the lowdown on a few items that were particularly intriguing. Behind each piece is also a remarkable revelation of its provenance. It’s never just about the wearer or the maker; dresses are handed down, altered, played with, sold, remade and left behind.

Some leave mysteries, while some are a mystery, like an elaborately decorated, printed, perhaps devoré dress. It’s an unusual technique that doesn’t appear anywhere in the era and you’d be hard pressed to find it today. The shape of the dress suggests one thing, but the embellishment another. It looks like embroidery, but isn’t and there isn’t a label in sight. The first to be recognised with that honour is Geelong label Brighton-Hitchcock in 1869, before then, labels simply didn’t appear.

This only goes to show how difficult the job is for Anya-Petrivna. These details aren’t found on Google or regular databases. She is the database. Research is key. Important pieces might require forensic scientists to identify stain composition to reveal date, place and time. It might be soil or sweets on a child’s dress, seeds and stones caught in a hem or make-up and beauty products; they all go some way to disclosing the secrets of the item.

Some don’t need such high-tech, labour-intensive processes. When a wonderful navy blue cocktail dress was donated to the collection, it was the particularly idiosyncratic embroidery that revealed its creator. A Hall Ludlow from 1950s is a very special acquisition any way you look at it, but the cornelli and shell beading on the bodice was unmistakably the work of Nellie Van Rysoort, a Dutch post-war immigrant who trained in Parisian haute couture houses and as an artisan embroiderer. She arrived in Melbourne with impressive experience, having worked for Dior, even making clothes for Edith Piaf. Van Rysoort shopped her skills around Melbourne and found early commissions with Ludlow. Her large folios of samples and patterns are now in the National Trust’s collection and the dress is a great example of her skill.

There is little doubting the collection’s the worth and significance, and Anya-Petrivna’s attachment to her “temporary custodian” role is evident in her keenness to share and extol the virtues of such a task. The preservation of costume, through the historic house environment is a reflection of us all. “These places are where the quotidian and domestic are played out,” Anya-Petrivna explains. “These are spaces where the…personal, ephemeral and overlooked fragments of people’s everyday lives are contained…an immediate connection with the past.”

This is Melbourne and this is how we got here. It’s easy to look at the Royal Exhibition Building or the GPO – no doubt great monuments to our success and determination – but it is the work contained in the costume collection that begins to reveal the truth about us as people. It’s not just about high society or the wealthy; it’s about the lives we lived and how we lived them. It’s a genuine connection to the past that isn’t cast in bronze or built from stone – a tangible link that can only make us better.

Labassa is open to public every third Sunday of the month from 10.30am to 4.30pm.

Labassa
2 Manor Grove, Caulfield
(03) 9527 6295