Night Life: eveningwear of the 1920s and 30s

NTAV Barwon Park Night Life exhibitionA selection of fashion from the 1920s and 30s, some which have never before seen, will be on display as part of the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) Night Life: eveningwear of the 1920s and 30s exhibition – opening at Barwon Park Mansion in early January 2017.

Featuring over 35 gowns as well as menswear and accessories, Night Life explores fashion when the sun goes down. Not only capturing the spirit of this vibrant time in Victoria’s fashion history, it looks at the beauty of beaded surfaces and moderné ideas about ornament and pattern.

“The fashion on show visually references the night sky, stars and planets, neon lights, fireworks, dreams and other after dark delights,” said Exhibition Curator, Ms Elizabeth Anya-Petrivna. “All the costumes are from the Trust’s own collection of fashion and many have never been seen before.”

“It’s exciting to present these costumes in a way that captures the spirit of the age. Many have been made locally in Victoria so they represent the fashion that was being worn here during the 20s and 30s. These are clothes our great grandmothers and grandfathers were wearing when they danced the night away or enjoyed a Hollywood film.”

In the National Trust’s costume collection are found exquisite examples of 1920s and 30s evening wear – many were lovingly saved by their former owners. Several dresses still reveal the proof of a good time!

Movement and the friction from dancing has resulted in lost sequins and shattered silk chiffon from the weight of the glass beads. With their sumptuous fabrics and bead-work, visual attention is confidently directed onto the surface decoration, with floral bursts of embroidery, deep velvet naps, transparent chiffons and sparkling lamé.

The idea for the exhibition started after a lavish French dancing dress was viewed by curatorial staff. Upon opening the archival box and folding back the tissue, it was obvious that this dress was a supreme example of 1920s artistry.

The masterful hand-crafted pattern was beaded onto nude tulle like a landscape of pearlescent flowers set amongst rivulets of sequin and glass. Even in the dim light of the storeroom the dress shone. It wasn’t long before other evening dresses were selected and with them the start of an exhibition.

Evening wear often holds a special place in our repertoire of dressing. The clothes we wear at night are invested with an emotional power and expectation. They carry the hopes for the evening and then hold the memories we made during the night.

Occasion dressing was far more obvious in the 20s and 30s than it is today, with many expecting to change their clothing for different times of the day and for different activities. Evening wear was once very specific and fit for purpose – with dancing dresses, dinner dresses, ball gowns, opera and theatre dresses and clothes appropriate for the cinema.

Evening wear, and the fabrics used to construct their glamour, were always very different from day-wear. Sequins and shiny satins never made their way onto sober day suits for a visit to the city. The extreme social faux pas of women wearing evening wear during the day had sexual connotations. The demarcation was sharp and definite.

NTAV CEO Mr Simon Ambrose said this exhibition is important because it sees the Trust collaborating with the Victorian community to recreate this time in history. “Many of the fashion pieces were made locally and we are drawing on young local talent to bring the era to life,” he said.

“We are working with Melbourne stylists and fashion photographers, like Domenic Coloca, Stuart Chen, Olivia Tran and Jess Hood, who are interpreting the fashions and atmosphere of the 1920s and 30s. This is a modern take on a moderné era using techniques from high fashion.”

Night Life: eveningwear of the 1920s and 30s
Barwon Park Mansion, 105 Inverleigh Road, Winchelsea
Exhibition: 4 January – 26 March 2017
Entry fees apply

For more information, visit: for details.

Image: background – Stylised floral bead motif featured on Evening Coat. Celluloid sequins, glass seed beads embroidered on silk gauze Made in France 1925 ca. National Trust Costume Collection; front image – Evening Cape 1935 ca. Maker Unknown. Worn in Melbourne. Silk, velvet, fur, lamé, metal – photo by Stuart Chen