Fashion and shopping, Melbourne style


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(Dressed to the nines includes a white tie)

Once upon a time, people used to dress up to go out. Not just on a special occasion – every day was an occasion. There were particular outfits for all sorts of activities, whether a woman received her girlfriends wearing a teagown, wore a pretty pleated white tennis dress to run round the courts in, a smart suit and gloves for a trip to the city, or a dramatic floor length gown for a Saturday night at the theatre. Today you can go from morning to night in the same outfit, and so much glamour has gone out of our lives thereby. Life has become much less exciting.

I have a little theory – which I have not researched at all, but I like it: the cult of celebrity has reached such heights today, with people obsessively following their idols, precisely because their own lives are so dull. Normcore has been western culture’s downfall. People’s own sartorial adventures are virtually nonexistent that they must vicariously live through the wardrobes of the famous. They have nothing much in their own lives to look forward to, so they read about others’.

Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in a scene from his play Private Lives, 1930Fashion magazines and bloggers report celebrities’ fashion follies and triumphs both, with a fanatical degree of attention to the minutiae of a star’s wardrobe. Look at the frenzied degree of interest provoked by the Duchess of Cambridge’s recent tour in the Antipodes. Fashion websites crashed, dresses sold out in minutes after photos of Kate were published online.

Of course not everyone is so dully clothed all the time, but certainly many Melburnians – especially in our cold winters – dress purely for practicality, and in a style that is hardcore normcore. One can venture into the city and be greeted by a sea of black, grey and navy blue.

White moiré dress with terraced shoulders and train, by Maggy Rouff, 1930; illustration by Carl EricksonI work at a theatre, so I am lucky enough to regularly attend shows, and many opening nights. I have found it remarkable that even on opening nights many theatregoers dress casually, even in jeans. Where is their sense of occasion, their sense of fun? Part of the delight of an evening out is the anticipation prior: planning one’s outfit, getting ready in the hour(s) before. It’s what you look forward to at the end of the week.

Earlier this year Volodya and I attended Melbourne Theatre Company’s opening night for Noël Coward’s Private Lives. Cocktail dress was stipulated for the evening, with an emphasis on the Art Deco style of the era the play is set in. My choice of gown was easy: a black satin crepe floor-length backless gown in a style very reminiscent of the 1930s, while Volodya wore a suit (though not the one in this picture). It was lovely to receive many compliments from both friends and strangers on the night. I was still surprised however to see a few attendees completely ignore the dress code and come in casual weekend wear.

Clark Gable and Constance Bennett in After Office Hours, 1934Volodya and I had a few amusing wardrobe misadventures that made the beginning of the evening memorable: first the bottle of soda water I opened at home burst into a fountain all over the front of my dress breast to thigh; then Volodya discovered a button on jacket was hanging by a thread so that I had to resew it on; on the way to his car my favourite dainty black heels broke and I had to run back upstairs to find inferior replacements; and finally after we exited the car, I spotted a stubborn white mark on Volodya’s rear, which I had to remove with the aid of a bit of spit and a tissue. Fortunately we both have a sense of humour. It was like a sitcom, but only the prelude to a hilarious evening with lots of laughter.

So go on, dress up – and live the movie of your own life.

Coco Chanel’s 201 gown from 1933; illustration by Carl Erickson

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