Night Life at Barwon Park Mansion

One of the best things about summer is road tripping, especially when your destination is a historic mansion hosting a fashion exhibition.nlposter

I’m quite a fan of visiting National Trust properties but it took the lure of Night Life, an exhibition of evening wear from the 1920s-30s, to get me and my fellow travellers to Barwon Park Mansion.nl15

I’m not sure whether the mansion ever hosted fancy soirees in this era, but the decadently decorated frocks and gowns looked right at home thanks to the stylish sets and clever lighting.


Photo: Jess Hood


The exhibition begins with a room of black dresses, which proved somewhat tricky to capture on my phone’s camera, but I did want to show you this one in particular – not just because of the scene-setting silhouette in the background. The dress is apparently made from rows and rows of velvet ribbon – perhaps an example of Depression era resourcefulness – so it’s something to keep in mind as a potential DIY idea if you have lots of leftover strips of fabric from sewing projects.

ribbon dress Barwon

This fur cape, on the other hand, is so luxurious it must have been from the 1920s (as you can see, I didn’t take notes. Oops!). The fur, I’m not so keen on, but the lining is another matter. Such vibrancy of colour and print!

Barwon Park Mansion historical fashion

Embellishment is one of the key themes of the exhibition, exemplified here in the stunning embroidery and fringing on the silk shawl on the left, the bold print of the figure-flaunting dress in the centre and the intricate glass beading of the coral coloured cape dress on the right.

Barwon Park Mansion National Trust fashion

Not that I should play favourites, but this dress was definitely a highlight for me, in part because of the unusual colour and extensive beading and sequin work, but also because of the apparently simple yet infinitely flattering cut which is in actual fact probably extremely difficult to achieve. I’m tempted to have a go at creating something similar but have already resigned myself to the knowledge that whatever I make is not going to look anywhere near this brilliant (on the plus side, without all-over beading, it won’t be anywhere near as heavy to wear!).


Photo: Stuart Chen

Given the weight of the beading and the fragility of the fabrics back then, it was extraordinary that anyone dared to move for fear of ripping their dresses, let alone go wild and crazy doing the Charleston in nights out on the town. But dance they did, a fact to which several of the garments attest in the form of torn and shattered fabric. This dress is embroidered with cherry blossoms, but it’s the damage rather than the beauty of the beadwork that is the main purpose of the display (not that you can see the various tears and stains in this shot).beading chiffon

Speaking of damage, we looked through the remaining rooms after we’d finished admiring the exhibition and decided the mansion itself could use a little love. The National Trust does such great work in preserving our past, but it has its work cut out for it at properties like this one that are slightly off the beaten track. So if you were looking for a reason to go on a road trip to this exhibition (apart from getting to see exquisite workmanship and gorgeous designs from an era of unparalleled glamour, that is), supporting the National Trust is as good an excuse as any!