The Night Life at Rippon Lea: a fashion exhibition of the 1920s and 30s

The chink of champagne glasses held aloft, the refinement of dancing the night away to the latest soundtracks in intricate beading, dark silk, and lace, and an era when women’s freedoms were more pronounced are all charmingly evoked at the newest exhibition to grace the picturesque Rippon Lea Estate in The Night Life Exhibition.


Inspired by Art Deco holdings in The National Trust‘s clothes archives, curator Elizabeth-Anna Petrivna brings to life the evening scene and social engagements of 1920-1930s Melbourne. Be amazed at the excellent condition of dresses almost 100 years old, all original donations. As if by magic, they appear before you, alive again for party times!

Rippon Lea Estate

Be greeted at the entrance of Rippon Lea by an affable volunteer and shown a selection of retro imitation outfits you can sport while wandering the house. Laugh as musical tones of ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ bounce out of a cute radiola, once the latest in modern musical technology. 

Up the grand heritage staircase with leadlight windows and original 1880s wallpaper, the dresses explode into colour — reds, oranges and pinks. Boyish lines dominate the earlier 1920s, with cropped necklines and blunt hems. More feminine shapes and tone returned in the 1930s. Dress after dress is a work of art. We revel in their handcrafted construction. From an age just crossing into mass machine production, it is fitting to delight again in the handiwork of many local couturiers.

Marvel at heavy beaded dresses, weird experimental shapes inspired by nature, and new international trends in design. As hemlines elevated, shoes became a more important feature. One room is full of cases of shoes so delicate you can’t imagine them ever exiting the house.

An interactive sewing room allows you to embroider on a taber, as well as gaining insight into dress construction and preservation. This exhibition also offers a series of themed public events and educational workshops. There are the 1930s Soiree on 25 June, a Puttin’ On The Ritz ball on 29 July, and many design workshops.

Rippon Lea Estate

Exhibition entry permits entry to the fabled grounds, so sneak-a-peek outside at their Victorian fernery and grotto, stables, Hollywood-style in-ground pool, and elegant deep front lawn. 

Catch an insight into the devilish danger of after-dark socialising, and of the newly modern world, with motor cars, gangsters, dance halls, and risks to a person’s morality. If you ever fancied yourself as a flapper, or upper-crust dame, this is your show!

– Sarah
Sarah W. is a dance-trained theatre lover with a flair for the bold, and non-traditional performance platforms. On-the-street, or in the box seat, she looks for quality works that push the envelope.

Night Life shows 5 May–31 July 2017, 10am-4pm, daily (incl. public holidays) at Ripponlea Estate. Purchase tickets now.
venue is partly accessible.

Associated events include:

Disclosure: The Plus Ones were the guests of The National Trust.
Image credit: The National Trust.