Blue Mountains, NSW: Vintage clothing shopping and retro festivals

They don’t make clothes like they used to – which is all the more reason for wearing them, writes Caroline Gladstone.

Samantha Miller is in grey silk, a fantastic home-made creation with plunging neckline and handkerchief hem. Her husband, George, sports a cream three-piece linen suit – very Somerset Maugham – and her mother, Marina, looks divine in a black number with flounces and diamantes.

This is their look for a tango party at the Art Deco cocktail bar of Katoomba's Paragon Cafe, one of the events of a Roaring 20s festival.

Across the room Isabelle Lyttle has a genuine fox draped over her flapper dress and the whole scene, in the glittering jewel box of a room, is a flurry of fringes, feathers and fascinators. You might expect Phryne Fisher (a la Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries) to walk through the door, cigarette holder in hand.

A few weeks later this group of friends swapped boas and sequins for Regency dresses, bonnets and parasols to attend the Jane Austen festival in Canberra. Over three days the women emulated Elizabeth Bennet and men struck brooding poses in Mr Darcy lookalike contests, while English country-dancing and promenading were the order of the day.

At the tango night I meet a woman who's keen to attend the original Austen festival, held in Bath each September, when the grand English city turns into an 18th-century pageant with 600 participants dressed in historical attire to celebrate the famous novelist. 

Once you wear vintage clothes you lose yourself and became one with the era.

Women have always loved to dress up; it's in our DNA and dates back to childhood when it was heaven to rummage through grandma's cast-offs and play with mum's make-up.

These days there's a growing band of women, and a few men, who not only frock up for fun but get into costume to escape into a bygone era.

My tango outfit of black slit skirt, fishnets and peacock-embossed shawl was hastily cobbled together and I cursed my lack of time and panache for not achieving a more authentic look.

But not so the people I meet as I do the rounds of vintage festival and fairs. They wear a startling array of fabulous outfits.

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The popularity of Baz Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby had me pondering our fascination with nostalgia and escapism. Do we desire to live in an era where everything is perceived as more glamorous and romantic than our own, just like the characters in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris?

Lorna McKenzie, a vintage clothes and costume seamstress, tends to agree. She says that once you wear vintage clothes you lose yourself and became one with the era. That certainly explained the number of women I've met who adopt pseudonyms once they put on a retro outfit.

Chrissy Keepence, whose Lindy Charm School for Girls conducts 1930-1960s hair-styling and make-up workshops, says her aim is to enhance glamour and promote confidence. For a decade she's taught women the art of pin-up girl make-up and how to coerce hair into victory rolls and snoods (nets) as she travels the circuit of vintage events.

Sisters Sharon Hanley and Teena Borg, who make reproduction 1940s and 50s fashion at Retrospec'd in Newtown, say their clothes are a hit because they're feminine, flattering and they fit. Their designs are worn by top models as well as women who simply love full skirts and stylish twinsets. They snap them up for weddings and themed birthday parties, and one such dress was worn by a contestant on The Voice

This desire for glamour, I discovered, is not confined to any one historical period. 

Lorna McKenzie's company, The Tailor's Apprentice, makes clothes from the Italian Renaissance era to the 1940s, although her favourite is the Regency period dating from 790 to 1830. She will create a "day-dress" for about $200 and a wedding gown from $1200 and runs 10-week classes for those who want to make their own costume for an event. 

Bespoke and tailor-made clothes can come at a price, but finding a unique item for a few dollars is easy these days – just take a stroll along King Street, Newtown, which is crammed with vintage shops, or hit the backstreets of Surry Hills and Darlinghurst. 

Newtown's Red Cross store has also caught the craze and is decorated with 1930s and World War II posters and has racks bulging with quality bygone bargains.

Cool climate retreats tend to attract retro retailers and fans will find stalls galore at the weekly markets in the Blue Mountains and little pockets of flashback fashion in the NSW Southern Highlands and the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne.   

While some traditional vintage stores have closed after taking a battering from eBay and online retailers, others have survived by offering a mix of shop front, Facebook and market stall options.

Nicole Jenkins, owner of Melbourne-based Circa Vintage Clothing moved her street-level city store to a first-floor location to save on rent, and gives talks on art deco fashion at various fairs including the Strictly Vintage market at Melbourne's Northcote Town Hall. A costume designer and author, her latest book, Style is Eternal (a self-help guide to looking classy in classics), will be launched in December.

For those who have the clothes and want to show them off, there are many opportunities. Napier, on New Zealand's east coast, holds two annual Art Deco festivals, where folks shimmy and Charleston in authentic surroundings. Devastated by an earthquake in 1931, the city was completely rebuilt in the architectural style of the day and has UNESCO World Heritage status for the sheer number of classic art deco buildings. 

Its big event is the four-day festival in February attracting 35,000 people for a packed program of Gatsby balls, tea parties, car parades, bathing belle competitions and a Depression Dinner, where rags rather than riches are worn.

The Blue Mountains' late 19th and early 20th-century buildings are also being used to stage nostalgic gatherings thanks to local resident Sandy Luxford who created the Roaring 20s and All that Jazz festival five years ago. Now directed by dancer Angela Corkeron the three-week event in February includes Speakeasy nights at the Avalon Restaurant (a former 1930s picture theatre), a grand art deco ball at the historic Carrington Hotel and Gatsby soirees on the pillared terrace of the Nineteen23 restaurant at Wentworth Falls. And Paragon Cafe's enthusiastic owner, Robyn Parker, hosts cabarets and tango, along with regular classic movie matinees in her quest to return the Katoomba icon to its former glory.

For retro fans who prefer something a little more "modern", The Fifties Fair at heritage-listed Rose Seidler House in Sydney's Wahroonga, is de rigueur.

Held every August, it attracts 6000 aficionados, many of whom are not content with an annual dress-up but inhabit the lifestyle year-round with their 1950s cars, homes and dance routines. 

The fifties is one of the most popular eras for dress-up fans as it heralded an end to war-time austerity and a return to glamour in the form of swing skirts and sexy pencil skirts teamed with seamed stockings. Regular festival attendee Julia Newbould says she feels like a celebrity when she poses for photos in her sailor-inspired wiggle dress, sunglasses and wide-brimmed hat leaning against a friend's silver Cadillac.

But for those, like me, who struggle to pull it all together there is help at hand at the vintage fairs and markets that travel the country offering a variety of outlets under one roof.

At a Sydney fair I met Wollongong resident Rachel Watts, who adopts the pseudonym "Miss Pearly Shells" when in costume. She stood out from the crowd in a lovely blue 1950s dress and cute floral and net hat she bought in New York.   

As I wandered the 40 stands laden with clothes and must-have-knick-knacks I was taken by a sheer, tangerine negligee (or was it a brunch coat?) that screamed "Doris Day" and I visualised my childhood idol wearing it breakfasting with Rock Hudson. 

But I was on the hunt for a 1920s tango outfit – something to rival the likes of Samantha Miller's silk number and perhaps a long cigarette holder too.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitbluemountains.com.au 

GETTING THERE

The Blue Mountains is about a 90-minute drive west from Sydney. 

STAYING THERE

Mountain Heritage Hotel was built in 1913 and has several art deco features. Cnr Apex & Lovell streets, Katoomba. 02-4782 2155. From: $258 for a heritage room on a Saturday night. See mountainheritage.com.au 

DINING THERE

The Paragon Cafe sells handmade chocolates and has an all-day cafe and a restaurant open for dinner on Saturday nights only. The cocktail bar screens vintage movies every second Wednesday of the month at 11am and once a month on Saturdays at 7.30pm.  

65 Katoomba St, Katoomba. 02-4782 2928; facebook.com/TheParagonCafe

WHERE TO STRUT YOUR STUFF

Blue Mountains Roaring 20s and All That Jazz Festival

February 7-22, 2015, see roaring20s.com.au 

Tremains Art Deco Weekend, Napier (New Zealand)

February 18-22, 2015, see artdeconapier.com 

Jane Austen Festival, Canberra

Easter weekend April 3-6, 2015, see janeaustenfestival.com 

WHERE TO SHOP

Mulberry Street Vintage

50 Enmore Rd, Newtown. Mob 0415 176 166, see mulberrystreetvintage.com.au 

Retrospec'd Clothing

451 King St, Newtown. 02 9517 1387, see retrospecd.com      

Clearing the Closet

8 Ross St, Glenbrook, Blue Mountains. (02) 4739 9009

Mrs Peel  

Shop 7, 166 The Mall, Leura, Blue Mountains. (02) 4784 3065, see Modernvintage.com.au 

Circa Vintage

1st floor, Mitchell House, 358 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. (03) 9606 0776, see circavintageclothing.com.au 

GET THE LOOK

1 The Lindy Charm School runs styling workshops and vintage shopping tours. See thelindycharmschoolforgirls.com 

2 Style is Eternal, a book on vintage fashion by author Nicole Jenkins. See mup.com.au/items/9780522866407 

3 The Tailor's Apprentice runs costume and vintage sewing classes in the Blue Mountains and online. See thetailorsapprentice.com.au 

4 Busy Bee Sewing teaches women to make Mad Men, Stepford Wives and Sweetheart dresses. See busybeesewing.com.au 

5 The Cavalcade of History and Fashion is a travelling collection of 8000 vintage gowns and accessories that also holds talks and parades. See thecavalcade.org 

The writer was a guest of Blue Mountains Lithgow & Oberon Tourism and the Mountain Heritage Hotel.

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