Forget the pioneering days of the rush - instead dig the nostalgia of Ballarat's new vintage scene, writes Belinda Jackson.
"It all started with my glasses. I always wanted cat's-eye glasses," says Miss Lulu. Perched on a high bar stool, her redskin margarita is as pink as her hair, which is teased into sky-high 1940s curls. Was I the only person in Ballarat who didn't know they're called victory rolls?
"Vintage just suits Ballarat," says the self-styled 1940s pin-curl pin-up, whose glittering bolero jacket, black bustier, deep cleavage and wide skirts have the whole restaurant entranced.
Ballarat's always had a nostalgic scent about it - the re-created gold rush town of Sovereign Hill is on the city's outskirts and the main drag, Sturt Street, is lined with monuments to past glories, from the Boer War to Burke and Wills's inland excursion. There's a bandstand dedicated to Queen Alexandra (King Edward VII's missus), squat Queen Victoria overlooks the rotundas, turrets and cenotaphs, and the old Southern Cross flag of the Eureka Stockade hangs in the beautiful art gallery. The top hotel is Craig's Royal and the theatre is Her Majesty's, one of the best preserved in the country.
But Victoria's third-largest city has a new groove, with a rush of fresh blood bringing a 1940s-'70s vintage scene to town, spearheaded by the likes of Miss Lulu who, in three hours, will transform you from trakky-dakked slob to pert and perky '50s pin-up girl or goth rockabilly - or perhaps your heart's more psychobilly? With your newly set big hair, red lips and a wiggle in your walk, it's time to hit the streets to dress the part.
This is the swimsuit for the curvalicious.
First stop is a burgeoning vintage enclave on Main Road, headed by That Little Vintage Shop, a cornucopia of fox furs, fabulously wide-brimmed hats, '60s knits and evening coats harking back to days when it took time to get dressed.
Owner Jennifer Bottomley studied fashion in '60s London and has been running the shop for 17 years. "Y'all right there, love?" she calls out to a customer, her northern English accent weaving through the piles of clothes. Her collection dates from the 1920s, but the '80s is quite '20s, she says as she runs a hand over a $1000 Canadian raccoon fur, designed for pleasurable stroking.
Across the road, cute little '50s-style cafe Cake Bakeshop sells old-fashioned paper straws, invitations and party favours for baby showers and kitchen teas while churning out the cupcakes, coffee and macarons in old-school lolly flavours.
Nearby, Antiques, Goods & Chattels suggests serious fustiness, but it's awash with '60s kitchenalia and garagenalia, and a carousel horse greets me on entrance. I snap up a fabulous old wooden painter's stepladder, still authentically spattered with paint, perfect for slinging some woven Arabian saddlebags over (or for changing light bulbs).
It's on the next block down on Main Road that this vintage scene starts to become serious.
My Sister Pat designs and manufactures beautiful '50s-inspired swimsuits - more like playsuits - with classic halter and tie necks and boylegs that bestow instant booty. I clamber out of my jeans and into a super-cute little blue-and-white polka dot number and, va va voom, I'm transformed into instant '50s pool kitten. A very slim woman is in the next cubicle; you know, the type who rocks a bikini. Is it mean to note that in the same style swimsuit, she just looks ... well, left wanting, to be perfectly frank? This is the ultimate swimsuit for the curvalicious.
Sifting through the racks beside me is Debbie, a rock'n'roll aficionado who's into the Ballarat Rockers, a social rock'n'roll dance club that meets on Friday nights. She's shopping for the perfect outfit for an American rock'n'roll holiday through Memphis, New Orleans and, of course, Las Vegas. "Usually, I make my own," she says, "so I don't look like everyone else."
In an age of mass production, My Sister Pat guarantees that no more than six swimsuits are cut from the same cloth. "Except for the red-and-white polka-dot swimsuit, because everyone wants to be Marilyn," says owner Rosemary Gilbert-Waller. "Except me. I want to be Grace Kelly," she states, flicking the record player as Connie Francis has a little meltdown and starts to jump.
Connie, Grace, Patsy Cline, Audrey Hepburn ... "It's an era of beauty, and it hasn't been lost," Gilbert-Waller says of her label, which is now stocked internationally, from Cannes to Canada. What started off as a vintage shopping trip in Ballarat is fast turning into an education on being womanly and the art of feminine elegance.
"I like going to places where I fit the decor," says the epitome of girlish glamour, Miss Lulu. The newly refurbished Mallow Bar and the cosy Babushka Bar both get the thumbs up for their retro looks, as does high tea on Sunday afternoons at Craig's Royal Hotel, with its '50s chairs and lounges and swish velvet curtains. Eclectic Tastes cafe has a whiff of nanna chic about it, with its knitted tea cosies and teasets, which get the edge thanks to a backdrop of red walls, Mao-pop paraphernalia and raunchy Indian film posters.
The Oceanic Lounge in Portico Wine Bar, on Ballarat's main drag, Sturt Street, is a local favourite as it's a regular venue for the nine-piece Ballarat Ska Orchestra. Yes, Ballarat has its own ska orchestra, belting out its signature '60s Caribbean beats, and it also has its own roller-derby league, where six teams of rockabilly chicks hit the rinks. Expect '70s boardshorts, kneepads and a smattering of tatts.
Vintage chicks say the new Front Bar is your best option for a drink and a little shakin' to some '60s soul sounds without the uni or clubbing crowds. Alternatively, if you were at a loose end on a Wednesday night, you could go go-go dancing. "I just thought, Ballarat needs this!" says Miss Daisy Amazing, a dancer who teaches an enthusiastic crowd the moves of the '60s. And for $12, you, too, can strut out like a retro Miami groover.
To live the vintage dream completely, you'd be shopping at De's Recycled Fashions for '60s nylon dresses - think royal blue with gold paisley - or for vintage crockery and what some say is the town's best coffee at Vegas and Rose, stockist for runaway sensations Trunk & Orderly's handmade weekender and school cases.
And for seriously cool vintage fabrics, haberdashery and the cutest kids' craft gear, The Crafty Squirrel is a must-visit. If you thought crafty equals fusty, the notion is dispelled by designer and uber-craftster Morgan Wills's perky rockabilly 'do, married with an apple-green cardie and a floral apron that on me would scream "frump!" but on her is just damned cool. Every Friday, she dons a vintage apron and pops a photo up on her Facebook page to a bevy of waiting fans.
"I love all that cutesy Japanese and Korean aesthetic, and French vintage," she says, but it's the Australian kitsch that is totally adorable; souvenir tea towels renewed and reborn into cushions that fly off the shelves. The non-sellers appear to be all from Canberra - no comment. Wills steers us down to the edgy Red Brick Gallery, where a nearby power pole, wrapped in crocheted rugs, leads the conversation naturally into "yarn bombing", or "knit tagging" if you prefer the English term.
"Ballarat's always been known for its antique shops," says long-time antiques dealer Sherryn Bailey of Antiques, Goods & Chattels, "but many owners are now passing away." In their wake comes the new guard, a wave of crafty artists and tricky-minded business girls. Sure, Ballarat still has Sovereign Hill and its gold rush attractions, but there's life in the old town yet. It's just life from a different era.
The writer was a guest of Ballarat Regional Tourism.
Five other things to do in Ballarat
1 Hire a bike and cruise the lovely Ballarat Botanical Gardens and Buninyong Botanic Gardens, established in the 1860s. Welcome Nugget Bike Hire, 0423 268 618, ballarat.com/ballaratonabike.
2 Well up with pride in front of the original Eureka flag at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, Australia's oldest regional art gallery. artgalleryofballarat.com.au.
3 Buy up at the farmers' markets: Ballarat Fresh Produce Market (first Saturday of the month); Ballarat Lakeside Farmers Market (second and last Saturday); Buninyong Farmers Market (third Saturday).
4 Uncover a hotbed of talent by designers and emerging artists at the quarterly Design Exchange market — October 7, December 16, Mining Exchange, 8 Lydiard Street North, thedesignexchange.com.au.
5 Walk the monuments of Sturt Street: two kilometres of central gardens with bandstands, statues and fountains.
Ballarat is a 75-minute drive from Melbourne. Rental cars can be hired at Tullamarine, or V/Line (vline.com.au). Fast trains operate from Melbourne's Southern Cross Station to Ballarat.
Martin Place sleeps nine at a pinch in two queen bedrooms and bunks in the kids' room, which is fantastically kitted out with toys and books, and is also pet-friendly. From $215/night midweek, 12 Martin Street, 0429 439 448, www.montroseofballarat.com.au.
De's Recycled Fashions, 202 South Street, (03) 5332 8300.
Miss Lulu's PinCurl Pin-Ups, 0433 207 814.
My Sister Pat, 74A Main Road, mysisterpat.com.au.
Red Brick Gallery and Emporium, 218A Skipton Street, 0402 416 097, redbrickgallery.com.au.
That Little Vintage Shop, 13 Main Road, 0425 731 639.
The Crafty Squirrel, cnr Errard and Urquhart streets, (03) 5331 4548, thecraftysquirrel.com.au.
Vegas and Rose, 96 Humffray Street North, (03) 5332 4287, vegasandrose.com.au.
Living in the vintage scene
Babushka Bar, 59 Humffray Street North.
The Mallow Hotel, 18-20 Skipton Street.
The Front Bar, cnr Mair and Peel streets.
Miss Daisy Amazing's Go-Go Dancing, 14 Camp Street, 0448 314 445.
Ballarat Roller Derby League, ballaratrollerderby.com.au.
Ballarat Ska Orchestra, facebook.com/ballaratskaorchestra.
Ballarat Rockers, ballaratrockers.com.
Ballarat Regional Tourism, (03) 5320 5758, visitballarat.com.au.