I have a complicated relationship with the past.
It’s always there for me: old houses, cars, furniture, music, books and of course – fashion. It’s my whole life and I’ve never known anything different – I appreciate that there are those who love to have new things but for me, old is where it’s at.
At various times I’ve dressed head to toe in a particular era – like the purists do – and I’ve also moved through many sub-cultures including mod, rockabilly and goth – but underneath it all, always were the vintage clothes. Sub-cultures tend to draw heavily on the past for their inspiration, an irony I appreciate as they’re generally the preoccupations of the young – but that’s a topic for another day.
I like to mix it up – and that’s the fortunate position that we are in, as modern women and men. Never have we had so much access to so many things and we can pick and choose what we want from the past and adapt it to our purposes.
I find those adaptations fascinating and love finding the layers in vintage clothing. There’s a temptation to think that a gown was worn once and then put away, for decades, until we discover it and make it our own but the reality is that most vintage clothes have been altered or updated to suit a new purpose or a new wearer – and the older the piece, the more likely it is to have been re-purposed.
So it is with vintage cars, furniture and architecture.
Yesterday I visited Labassa for a photo shoot – it’s always a pleasure to see the Grand Dame, and I was treated to a personal tour of some of the rooms that aren’t open to the public. I love historic mansions and perhaps my favourite in Melbourne is Labassa, built in the French Renaissance style in 1862. Yesterday was overcast and it suited the dark, faded grandeur nicely.
Most National Trust properties spend time in private hands, the homes of well off families and are handed down through inheritance before eventually finding their way to the NT. Labassa, on the other hand spent most of the 20th century neglected. Like many big old houses, it was broken up into flats in the ’20s.
Thankfully the original features and room sizes were retained but left to fall into disrepair. It provided cheap dwellings for those who appreciated its good location and opulent fittings. Many of the tenants were artists, writers and performers and it’s this period that I find the most interesting.
I like to imagine what it would have been like, living in one enormous room of this fabulous house, perhaps with a rough bathroom fashioned out of a maid’s closet or a lean-to attached to the side of the mansion. Perhaps coming out in that fabulous hallway in the middle of the night to bump into another resident. They must have shared a great sense of community, the people who lived in this rather unfashionable old house with its difficult to heat high ceilings and wide corridors.
Originally the mansion probably sat in the midst of large gardens, as Rippon Lea and Como still do – but they were sold off and developed, so the house is now crowded on a small block with houses around it. It could be worse though – the magnificent frontage used to be obscured from the street by a house. Thankfully there was a campaign to buy it and it was duly demolished.
There must have been a lot of cheering when that came down!
I find it remarkable that so much of the original house remains – I’ve lived in a lot of old houses and flats, and it’s common for features to have been removed. My own home (the Deco War Baby, circa 1942) is unrenovated but previous tenants had stripped everything they could, including light fittings and door knobs. Even some of the doors have been replaced. Thankfully it still has the original fireplace, architraves and picture rails (I’ll post pics one day).
Labassa still has the original wallpaper in many rooms – now faded to brown, it was originally bright gold and some portions have been restored revealing the brilliance. In the ’70s some rooms were covered up with contemporary wallpaper but it has been removed. If you look carefully, you can see the lines where the paper joined. The famous trompe l’oeil ceiling over the staircase was also covered with a false ceiling – that must have been wonderful to discover!
You can still see many signs of the previous residents though – one wall is painted silver (!) and another door has the faded remnants of an union jack paint job. Some bathrooms show fittings from the ’50s. An enormous butler’s pantry is half in one room, and half in another. As much as I love the original features, I also love these more modern adaptations, reminding us of the life that this wonderful house has lived – not just as a museum but as a living home.
When I first saw these tiles, the condition suggested they were ’70s additions installed during the nostalgic revival – but no, they’re the original 1860s tiles, presumably restored. I love the soft colours.
I was pleased to see that I have two small personal links to Labassa – both through poets. I met resident Adrian Rawlings through my husband, Tim Hamilton and my father was a friend of Kenneth Slessor’s, who immortalised Labassa resident Joe Lynch in “Five Bells”.
From “Five Bells”:
All without meaning now, except a sign
That someone had been living who now was dead:
“At Labassa. Room 6 x 8
On top of the tower; because of this, very dark
And cold in winter. Everything has been stowed
Into this room – 500 books all shapes
And colours, dealt across the floor
And over sills and on the laps of chairs;
Guns, photoes of many differant things
And differant curioes that I obtained…”
Labassa is currently gracing our TV screens as one of the settings in “Underbelly Squizzy”, and was also used in “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” and many other productions. A social history of Labassa is being compiled and you can see photos of past residents here – if you have any information please contact Vicki Shuttleworth.
I’ll be appraising your vintage fashion items for a small donation for the National Trust on August 18th, if you’d like to come along and support this very worthy cause and see some of the magnificence of Labassa. I hear that there will be a scrummy morning and afternoon tea too.
Here’s where you’ll find me:
Pic courtesy National Trust – all other images my own.