The National Costume Museum The National Costume Museum, Lobethal: In the Adelaide Hills region of South Australia

For years women have put themselves through all kinds of dietary, cosmetic and financial torture - all in the name of fashion. And at the National Costume Museum at Lobethal in the Adelaide Hills, curator Helen Hughes has collected an amazing array of haut couture - much of it donated following country fashion parades.

“We used to do parades all over the State and after we finished the ladies would come to me and say I'm shifting into the town into a new unit and I've got such a lot of old stuff would you like it? And sometimes we would come home with more than we'd taken and there were some amazing treasures amongst them that you would never get today.”

Like one of the dresses worn by the legendary journalist Daisy Bates, who spent almost thirty years in the desert at Ooldea in South Australia recording details of aboriginal culture. Bates - who for a short time was married to Breaker Morant - was determined to keep up appearances whether camped out in the Nullabor or entertaining high society in Adelaide.

“That is actually Daisy Sates' costume that she used to wear when she did lectures in Adelaide. She always stayed at was then The Hotel on North Terrace.”

Much of the fashion enables us to recall social custom and practice from previous generations like the dress worn by an Adelaide socialite who attended the official opening of the first Australian Parliament in 1901.

“Owing to the fact that Queen Victoria had died the Empire was still in morning for a year. All the ladies would preferably wear black but they could use diamonds or pearls as a relief from all black. So this lady obviously had a lovely string of pearls as they did in those days and made the most of it.”

The dress also had a tiny trim of white lace.

“You were allowed to put that in after twelve months of heavy mourning and then they went into grey and light blue. By the end of two years you could go back to colours. But by then somebody else had died so you started all over again.”

Fashion has often been about starting all over again - drawing inspiration from past designs and taking them in a slightly different direction. Along the way there have been numerous victims of fashion including many of the women who wore these garments.

“I read of one famous actress who had a thirteen inch waste. But she had two ribs taken out so that she could have a thirteen-inch waste. So you can imagine it was the true ‘hour glass’ figure.”

Thankfully, some peculiarities have been consigned to the wardrobes of the past. Like the bussel. It was meant to accentuate a woman's figure but it also provided a neat little hiding place for things like dancing shoes and, in the case of some light fingered shop lifters, a neat little hiding place for stolen goods.

“I think it would be interesting these days if you had a notice up. ‘Please may we search your bussel before you leave the store.’ Because evidently it was a well known fact that ladies could put all sorts of bits and pieces in there and not be found.”

“No need for a hand bag. Do you think it might come back these days?”

“Well. I think ladies seem to have substituted their handbags these days. And I'd hate to hear a phone come from the back of a bussel!”

The museum provides a wonderful opportunity to parade down the catwalk of history. Like the little number with a bussel that dates back to 1878. It would have been worn for a formal afternoon visit where guests might have popped in for tea.

Then there’s the early gymnasium outfit from 1928, complete with cotton bloomers and black stockings. There’s also a pure silk jersey dress made by the famous Italian designer Emilio Pucci in the 60s. It was an exclusive one-off with its own personal signature in the fabric and it cost two hundred pounds.

That's just a selection of what's on offer at the National Costume Museum. It's in the Adelaide Hills Business and Tourism Centre - formerly the Onkaparinga Woollen Mill. And is open Tuesday to Sunday or by appointment.

The National Costume Museum has has now closed and been relocated to a new location to be advised.

Updated 15th August 2011

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