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Doing the Block

From the 1860s to the 1930s, the section of Collins Street between Elizabeth and Swanston streets, popularly known as 'the Block', was Melbourne's most fashionable promenade, the local equivalent of London's Regent Street. Lying in the hollow between the business houses of the west and the more domestic ambience of the east, the Block was a convenient place of rendezvous for gentlemen and ladies. Here, on weekday afternoons between 3.30 and 5.30 and on Saturdays between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., Melbourne Society was on show, as the fashionably dressed paraded back and forth along the shady northern side of the street in a ritual popularly known as 'doing the Block'. 'To the great majority', the Argus observed in 1919, 'the Block is a kind of vast, open-air club with unlimited membership. It is a promenade without a band, a carnival without confetti, a Rotten Row without the horses.'

'Doing the Block' had only one aim - to see and be seen by one's fellows - but an important part of the performance, on the part of women especially, was to feign a lofty indifference to the appraising gaze of others. 'A lady never forms an acquaintance on the street, or seeks to attract the attention of persons of the other sex', decreed Australian etiquette (1885). In practice, this code was regularly broken. In her autobiographical novel The getting of wisdom (1910), Henry Handel Richardson describes the complex exchange of smiles and glances by which her schoolgirl heroines attracted the attentions of the 'high-collared young dudes' who lined the pavements. Such mild transgressions lived in the memories of those who 'did the Block' - the day a fashionable lady first smoked a cigarette in the Vienna Café or the morning a schoolgirl braved her father's displeasure by riding 'outside' on the dummy of a cable tram.

The Block had already become a fashionable promenade when S.T. Gill sketched the scene in the 1860s, but it came into its own in the late 1870s with the opening of Gunstler's Café and Mullens' Bookshop and Lending Library in new premises midway down the street. Gunstler's (from 1890 the Vienna Café) became a favourite rendezvous for clubmen, journalists, musicians and theatrical people. Bookseller Samuel Mullens' was a mecca for the novel-reading classes. 'You always met anyone you wanted to meet at Mullens' of a Saturday morning', a Society matron recalled. The adjoining frontages housed the city's finest milliners, costumieres, glove-importers, portrait painters, photographers and hairdressers. In Georges, the city's most elegant emporium, ladies could linger amid ferns and palm fronds, listening to the lap of fountains and the strains of a German band. Thousands of Melbourne schoolgirls, including the young Nellie Melba, took voice and piano lessons from Allan's, Glen's and Paling's nearby music stores. In September 1889 Allans, Glen's and Georges were consumed by a great fire. The Block Arcade (1891-93), which arose in their place, added a new level of elegance to the city's favourite promenade by creating semi-public space where ladies could walk and shop, secluded from the dust and heat of the street. In crowded workrooms high above, shabby genteel young women worked long and hard to create the hats and dresses that adorned the beautiful people on the street.

Collins Street remained Melbourne's most fashionable shopping street long after 'doing the Block' had ceased to be its favourite social ritual. By the 1930s older Melburnians looked back nostalgically to a day before the automobile, the electric tram, the Great War and the short skirt robbed the street of its magic. 'The Melbourne Block has a world-wide reputation', the Argus reflected sadly in 1930, 'not for what it is today but for what it was 40 years ago'.

Graeme Davison