Melbourne fashion has always been influenced by the wider shifts in taste occurring in Europe. In the mid to late 19th century, the popularity of heavy fabrics and dark colours in Melbourne upper-class male attire reflected the European fashion with little adjustment made for hot summers. Climate, however, has been one of the most significant non-European influences on Melbourne fashion. From debates over the clothing of larrikins and gangs, to furores over bathing costumes or miniskirts, Melbourne fashion has mirrored broader concerns about consumerism, class, gender and youth culture.
Practicality has not always directed fashion developments in Melbourne. When crinolines became popular in Melbourne in the 1850s, it was not uncommon for pedestrians to witness a woman riding to a ball with a crinoline strapped to the saddle of her horse. In 1913, after a baby was speared through the eye, a city by-law prohibited the wearing of dangerous hatpins, some of which protruded 3 in from the wearer's head.
The two economic booms in 19th-century Melbourne had a significant effect on the city's fashion. In the age of Marvellous Melbourne, many of Melbourne's elite prided themselves on their awareness and adoption of the latest fashions from Paris (and, to a lesser degree, London). Newspapers were littered with self-congratulatory comparisons to that 'gay city' as they described the promenading elites 'doing the Block'. Some overseas visitors, however, were less impressed, referring to the locals as 'fresh and flashy' and part of a 'perambulating zoo'.
The late 19th century witnessed the rise of the rag trade in Flinders Lane. The lane was home to a constellation of warehouses that produced and sold clothing (including, later on, labels such as Sportscraft and Stafford Ellison). Following a decline in the 1970s, by the end of the 20th century the precinct had again become a location where innovative clothing was designed, constructed and sold.
From the rise of shopping strips such as Chapel Street to the introduction of fashion parades at department stores, Melbourne's retail geography has been intimately shaped by fashion economics and consciousness. In the 1950s, a nexus between consumption, mass-media advertising and postwar economic prosperity allowed for the widespread distribution of ideas about fashion. This period marked a substantial shift, as individuals previously immune to the grip of fashion were drawn in. Fashion was transformed from an elite pursuit to a cultural commodity with widespread appeal. As a 1955 advertisement from the Australian Women's Weekly so aptly expressed it, 'they'll whisper about you ... [but if you use our personal product] then you can be sure of social acceptance'. Being fashionable became a more widely pursued ambition.
The horseracing seasons have always been an integral part of Melbourne's fashion calendar. It was not uncommon for Flinders Lane rag-traders to employ an extra 100 staff to prepare for the season. Prue Acton, who in 1963 opened a business on Flinders Lane, owes much of her later fame to the various ensembles she designed for the Melbourne Cup. One of her more notorious outfits was called Earth - celebrating minerals and comprised a pigskin suede jacket and skirt decorated with nickel pods. The Prue Acton collection of clothing and accessories is held by Museum Victoria. The Fashions on the Field competition has been part of the official program at Flemington racecourse since 1962; the sense of one-upmanship, however, has been part of the social fabric at the races for much longer, and is annually parodied in the fancy dress of picnickers in the carpark and public areas.
In 1965 Jean Shrimpton caused probably the biggest fashion ruckus of any race day. The London model, flown in for Derby Day, shocked the members gallery by appearing, without a hat or gloves, in a white shift a full 4 inches (10 cm) above the knee. Local fashion writers were appalled. The scandal that erupted was reported in the international press, and Yves Saint Laurent issued a statement from Paris remarking that 'that girl has done something for women's dress that those gossipy ladies will never do'.
With a week-long program every March of catwalk shows and product launches, as well as a film and arts program, the Melbourne Fashion Festival was established in 1997 as a joint initiative of the Melbourne City Council, the State Government, and the fashion and retail industries.