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Merry go roundIt being school holidays my friend Jess and I decided to take the smalls to Circus Factory at the Powerhouse Museum. We thought it might be more fun for them than us. How wrong we were!

Wending our way through two lower floors of amusements, performances and other curiosities – including an authentic Gypsy caravan from the early 19th century – we finally arrived at the costume collection.

Gypsy caravan

Situated on the third floor, we realised this extraordinary archive of circus costumes and accessories was the lemon butter on top of a prizewinning cake of an exhibition. Definitely up there with a V&A presentation, it made me wish I’d bought a season pass so I could visit another few times to soak it all in. At AU$35, the one-off entrance fee is a bit pricey but hot damn it’s worth it.

I was so enthralled, an attendant was obliged to warn me of Olive running up and down the viewing paths, hooting at the top of her lungs… I was so totally lost reading up on all the descriptions, off in a fantasy imagining where those pieces might have been. Who were their original owners, I wondered, and where were they now? How had these incredibly hard-worn threads managed to survive all these years?

If the same costumes had been around while I was researching and writing my last novel, I’d have been in heaven. Or at least camped out at the Powerhouse for a week. I had to be satisfied browsing through books on Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes instead, and ended up scouring the markets, with only one or two really good finds to show for my days of toil. That was about this time last year. And I spent tens of hours lost in an Etsy wormhole researching vintage dresses and dancing paraphernalia from the Belle Epoque era to 1920s, without much success. It wasn’t a hardship but I really wish these had been around then, because one of the characters in my new novel is a trapeze artist (I may as well introduce you to her now; an Austro-Hungarian beauty who falls in love with the circus’ resident Strong Man).

My character started off being inspired by Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, but she definitely grew into herself as the writing wore on. Actually, it’s not fair to say the writing wore on at all, because at times she almost wrote herself. It was a matter of my fingers keeping up with her story – always a blessed relief when others seem so difficult to wrangle onto the page.

Anyway, back to the costumes. Designed and embellished and meticulously repaired, I had to be pulled away from these exquisite pieces (literally, Olive had grown quite bored by that stage), but I may go back soon. Here’s some of my favourites – the photos don’t do them justice.

Tightrope costume

Circus headpiece

Repair kit concealed under porcelain doll's skirt

Repair kit concealed under porcelain doll’s skirt

Capes

Send in the clowns

Send in the clowns 4

Band leader

Send in the clowns 2

Send in the clowns 3

History is what’s always drawn me to vintage clothing. So much more exciting than new things, don’t you think? Dangerous, even.

I once bought a fringed tan leather skirt from a willowy actress-slash-model, and she told me that skirt had seen some wild parties in her day. Whether it was the preface she’d given me, or something ingrained in the supple leather hide of that barely-there skirt, I’ll never know, but I went on to have a good few nights of partying wearing her myself. I hope she’s still making memories (alas, I passed her on when I feared I was becoming too old for miniskirts, but have since bought two or three… there goes that theory; today I simply don’t care). And my love of vintage is what caused me to start writing fiction with an historical element in the first place. I don’t know why, but I feel the inexorable pull of the past whenever I see or touch a vintage dress… it’s my form of catnip. That and Reese’s butter cups.

This is probably a good time to mention Australia’s first Historical Novel Society Conference, to be held between 20-22 March this year. What can fiction writers learn from historians? A lot, I imagine. I’m looking forward to hearing authors such as Kate Forsyth, Colin Falconer, Toni Jordan, Jesse Blackadder and many more speak on the theme, ‘The Historical Novel in Peace and War’, and will be thinking about what characters were wearing, at all times.

More on that later, but have I convinced you for the time being to visit Circus Factory? Make haste – this wonderfully curated show won’t be on forever.

Programme