WE didn’t expect to have a brush with Mr Charles Dickens on a wind-swept day in a tiny town by the Loddon River.
But we did... brushed the smooth, blond silk of a 19th century ladies topper, made by the hand of Mr Dickens’ hatter.
“I nearly fainted when I found the connection,” says Fiona Baverstock, holder of arguably Australia’s most significant private vintage clothing collection.
Dickens used to have an office in the same street as the hatter – Wellington Street, Stand. He was editing a magazine from there and publishing his now-famous novels as an episode a week.
Fiona found a piece written by one of Dickens’ colleagues after the author died, describing a typical day of his, and mentioning the hatters where he bought his hats.
“So, this was made by the man who made Charles Dickens’ hats and I like to think this might have sat on the shelf next to one of his,” Fiona says.
We’re in Eddington. A once thriving goldfields township of industry and manufacturing, now a charming sleepy hollow.
Although this place houses less than 50 people now, Fiona says the businesses squirrelling away here should not be underestimated.
Her own business, Seams Old, is the perfect example.
Fiona was teaching at the Victoria University and living in Melbourne when she and her husband, Keith, started looking for a change of lifestyle.
“We’d been keeping an odd eye on the real estate pages in The Age and I just saw this three line ad for an old Cobb & Co in Eddington, and I didn’t even know where Eddington was,” she says.
“We came and saw it and this was it. But of course it didn’t look like this then... there was 150 years of bit and pieces lying around.
“Renovating was a bit like an archeological dig – the more layers we pulled off, the more things we found.”
Quitting her job and moving to Eddington was the impetus for Fiona and Keith to build a business from Fiona’s passion. Vintage clothing.
“My business is a collection gone mad,” she says.
“I started collecting stuff and it got to the point where I either had to stop collecting or start selling stuff so I could buy some more.”
Fiona’s collection dates back to the 17th century and includes textiles, children’s clothing, significant historic pieces and the dress of the everyday woman in places like 19th century Sandhurst. Where women walked the mud of the goldfields in dresses just like the one pictured above.
“One of the most important pieces I have is a dress from the 1870s that I call Mrs Bendigo – we like to name all the dresses,” she says.
“It belonged to the first European woman to be married on the Sandhurst goldfields and it is the most magnificent dress.”
Fiona started selling pieces of her collection at antique fairs, until she noticed the market changing.
“The demographic attending antique fairs was – like me – getting a bit long in the tooth and the market was dwindling, so we needed to get out to a larger market,” she says.
While on overseas buying trips she noticed the growing trend for specific vintage clothing fairs.
“Nobody here was doing them, so we thought we’d have to.
“Now we run fairs in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart, Geelong and probably Woolongong this year.”
Fiona also curates exhibitions of her collection, in demand across the country. Recent shows have highlighted fashion from the time of the Titanic and the Swinging Sixties.
Her Castle Howard bridal collection also receives a public airing every now and again.
The collection came from the country estate used in the TV series Brideshead Revisited, which once housed the largest costume and textile collection in Europe.
Fiona bought her share of it at a Sotheby’s auction in the UK.
But pomp and ceremony aside, for Fiona, some of the most special pieces are the ones that tell the stories of the everyday people.
Like the suffragettes – the women of the late 19th, early 20th century right to vote movement.
“The most significant thing anyone every brought to me was a piece of jewellery,” Fiona says.
“The minute I looked at it I had one of those awful moments – will I tell them what it is, or will I make them an offer and take it off their hands? But honesty prevailed.
“It was a piece of suffragette jewellery.
“I told this lady the piece was worth a considerable amount and it was something her family needed to keep and treasure.
“I’m a historian originally, that’s what interests me about it. It’s social history.”
Fiona says another valued piece of her collection is a pair of detached sleeves from a ladies dress, embellished with tiny off white buttons, criss crossed in mauve and green thread.
White, purple and green are the colours of the suffragettes.
Fiona says often these women couldn’t voice their opinions, so they found a way to show other supporters the way they felt, through wearing the three colours. Sometimes ever so discreetly.
“I can take a garment and tell you about the lifestyle of the person who wore it – whether they were well-off or not, the type of technological developments that were happening at that time,” Fiona says.
For our viewing pleasure, she shows us a black and salmon beaded 1920s frock from fair Paris, named Sylvie.
It’s just the sort of thing the girls from Downton Abbey are wearing right now. We can only imagine the parties this beauty has seen.