ROBERT Albert (Lottie) Lott, Val Eastwood and Noel Tovey are just a few of the camp stars in a new exhibition which is on now at the State Library of Victoria and drew upon loans from the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

Called Bohemian Melbourne, the exhibition looks at the city’s bohemians from the 1860s to the present day, weaving through a history of writers, visual artists, composers, musicians, performers, filmmakers and any others who made an art form of their lives.

One sub-group of bohemia featured in the exhibition is gay culture, or “camp” as it was known in the 1950s — when Melbourne was dour, and homosexual activity was illegal. A lively underground scene developed, often invisible to the mainstream or interpreted as colourful fun, but also the subject of mockery in the press. Gay men and women also had their own codes in dress and language, and they partied in private homes so they wouldn’t be harassed (see main image above — scroll down for caption).

During this time, Val Eastwood, a dancer and swimwear model, opened Val’s Coffee Lounge in Swanston St in Melbourne’s CBD and it became the place to party for the camp crowd, as well as people in the performing arts and other misfits.

Her lounge featured live music and attracted actors such as Barry Humphries and Frank Thring, who would sometimes recite a naughty poem or two. Eastwood also presided in her smart mannish suits, made by an Italian tailor (see image below).

Camp culture and the mainstream came together at the charity arts balls at St Kilda’s Palais de Danse, where guests vied to outdo each other in wildly extravagant costumes or gorgeous cross-dressing. One group went as characters from Kismet, and their outfits were so enormous they had to hire a furniture van to take them to the ball.

For a longer version of this story, visit The Age.

Bohemian Melbourne is on at the Keith Murdoch Gallery, State Library of Victoria until February 22. Details: click here

Val Eastwood at Val's Coffee Lounge, c. 1950s, gelatin silver photograph. (Unknown photographer; Source: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives)

Val Eastwood at Val’s Coffee Lounge, c. 1950s, gelatin silver photograph. (Unknown photographer; Source: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives)

Main image caption: Private drag house party in the 1950s. (Unknown photographer; Source: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.)

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