The comparisons are unavoidable. At this weekend’s Roaring 20s festival in the Blue Mountains, while surrounded by women in beaded dresses with Louise Brooks bobs and dapper men in tweed suits and fedoras, I can’t help but think about the similarities between 1920 and 2020. And, without being too facile, these two eras seem uncomfortably close.
The group has gathered in the ballroom of the Hydro Majestic hotel to dance, sip pink champagne and celebrate being alive. The annual festival is a great excuse to pull out flapper dressers and suspenders, swish around the glorious Art Deco-inspired hotel and raise money for charity. Each year they have a crack at the Charleston challenge, an attempt to break the world record for the most costumed people gathered to dance that instantly recognisable 20s dance. Indeed the community held the record for a few years until a London group snatched it away. Now, while the record is no longer within their grasp, it’s a tradition many locals want to hold onto.
But this year, there’s an edge to all the fun. While there are countless feather boas and sequins, those wearing the yellow uniforms of the RFS are clustered in corners and white plastic donation buckets are scattered along the bar and on lacquered tables. Only weeks ago, many of these people watched terrified as bushfires raced through their region, devouring almost 80% of the Blue Mountains. It doesn’t take long for conversation to turn to the dread they felt at the time, the anger and frustration they feel now and the uncertainty ahead. This is a community that has been hit hard and perhaps there’s some comfort in retreating to an idealised version of the past, if only for an afternoon.
History is never far away in the Blue Mountains. There are several grand old hotels in the area, and ye olde tea shoppes, vintage cars and historic homes seem to sit around every corner. On the night before the festival, we go for dinner at fun retro diner Aunty Eds in Katoomba, which revels in its kitsch Australiana vibe. Yet all these small businesses rely on tourism and visitors are cancelling in their droves. People are anxious and frustrated at what they feel is a lack of apparent action and support.
There is some hope because the community is trying to look after its own. Everyone is rallying around the RFS in particular: recently the tourism industry donated $20,000 to the fireys and at a lunch during the festival, there’s a table full of RFS volunteers, all regularly interrupted by back pats and handshakes from other attendees.
For today everyone is putting aside their anxieties to enjoy the festivities. In between courses, dancing couples from Sydney Swing Katz demonstrate the era’s best moves and there’s the parade of 1920s fashions from the Charlotte Smith Fashion Collection, one of the largest vintage fashion collections in the world. The garments, including a vintage cricketers outfit and a satin drop-waist bridal gown with trailing ivy bouquet, are a reminder that elegance is always in fashion. And then with the lunch over, there’s a raffle of prizes donated by local businesses. The bids are unflaggingly generous and more than $7,000 is raised with all proceeds going to the RFS. On the 29 February, a Gatsby-themed casino night will also be raising funds for the RFS and Katoomba Rotary.
The 1920s were a time of great uncertainty and political and social change, with many communities still reeling from the horrors of war. In recent days, Australians have been forced to contemplate the horrifying realities of climate change, along with the constant unpredictabilities of modern life.
And we’re all – including this small community – trying to gather our strength and move forward. What is different is that the fragile – though ultimately futile – hope in the 1920s that the worst was behind them. For us, it’s almost certain the worst is yet to come. But life – and the show – must go on. While dollars will go a long way to steer us through the crises we face, the coming together of all those affected will mean the difference between destruction and survival.