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Strictly Ballroom (1992). Image via the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.
Stories & Ideas

Wed 05 Feb 2020

All that glitters: Australian costume designers

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Thara Krishna-Pillay

Programmer, Public Programs, ACMI

Take a tour of iconic Aussie-designed film frocks.

Australian costume designers have never been shy around sequins, beads or feathers. Their flair for all things camp, colourful and flamboyant was showcased in the (aptly named) Glitter Cycle of films from the early 1990s.

Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel’s costumes for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) were a captivating mix of Australiana kitsch and drag queen glam. These Academy Award-winning costumes, created on a very small budget, were bright and bold, referencing native flora and fauna as well as national landmarks. Eye-catching outfits like the dress made entirely of thongs (also known as flip flops) have become part of the pantheon of classic cinema costumes. Nothing was off limits.

Another duo responsible for making the Australian screen shinier was Angus Strathie and Catherine Martin. Their costume design for Strictly Ballroom (1992) was a gateway to the glitzy world of competition ballroom dancing, where there was no such thing as too many sequins. The outfits had a sense of the absurd but were carefully designed so each pair of dancers were colour-coordinated. No matter what was being danced – the Bogo Pogo or the Fruity Rumba – the costumes were perfectly in step with the routine.

Australian costumer designers’ penchant for the outrageous and the glam existed long before Priscilla started on her road trip. Designer Orry-Kelly worked in Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1960s and was responsible for many iconic Hollywood looks. From Casablanca (1942) to An American in Paris (1951), his costumes were witty, adventurous and – on occasion – challenged what was considered ‘decent’. His Academy-Award-winning outfits for Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot (1959) were the most controversial. One frock in particular caused a furor; it had a sheer top with strategically placed beading and in addition to its plunging back, it included cheeky, heart-shaped embroidery. Kelly described it as a “nude souffle draped on the bias*”.

John Truscott’s Academy-Award-winning costumes for Camelot (1967) combined 1960s trends with medieval inspiration to stunning effect. Vanessa Redgrave’s Guinevere costumes ranged from a robe of gold scales to fur trimmed capes, with the most intricate of her costumes being the wedding dress. Taking six months to make, it had layers of finely crocheted wool and where other designers would have finished the dress with crystals or sequins, Truscott had it adorned with tiny shells and bleached pumpkin seeds.

From Casablanca to The Dressmaker (2015), Priscilla to Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Australian costume designers’ flair for the flamboyant and fabulous has glittered across screens for decades. Help us celebrate the legacy of our best and boldest costume designers when we reopen in mid-2020. Learn more about our renewal.

Thara Krishna-Pillay is an ACMI curator.

* “on the bias” is a dressmaking term referring to a diagonal cut made against the grain of a fabric. Garments cut on the bias have a fluid movement and drape; following the curves of the body.

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