Priscilla extravaganza fit for a queen

Twenty years ago, in a film, three drag queens drove a bus to Alice Springs. We are still talking about it.

It was a scene about shopping, so the first thought was credit cards. How perfect would it be to have a dress made entirely of credit cards?

But all the usual sources of credit cards - American Express, major banks, even BP service stations - didn't want a bar of it. The film containing the shopping scene was, back then, a low-budget story set in the desert, involving a bus and three drag queens.

From <I>The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert</I>, which stars Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce.
From The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which stars Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce. 

Costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner had just $20,000 to dress the movie up to the point of fabulousness.

So they brainstormed other ideas for the shopping dress. At one point, they toyed with the idea of making it out of slices of toast - they could always eat it after the scene was shot, right? Eventually, they settled on thongs, fronting up at the local K-Mart and buying several dozen pairs, even managing to get a 15 per cent discount at the till.

Another scene favourite.
Another scene favourite. 

The whole thing - the famous thong dress that would be worn by Hugo Weaving - cost about $7. It, and all the costumes that played the starring role in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, would go on to win the Oscar for best costume design in 1994. And Gardiner accepted it, along with Chappel, in a dress made of 254 gold American Express cards - cards that the company was suddenly only too willing to dole out for the occasion.

It's probably the cheapest film costume in history, but it, along with several of the film's other costumes, are now in the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive, where they are lovingly preserved in climate-controlled conditions. It's 20 years since the film took Australia - and later the world - by storm. It cemented several careers - Hugo Weaving, already well-established in Australia, would go on to become a Hollywood mainstay, while Guy Pearce, a relatively unknown Neighbours alumni, is now a major film star - and it revitalised the career of English actor Terence Stamp.

But it was Chappel and Gardiner who took away the Oscar, for their spectacularly inventive and elaborate drag costumes that, in almost every scene, threaten to overshadow the actors. As the three main characters - Bernadette (Stamp), Tick (Weaving) and Adam (Pearce) - take a road trip from Sydney to Alice Springs in a giant bus painted silver and lavender (the film's namesake), they don their gear for several cabaret performances, which, thanks to increasingly elaborate costumes, are the film's standout scenes. Giant, sparkly flares, decadent headdresses, platforms and glittering make-up - these creations were well and truly part of the drag lexicon, but their like had never really been seen in mainstream cinema. In the two decades since, as the movie has been adapted for Broadway and Hollywood (the remake, with a different name and starring Patrick Swayze, was a flop), many of the costumes have become recurring drag show motifs.

Several of these costumes - including the thong dress - are on regular display in the archive in Canberra, a fact that still makes Chappel laugh.

Award-winning costume, above and below,  from <I>The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert</I>.
Award-winning costume, above and below, from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

''It's funny, to think that they were made with cable ties and hot glue, and were thrown together,'' he says.

''They were only intended to last for hours or days, and here they are being preserved for eternity in their shabby condition. I think most people when they go through will go, 'Oh, so they got Oscars for these? But I can still see the duct tape!'''

Another award-winning costume from <I>The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert</I>.
Another award-winning costume from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Chappel was just 23 when he came on board to make the film's costumes, and Gardiner was 26; they were the youngest people ever to win an Oscar for costume design (for the record, he accepted the award in a tuxedo jacket, a long black sarong and knee-high firemen's boots). He had already worked in television and theatre - drag costumes were his speciality, but this was his first film. He and Gardiner were given a ''tiny, tiny budget'', $20,000 plus an extra $2000 to create the flowing silver lame wings attached to the bus as it trundled through the parched Australian desert. He says he quickly discovered there was something liberating about making things that weren't designed to last. ''Working for film was infinitely easier than anything that works in real life, because you don't have to finish anything, which was fine, because we didn't have any money to finish anything anyway,'' he says.

''In some of the shots, I'm literally standing behind an actor holding their costume on them. They got the cheapest wardrobe bus they could find, where the engine was underneath the storage area and overheated in the middle of the desert. Everything was made with hot glue, and it all glued together, and all became one great big glob of glue. So I had to remake everything out there.''

He singles out the glittery ''Gumby'' suits as his favourites - outfits with huge floral headdresses and great flared legs (like the plasticine cartoon character Gumby) worn as the actors dance and lip-synch to I Will Survive, for a small group of Aborigines beside a campfire in the middle of the desert.

''I thought they were very iconic too, just because they fulfilled the brief of looking like something disco, but didn't look like anything that had existed before,'' he says.

''I really enjoyed those and it's great to see them continue evolving. The thong dress is iconic so you don't really touch that, but those Gumby suits have gone on to develop into some other really strange things.''

Chappel has gone on to have a varied and predictably fabulous career - he lived in LA until 2012, and among other things, he designed the costumes for the Sandra Bullock film Miss Congeniality, and worked for two years with Pamela Anderson when she was making the television show VIP.

''I like to think of myself as a specialist in American cheese,'' he admits. ''I did [Pamela's] styling and I did a TV show with her and used to make all of her clothes. It was like having my own, life-sized Barbie doll. She was fabulous, she was just a really great lady to work with.''

But he reserves a special admiration for the people he worked with on Priscilla, a film that was never going to be an automatic success. ''You've got to realise that when we were making the film, it was just a hobby. Everyone was having a laugh, we were having a good time and we really never thought it was going to be anything,'' he says.

''It was just going to be a cute little Australian version of John Waters, and then after the first cast and crew screening, people were just raving, and I thought, 'Wow, this could actually go somewhere'. Even before the Oscars, we were in the Cannes midnight showing, which is a key slot in the Cannes Film Festival, and after the film finished there was a 17-minute standing ovation. So for 17 minutes, we're standing there grinning from ear to ear, and our French publicist was timing it, going '14 minutes, 15 minutes'.''

He is looking forward to attending the anniversary screening, where he will treat the audience to blow-by-blow accounts of some of the key scenes, and anecdotes about the shooting process. ''They were all wonderful people to work with. They all had their own idiosyncrasies, but they were all incredibly brave,'' he says.

''We didn't have money to make the costumes comfortable and I remember one time when Terence came up to me and said, 'Tim, I don't mean to complain, but this headdress is a little itchy'. And he reached through to his forehead, a bead of blood ran down, and I was like, 'Bleeding for your art, darls!'.''

Archive curator Meg Labrum says seeing the costumes up close has given her a new appreciation of the difficulty of the roles in the film.

''The fact that there are so many shots of those masculine bottoms coming out of the leotards - they must have been chafing and sweating and heaving, and producing an amazing film at the same time,'' she says.

The archive holds 10 of the costumes and most are in pretty good nick, considering how knocked-together some of them are.

''The thong dress is literally a whole bunch of thongs hung together, and there's one dress which we can't display on a mannequin as such - it's a pink beaded dress from one of the dance scenes and the beads are too heavy for the fabric, so it wouldn't work.''

Among the outfits are the ones based on emus, although the tall emu heads - ridiculous and over-the-top - are missing.

''We're told that the heads were used as cricket bats once the filming had been done. So the heads of the emus didn't quite survive, which again flags the transient nature of filmmaking sometimes. Can you imagine being out there in the heat? You'd probably just want get them off and never see them again.''

She recalls seeing the film for the first time, in 1994, and the startling image of the silver lame trailing off the top of the bus, accompanied by the swell of opera music.

''But then you just got used to it and it was the best thing, and became the norm,'' she says.

''Priscilla just busted through - you can never predict it. The American rip-off just didn't translate. There is a sort of joy in Priscilla that you don't see in a lot of the ones that came afterwards.''

The costumes are, more than ever, a major drawcard for the archive; the thong dress is usually on display in a glass case with clips from the film playing nearby, and there is often a crowd gathered around. Nowadays, of course, they gather to reminisce and to marvel at how much time has elapsed since the film's release.

To mark the film's 20th anniversary, the archive is bringing out the costumes and throwing a party; one that will involve performer Tranny Bingo, a screening of the movie and an account of its making by Chappel himself.

''What we're really celebrating is the film and the artists themselves. I think the energy that comes out of it and comes out of them is something that has survived for 20 years, and that's encouraging for everybody as we enter the next decade of our lives,'' Labrum says.

Chappel says the film's success went beyond mere aesthetics; the challenge had been to blend bling and brawn together.

''I think the secret of what Lizzie and I did back then was that not only did we create something that was showy, but we both are really into building character,'' he says.

''If you present something that's just glittery, it feels empty and it's unsatisfying. But if you present interesting-looking characters that are also glittery and showy, then I think you'll find the experience much more satisfying on different levels.''

And while it's true that such a film would not be made today, the reason is more down to ethos than subject matter. Priscilla was a film that was Australian only by accident.

''I just think people tend to make stories now that are directly Australian, and I think the success of Priscilla and Muriel's Wedding and Strictly Ballroom were that they were not Australian stories, but great stories that happened to be Australian,'' he says.

''They weren't consciously telling an Australian story, and I think there's a bit too much of that now. The fashion now is to do gritty realism and there's not much show in the film. I think of Australians as being real show people. We love a show, we love to tell a yarn and put on a show, I think it's in our nature, so I think it's funny that we're going through this phase of doing realism and playing it down. Bring back the sparkle, that's what I say.''

Priscilla: 20th Anniversary Extravaganza is at the National Film and Sound Archive on Friday, February 28, 5.30pm-11pm. Tickets $40 through Ticketek. For more information, visit nfsa.gov.au.