Australians love a good underdog story. Our pop culture is filled with people who are admired because they succeeded against all odds.
When it comes to Australian films - The Castle, Muriel's Wedding, Strictly Ballroom - the underdog theme runs strong. And it seems that behind the scenes, it's not much different.
Hollywood and its big budgets, after all, are a Goliath compared to the Australian film industry. And when you look at each of a production's departments separately, you can see the effect a smaller budget can have. Sometimes you need to be creative to get the job done. As a bonus, sometimes the results are better than one could have hoped for.
You just need to look at the costuming department to see an example of that.
Costumes have had an interesting journey in Australian film. As has the costume department itself - for the earliest Australian films, costume departments were unheard of.
If you were an actor in Australia in the 1920s and early 1930s, you were expected to provide your own costumes, and usually, an actor's arsenal would include an evening dress, or proper evening suit, as well as a riding outfit.
The first (unofficial) incarnation of a costume department in an Australian film was in 1930 for The Cheaters.
A silent film about a safecracker who decides to retire from her life of crime after one last heist - only to fall in love with the man she is meant to be targeting - The Cheaters was the work of the McDonagh sisters. Paulette McDonaugh was the writer and director, Phyllis McDonagh the production manager and script adviser, and Isabel McDonagh played the leading role, under the stage name of Marie Lorraine.
While the production didn't have a costume department per se, the sisters would each source costumes to help with the overall production.
"Because the sisters were a trio, it was in their interest to help each other out," National Film and Sound Archive assistant curator Jenny Gall says.
"And in a central scene of the drama, the main character is wearing a particularly beautiful sequined dress. The sisters didn't have a budget to go out and purchase something amazing ... but one of the McDonagh sisters had a friend who had been to Paris in 1925. While she was there she bought this evening dress.
"It was a bit out of date for the movie, which they realised, so they got this floral wreath that they pinned on to try and make it look a bit more like a 1930s evening gown."
Now part of the National Film and Sound Archive's collection, the dress encapsulates not just the history of the film - including the few dark stains from spilt champagne during filming - but also the fashion of the era. The dress's sequins were made of gelatin - unlike modern variations made of plastic or metal - meaning they dissolved if they got damp - such as when champagne is spilt.
The approach to costuming in Australian films such as The Cheaters, however, was a far cry from what was happening in Hollywood. There, starlets were able to spend thousands of dollars on their costumes for movies, courtesy of the studio.
By the mid-1930s, the message had reached Australia's film industry - if you wanted to compete with the US market, films needed to have an element of glamour about them. They needed someone to create uniformity in the way characters looked; to create a palette that conveyed mood, despite the black-and-white footage. And so the role of costume designer was created.
Among the first people to hold such a role was Mavis Ripper.
One of the greats of 1930s costume design, Ripper would go on to bring that element of elegance that the industry was looking for, while putting an Australian stamp on it. For example, the 1938 film Dad and Dave Come to Town saw her tasked with creating the costumes for a large fashion parade that took place in one scene. Along with 50 seamstresses and assistants, she created 45 outfits for the parade alone.
"The value of those costumes was £2000, which in Australia at that time was an enormous amount of money to fling at a film," Gall says.
"The other interesting thing about it was she made sports clothes a feature of the parade. There was a riding habit, a skating dress, a skiing outfit, and a rather daring bikini. So that kind of put a real Australian stamp on the tone of the fashion parade as well, like our love of the outdoors.
"She also had to create this kind of romantic spectacle of all these women in huge evening dresses with circle-cut skirts. So she ordered 150 yards of white chiffon to construct these circle skirts for these girls who were performing that part of the fashion parade."
In a relatively short time, Ripper helped take costume design to the next level in Australia. But then Australia - and the world - came to a stop as World War II erupted. It would go on to all but shut down the film industry in Australia for the duration of the war and the years that followed. It also sadly put an end to film careers for people such as Ripper.
As the war came to an end, some costume designers looked elsewhere for opportunities to work in the film industry. People such as Orry-Kelly.
Originally from Kiama, New South Wales, Orry-Kelly - real name Orry George Kelly - went to Hollywood where he would become one of the most sought-after costume designers in the film industry.
"He ended up designing costumes for all the great names like Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, and all those kinds of great women. But he had to go offshore to do it," Gall says.
"Nothing much had happened in Australian cinema through the 50s and 60s because Hollywood had such a stranglehold on the whole industry ... Hollywood films were glamorous and were what made you money if you were a cinema owner.
"But then the 70s came and there was a whole pushback from a big team of Australian creatives."
It was the era of rebellion and directors and cinematographers - who had made their names in advertising - started to look to film. Among them was Gillian Armstrong who directed the 1979 feature-length film My Brilliant Career.
Starring Judy Davis and Sam Neill, it tells the story of a smart young woman who wants to become an artist - refusing the romantic advances of the hero in the process. In charge of costuming was Anna Senior.
Now head of costuming for Canberra Rep Theatre, Senior did a lot of costume design for films in the 1970s and 80s, as Australia started to rebuild its film identity.
"My Brilliant Career had a small budget. So there was a lot of buying a single bolt of fabric and making different outfits out of it, and then dyeing the outfits so that you wouldn't notice," Gall says.
"So the white dress that Sybylla (Judy Davis) wears in the boating scene while she's out courting with Sam Neill, that dress is made from a bolt of hail spot muslin. And there's also a beautiful blouse, that the archive has just acquired from Anna, which is mauve and it's from the same bolt of fabric, but it's been dyed to make it completely different to the [white] dress.
"The outfits from that film are a great example of how to make things look different on a very small budget. And she was nominated for an Academy Award for costume design for that film."
A small budget that yields big results is something common throughout Australian films.
Sitting on the shelves in the National Film and Sound Archive's Hive exhibition is a platform shoe worn by Hugo Weaving in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The archive has the pair but the other is not in display condition.
What looks like a sequined shoe that matched a dress made out of thongs, started as cheap rubber thongs from Kmart. With such a small costume budget - $20,000 - costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner had to get creative. So while Hollywood designers could go out and buy what they needed, the duo repurposed other items - such as Kmart thongs that Chappel bought with his mother's staff discount. It's the type of creativity that would see the duo land an Academy Award.
"I think that's an incredible strength. And it gives a look to the film that is quite unique," Gall says.
"The quote I like which sums it up is where Tim Chappel was talking about that whole challenge of how do you do a movie about drag queens and make it something very special that's got emotional depth.
"He says, 'I can do spectacular with my arms tied behind someone else's back. Spectacular on its own is boring. I tried to imbue my costumes with character and personality or inventiveness. Ultimately sparkle and feather by itself is boring. If you try to develop something with a bit of depth, people respond to that'."
It seems creative is something Australian costume designers do well - even if they are lucky enough to get a large budget.
Catherine Martin's designs for Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge is a great example of this. The designs walked the line between period dress and movie costumes - some of which will be on display as part of the archive's upcoming Australians and Hollywood exhibition.
"They could have dug up a dress from the period and put Nicole Kidman in it, but that wouldn't have told the story that they wanted to tell. Instead, they have the red dress with a bustle that is pretty amazing," Gall says.
"It's a modified, stylised bustle so it's a nod to what would have been historically correct, but it's taking design to another level.
"And for a big movie like Moulin Rouge, with a lot of focus on the costumes and all those dance scenes, and a lot of movement throughout the movie, it means you have to have multiple iterations of every single costume. There was not one single version of any of the costumes.
"Each can-can dancer would have had three or more iterations of their costumes because they just fell apart with the effort of heaving themselves around. And for Nicole, there are several iterations of each of her outfits because you've got to keep it looking brand spanking perfectly new."
Gall says it's near impossible to know exactly how many iterations there were of each outfit: "Nicole Kidman may have taken home one of the Satine dresses, we don't know."
For other films, making multiple versions of the same costumes is used to show it in different states of disarray. For example, in the 2019 film The True History of the Kelly Gang, there are different versions of the same costumes, as the characters get dirtier as the film progresses.
The National Film and Sound Archive also has the complete set of these costumes, as well as the armour worn by Ned Kelly. As a comparison, the archive also has the armour from the 2003 film Ned Kelly, worn by Heath Ledger.
"The armour is the thing that steals everybody's attention with that legend and why it's so important," Gall says.
"As one of our national legends, as somebody who just pulls out the ploughshares and turns them into armour, that makes him a superhero, at least in 19th-century terms.
"And the continual challenge for things like this is that designers are always walking that tightrope between historical veracity and something that's not going to kill the actor. Because if you were walking around in the weight of the ploughshares for a long time on a movie set, you'd be crippled."
- The Australians and Hollywood exhibition is at the National Film and Sound Archives from January 21, 2022. For more information go to nfsa.gov.au.
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