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Film fashion: 'Australia's' costume vision*

December 4, 2008 |  2:50 pm

Continuing my research for a story about costume design scheduled to run in the Dec. 7 Image section, I took in “Australia” over the weekend. It’s a powerful Baz Luhrmann-directed epic that reminded me at times of “Giant” and “Empire of the Sun,” two of my favorite films. And it is gorgeous to look at, from the first frame to the last, thanks in huge part to costume designer Catherine Martin, who also happens to be Luhrmann's wife.

I always enjoy learning about the detail work that goes into costuming a film, especially one of this magnitude, with a staggering 2,000 costumes from 1930s-era vintage gowns to traditional aboriginal dress. Ferragamo did the shoes, including a stunning pair of velvet evening sandals that were replicated for retail and are on sale now, Australian pearl supplier Paspaley made the pearl drop earrings, Prada made the chic blue-and-white luggage and R.M. Williams (the Australian “Bush Outfitter” established in 1932) made the stockmen’s clothing. But the rest of it was all Martin and her crew.Rage_suit_4   

I stole a couple minutes of her time Tuesday while she was in Madrid promoting the film, to ask a few questions about the project.

The nautical-inspired blue and white suit that Nicole Kidman wears when she arrives on the shores of Darwin, Australia, for the first time is gorgeous. What was the thinking behind that?

Baz saw her character as an uptight English aristocrat, and it needed to be clear that at the beginning she was stiff, and then she transformed. I looked at a lot of women from the 1930s and how they dressed -- Carole Lombard, the Mitford sisters, Lee Miller and the Duchess of Windsor. And I examined the work of Gabrielle Chanel and Mainbocher, who made clothes for the Duchess of Windsor, and Balenciaga. And one thing emerged, this idea that clothes had become a lot more body-conscious in this period. It was about embracing sportswear.

So you had these two things at odds — clothes that were closer to the body, in a time when being slim and tan was fashionable, and her beautiful life. So we took this ludicrous idea that she is dressing in a costume she sees as being appropriate on a flying boat — boat being the operative word. We used a high neckline because she needed to be closed in. She was also anathema to the environment, arriving in this red earth in the most inappropriate outfit: a cream skirt.

And what about that amazing bias-cut cheongsam gown she wears to the ball later in the film?

Baz is always challenging us to think of a backstory. She’d just been on the drove, her trunk has been burnt, so how does she manage to show up at the ball looking fabulous, where is she going to find these clothes? There were two chinoiserie-inspired outfits actually. And as we were doing research looking at newspapers from the time, I noticed a lot of ads for Chinese tailors in Darwin, which was actually very close to Asia — it’s  two hours from Indonesia as opposed to five hours from Sydney. Darwin also had a huge Japanese pearling industry, and Lady Ashley [Kidman] has a Chinese cook. So we came up with the idea that maybe he had a cousin who was a tailor in Darwin. And even back then in 1938, they were advertising that they could make clothes in 24 hours.

Rage_australia2_2 The use of the cheongsam was meant to underscore the fact that she has really accepted the motley crew with whom she has formed a family. She’s also not scared to step out of the norm of 1930s society. She’s saying, ‘I’m cool with something that’s Chinese-themed.’ Printed evening wear was big in the late '30s, so we used nontraditional printed organza in an Asiatique print, and changed the shape to a bias cut of the '30s, with a flare at the bottom and a train. Nicole had to look wonderful, fresh and in full bloom.

Hugh Jackman [Drover] really stood out in that scene at the ball in his white suit.
That suit was taken from a classic tailoring book from the 1930s. White jackets were fashionable back then but not common. But we thought that Lady Ashley, being a sophisticated Englishwoman, would think that this white jacket would be appropriate for the Drover since they were in the tropics. We tried a lot of variations, from a black tux to a black tux jacket with mismatched pants, trying to find the right note. It is meant to be the moment they fall in love. It’s his Cinderella moment. That needed to be expressed.

You did a lot of research to authentically wardrobe the aboriginals in the cast. Had you ever done anything like that before?
Never. That’s one of my favorite things about the film. Australia is divided into several aboriginal countries, and every one has a specific feel.  Within every country, there are many cultural groups and thousands of variations. For the purposes of the film, we decided to represent the groups as pan Kimberley [the traditional owners of the land where Faraway Downs is] and pan Arnhem Land, even though the practices within these areas varied. We worked with an expert in aboriginal body decoration, consulted with elders and cultural groups, and with each aboriginal actor.

David Gulpilil [the renowned aboriginal dancer/musician who plays aboriginal elder King George in the film] played a person from his own country, so he could wear stuff from his own country. But Ursula Yovich [Daisy] doesn’t come from Kimberley, so she had to ask her own people and also the people who owned the scarring.

We consulted a lot of photographs by Donald Thompson and Baldwin Spencer, who were forward-thinking anthropologists in the '30s and documented everything. They were all pictures of David Gulpulil’s relatives! And trying to be the politically correct white person, I remember asking him, ‘Why is your grandfather wearing those armbands?’ And he said, ‘To look flash.” Everyone wants to look good! It just proves there are more similarities in humanity than there are differences.

-- Booth Moore

booth.moore@latimes.com

Photos of Nicole Kidman in "Australia" courtesy of 20th Century Fox

*An earlier version of this story listed Molyneaux as a designer Martin researched for the film. It should have been Mainbocher.

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