Priscilla: 20 Years Young

Priscilla and the NFSA

2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the now iconic The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. In February this year, the NFSA celebrated this milestone by hosting a Priscilla: 20th Anniversary Extravaganza. Highlights included international award-winning costume designer Tim Chappel discussing his work on the film in a live Q&A session with Senior Curator Meg Labrum, executive producer Rebel Penfold-Russell sharing her memories of the production as part of a special exhibition of items from the film, Tranny Bingo (Penny Tration and Minnie Cooper) presenting live performances and games in the courtyard, and a special outdoor screening of the film projected for the enthusiastic audience beneath the stars.

Due to the ephemeral nature of filmmaking, the significance of everyday papers and objects is often forgotten once a film shoot has finished. Through recognising these materials as documents of cultural and historical significance the NFSA works to extend the life of a film and its makers far beyond the original intended distribution. Films like Priscilla enter the cultural psyche; the songs, laughter and tears shared on screen have become significant to the nation. Through the conservation and preservation of costumes, production papers, photographs and artefacts, as well as the original film materials, we create a much more comprehensive vision of Australian audiovisual history. We create a fuller record of the creative and technical achievement that is Priscilla, preserving our national audiovisual heritage and ultimately making it accessible to adoring audiences for many years to come.


Costume designer Tim Chappel repairs Priscilla costumes at the NFSA

Photo courtesy Darren Weinert

The NFSA preserves nine of the multi-award winning costumes featured in Priscilla, the only costumes from the film known to survive. These costumes were generously donated by filmmaker and executive producer Rebel Penfold-Russell. Co-costume designer Tim Chappel kindly contributed his time and efforts to repair a number of the costumes when he visited the NFSA, working closely with conservators and curators to add to the costumes’ provenance and on-set story.

Since 1994, the costumes’ renown has only grown. Costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner won the 1994 Academy Award for Best Costume Design, saw their costumes replicated in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Opening Ceremony, and then won Tony Awards for Costume Design in 2011 after the film was reimagined as a successful stage musical. The musical originally opened in Sydney in 2006, played on Broadway in 2011-12 and continues to tour the world. The costumes have arguably become the film’s most iconic and enduring symbols representing a lovingly gaudy pastiche of creativity, ingenuity and individuality, all drenched with Australian humour.

The story behind the Green Dress illustrates the costume designers’ journey behind-the-scenes from conceiving an idea, through adjustments and fittings, to what appears on screen looking larger than life and more than the sum of its sequins and threads.

When director Stephan Elliott approached Tim Chappel about creating a salsa-inspired dress for a rehearsal scene within the film, Chappel and co-costume designer Lizzy Gardiner used recycled materials to piece together the sequined corset and fluorescent green lycra skirt in next to no time. Despite adding black braiding, balconette cups, layers of frills and holographic strap details, Tim admits he still wasn’t happy with the design.

When it came time for Hugo Weaving’s fitting there were last minute emergency additions of black fringe for modesty’s sake (and perhaps also to lower the film’s rating). At the time no one could predict that the image of Mitzi Del Bra with her green skirts blowing in the wind would ultimately capture the glamour and fun of the film’s message and become a key visual motif used in posters and promotional material.

Tim Chappel talks about the Green Dress at the NFSA

In February 2014, Tim gave an on-stage presentation about the Priscilla costumes held in the NFSA collection. In the clip above, he tells the story behind the Green Dress and how it marries the different visions of the costume designer and director. You can also view Tim’s full presentation on the NFSA’s YouTube Channel.

Mitzi Del Bra (Hugo Weaving) turns heads when she struts her stuff on the main street of Broken Hill in full regalia. On film, the scenes are intentionally comedic and at first glance the design of the thong dress is too: a brassy, crass throwaway in-joke about Australian taste.

A closer look reveals the design to be deceptively simple. The arrangement of the varying size of thongs and clever choice of colour create an illusion of a curvier silhouette and more flattering fit for the wearer. Closer inspection also reveals the imitation Chanel gold-linked chain detailing and tongue-in-cheek references to the colour blocking of early Yves Saint Laurent mod dresses.

The handcrafted, matching handbag and shoes are works of love and ingenuity. Due to a tight budget, Tim called on his mother’s staff discount at Target to buy the materials for a 'hefty’ total sum of $7.00. The final design choice of the thong dress came after a thorough trial and error process, with other incarnations including the brilliant idea of a dress made entirely of credit cards. This concept, which was abandoned prior to filming as no company would permit the use of their cards, infamously came to fruition with co-costume designer Lizzy Gardiner wearing it to the Academy Awards ceremony in 1995.

Tim Chappel talks about the Thong Dress at the NFSA

Paco Rabanne’s 1960s plastic tile dresses inspired the iconic Thong Dress. Tim describes some of the other ideas they experimented with and the importance of a strong design concept. Watch more of Tim’s presentation at the NFSA on our YouTube Channel.

The Wattle Dress is only on screen for a few seconds but is iconic for being part of an ensemble of Australian fauna, flora and architecture. This is a stunning montage of imagery transformed into an array of costumes that represents thousands of hours of work but only minutes of on-screen footage.

While wearing the Wattle Dress, Felicia Jollygoodfellow (Guy Pearce) glides smoothly down a large slide in the form of a high heel, seemingly with joy and ease. However the heel was covered in sharp sequins and, as the costume is bare-cheeked and Guy Pearce was only wearing fishnet stockings underneath, the repeated takes were increasingly painful and bloody for the actor.

You can see from the costume itself how the designers cleverly tailored their work to suit the various actors’ physical traits. Pearce’s tiny waist and broad shoulders create the believable silhouette of Felicia Jollygoodfellow through subtle design. The Wattle Dress featured along with waratahs, frilled neck lizards and even the Sydney Harbour Bridge, all personified through costume design.

Tim Chappel talks about the Wattle costume at the NFSA

Tim describes how inmates at Long Bay Correctional Complex came to help with the creation of one of the outfits worn by Guy Pearce in the film. Watch more of Tim’s presentation at the NFSA on our YouTube Channel.


These headpieces from the NFSA Priscilla collection are all that remain from the vast number created by co-costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. The yellow wattle and green feather headpieces featured in the gallery below did not make the final cut. The large papier mache emu headpieces were destroyed on set when spontaneously used as bats by the cast and crew in a celebratory post-filming cricket match.


The array of posters collected by the NFSA represents the marketing aspect of feature filmmaking. Through posters and flyers we can see how producers and distributors select key images, colour, text and graphics to appeal to specific audiences and how that can differ between local and international markets.


Collecting still images taken on a production allows us a greater understanding of how cast and crew interact on a film shoot and ultimately how a film is made. Behind-the-scenes moments featured below include the first location scouting shots and Terence Stamp in the make-up chair.


So much blood, sweat, tears and sequins go into a film like Priscilla between concept and final release. The NFSA collects press kits, draft scripts, proposed synopses and filmmakers’ correspondence, among other documentation, to capture information about key creatives and their processes. Who knew Priscilla was initially meant to feature songs by Kylie and not ABBA?


Special thanks to Rebel Penfold-Russell and Tim Chappel, without whom this exhibition would not have been possible.

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Wonderful work! So inspiring to see the collection in this format. Congratulations Tenille and Rebecca.

Very good job! Priscilla is still going strong. Thank you! Peter

Peter McKENNITT - HARPER on 10 Jul 2014, 4:55 p.m.

Congratulations to the NFSA Preservation and Technical Services Still Images team Tony and Darren for the brilliant 3D photography.

kerrie ruth on 11 Jul 2014, 10:51 a.m.

Magnificent work NFSA from your curator Tenille Hands on this exhibition. Just listened to the ABC Melbourne interview this morning. Looking forward to more of these online exhibitions. Perhaps Muriel's Wedding could be next??

Byron Dandy on 11 Jul 2014, 11:05 a.m.

Fantastic! Love the 3D models. Hope you're proud of the exhibition - it's something I'll come back to for inspiration. Best Sally

Sally Jackson on 11 Jul 2014, 1:15 p.m.

Great presentation....I feel like I'm virtually there! It is great to see all angles. I want to see more of the collection! Cheers and keep up the good work :)

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