Curator Jenny Gall continues her series of articles charting the career of Catherine Martin and her celebrated collaboration with director Baz Luhrmann.
Catherine Martin is the most awarded Australian in Oscar history, having won 4 Oscars for costume, production and set design. The Australians & Hollywood exhibition, which was on display at the NFSA from January 2022 to January 2024, celebrated her extraordinary contribution to design and costume.
In 2018, Martin told Interior Design, ‘As an applied artist, I attach myself to an existing vision... Baz will come up with an idea and tell it to me; he has the ability to know what is going to reveal the story. I’m good at translating that into reality. I enjoy the practical side of the puzzle. As much as I complain about the bore of having to make everything to a budget, it’s part of the game. What’s the most elegant solution to a given problem? How do you tell a story for $5 – or $50,000? Both scenarios have inherent challenges.’
At Australians & Hollywood, you can see key design documentation for Strictly Ballroom (1992), the first collaboration between Catherine and Baz. Catherine’s costumes are both a homage to the romance of ballroom dancing and an embodiment of the absurd undercurrents of the competitive dance world, embodying what she calls ‘diabolical beauty’:
Catherine’s renowned attention to detail in her design began when she was a child who was keen on sewing.
The daughter of a French mother and an Australian father, who met at the Sorbonne, she grew up in Lindfield on Sydney’s North Shore with regular trips to Europe. She has always loved historical clothes and all objects that constitute the ephemera of life, wherein the design speaks to the social mores of a particular era, and in the case of clothing, how choices of attire tell us how people wanted to be perceived in a historical period.
Her great-grandmother was a ‘petites mains’ (‘little hands’) – an artisan providing expert hand-sewing in a couture atelier. Taking her place in this distinguished lineage, Catherine was taught to sew by her mother, becoming fascinated with the technicalities of costume design and the tailoring skills intrinsic to high fashion.
As a young woman she apprenticed as a sample hand – a machinist making clothes – and she credits the supervisor, who was a very hard taskmistress, for inculcating a commitment to persevering with a repetitive task to get the best results. She told the ABC’s Sarah Kanowski in 2022, ‘This is my vocation – it defines me. When I am draping on a dummy, I am one with the fabric and I’m thinking about the person… it’s a physical pleasure in your body and being in the zone.’
The dazzling Strictly Ballroom outfits launched Baz’s on-screen signature visual language in which he took the internal workings of a character and ‘turned up the volume … through the choices of the clothes that the character is wearing’ (Baz Luhrmann: Set to Screen podcast).
Catherine told Harpers Bazaar, ‘You want [your costume] to be the most perfect and glamorous it can be, with all of the best items, but a lot of the time, you’ve got a piece of string, a bandaid, and an old pair of pantyhose and you have to make an evening dress out of it.’ The Strictly Ballroom budget had been pared down before filming began, and the final $3.3 million allowed for only a limited number of spangles on the costumes. After each of the elaborate outfits had completed their scenes, Catherine would remove the diamantes and reposition them on new costumes prior to filming.
A coloured drawing of Tara Morice’s red Flamenco-inspired dress from the film’s climax, complete with fabric swatches, gives us a glimpse into the process of Catherine’s design choices (see image gallery below). In conversation at the NFSA, Tara reminisced about adapting to the heavy jewelled and ruffled skirt so that her movements in the triumphant dance sequence would appear effortless. To accommodate the lack of budget to pay appropriately attired ballroom dance extras, Baz shot the scene at an actual ballroom dancing championship in Melbourne. The atmosphere added to Morice’s nervousness, but also sparked a genuine, exhilarating performance.
On display in Australians & Hollywood are design drawings and poster mock-ups for Strictly Ballroom painstakingly constructed with cardboard and pasted-on images. The craft and attention to detail of Bazmark productions are evident in these low-tech but meticulous visualisations of Strictly Ballroom characters. Baz and Catherine’s determination to succeed is obvious from the early Bazmark diaries, concept books, storyboards and ephemera.
Strictly Ballroom continuity polaroids document the process of maintaining consistency for the look of each character for the duration of the production (see examples in image gallery above). In the pre-digital era, polaroid photos were taken of actors at the close of the day’s shoot to ensure that when filming continued, every detail of their appearance could be replicated to the original appearance. Hairstyles, facial colour and perspiration reflecting exertion receive particular attention. In these photos, the actors – including Pat Thomson, Bill Hunter, Barry Otto, Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice, Gia Carides, Sonia Kruger and Antonio Vargas – sometimes strike frivolous poses, reflecting the joyful energy on set.
Asked recently about her favourite pieces from Strictly Ballroom, Catherine chose the bejewelled matador coat worn by Paul Mercurio at the climax (see clip below) and the white Bonds singlet he wore in secret solo rehearsal scenes. These pieces capture the tension within the hero between personal desire and public persona – a theme Baz and Catherine love to explore in their heroic characters, most recently in ELVIS (2022).