WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following article may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons.
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. Here, Jenny looks at her work on two of Baz’s period blockbusters.
For the epic Australia (2008), Catherine was co-producer, production designer and costume designer. On The Great Gatsby (2013), she served as producer, production designer (with Karen Murphy as associate production designer) and costume designer. Her work on both films featured in the Australians & Hollywood exhibition, which was on display at the NFSA from January 2022 to January 2024.
Australia (2008) was the first film where Catherine Martin designed both the sets and the costumes completely alone. Baz Luhrmann's motion picture event was the biggest and most expensive Australian film produced to date. It encompassed everything from a mammoth cattle drive to the bombing of Darwin during the Second World War and was an epic undertaking, becoming a box-office sensation on its release in Australia in November 2008.
A portrait of actor David Gulpilil on the set of Australia is featured in the Australians & Hollywood exhibition and represents the central theme of reconciliation that Baz explores in the film. For Catherine, the superficially simple costume she created for Gulpilil's character King George is one of her proudest achievements. As she told Oprah.com in 2009, ‘The manufacture of it was extremely detailed... In one of the museum collections in Australia there is a pubic cover that is almost identical to the one that King George wore… When you look at the museum version and you look at our version, they're almost indistinguishable, and I'm so pleased we were able to reach that level of authenticity and accuracy.’
Catherine’s costumes for Lady Sarah (played by Nicole Kidman) are also among her favourites because it is hard to achieve a classic style with simplicity and still provide a costume that conveys a strong sense of the character.
View an image gallery of characters and costumes from Australia (2008) below:
Partnerships with notable fashion houses is one of Catherine’s strategies in designing movies and both Australia and The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, Australia-USA, 2013) utilised many luxury products as props and accessories. Placement of these high-end items reinforces the association of certain characters with power and wealth, making them easily recognisable as hero figures. Luxury fashion accessories also support the long-established conventions of Hollywood glamour and link the audience with the era of the film.
For Australia, the shoes for Lady Sarah (worn by Nicole Kidman) were made by Salvatore Ferragamo – who famously created footwear for Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis and Rita Hayworth. Lady Sarah’s luggage was provided by Prada and her pearl earrings were custom-made by Paspaley. Fine jewellery designer Stefano Canturi created a brooch, engagement and wedding rings, as well as diamond and coral earrings – all items referencing Australia’s 1940s setting but still proclaiming their origins as contemporary luxury brands.
Watch an excerpt from Australia (2008):
Working on the extravagant Roaring Twenties setting of The Great Gatsby as producer, set designer and costumer was a marked contrast for Catherine to the relative simplicity of the designs for Australia. The whole movie was shot in Australia at Sydney’s Fox Studios and every set was created specifically for the movie. A behind-the-scenes video in Australians & Hollywood reveals the extensive visual effects work provided by Australian creative digital studio Animal Logic to bring 1920s New York to vibrant life in Sydney.
The scale of the production was gargantuan with 300 extras required for party scenes. While the film’s scale sometimes posed significant challenges, as Catherine told Interior Design in 2018, ‘Design is an applied art form. It’s about solving problems, understanding the rules of the game, and understanding success – not in a financial or self-serving way, but what meets the criteria for winning the challenge. That’s what excites me.’
I don’t want to see people swinging pearls and twirling their feather boas
In The Great Gatsby, Catherine's collaboration with iconic fashion houses intensified with Miuccia Prada providing costumes for 40 background dresses as well as some of the hero costumes for Daisy Buchanan (played by Carey Mulligan). Brooks Brothers (New York) supplied 1,200 suits for extras in the party scenes.
It was imperative for Catherine to work with contemporary designers to realise Baz’s vision for the film. As she told Fashionista in 2013, ‘I don’t want a nostalgic New York, I don’t want a sepia-toned New York – I want a New York that feels as vibrant and sexy and visceral and modern as it would have to Zelda and [F Scott] Fitzgerald, or any of the characters in the book… I don’t want it to look like a gangsters-and-their-gun-molls’ 21st birthday party. It has to be totally the 20s, but you have to find an unexpected, fresh way of seeing it. I don’t want to see people swinging pearls and twirling their feather boas.’
To achieve this ambition, Catherine embraced a philosophy of selecting dresses from Prada’s past collections, seeing how they ‘speak to the twenties’, and making minor tweaks to arrive at a look that will ‘provide that sort of modernity and extraordinariness and visceral excitement that Baz is looking for’.
View an image gallery featuring cast members of The Great Gatsby (2013) during rehearsal:
Catherine told Fashionista more about the inspiration behind her Gatsby costume designs. ‘What I became really interested in was the idealisation of the silhouette in the drawing and how they always tended to be leaner and meaner in the drawing than they were in reality. And I became very attracted to being more faithful to the idealised silhouette as opposed to the reality… People are taking photographs of themselves [in the 1920s] and they're seeing what they look like on camera and the ideals of beauty are changing. What is considered beautiful is more petite, slimmer, more tanned.’
She used delicate embellishment on her dresses in the form of layered chiffon petals or flowers to portray the febrile nature of Daisy’s personality. These decorative elements were sourced from Solstiss, a French lace company that has been operating since the 19th century. The use of lace trims on Daisy’s lavender and cream dresses helps evoke the sense of a fragile unobtainable being who will ultimately bring tragedy to Jay Gatsby (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) in his quest to win her.
Period make-up styles were also an important tool in creating the film’s female characters. While Daisy’s make-up is more subtle, Jordan Baker (played by Elizabeth Debicki) and Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) embrace a more dramatic 1920s look with accentuated pale skin, smokey eyes, bold lips, exaggerated curvy eyebrows, lots of mascara and rouged cheeks.
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Main image: Leonardo DiCaprio (as Jay Gatsby) during rehearsals for The Great Gatsby (2013). Photographer: Douglas Kirkland. NFSA title: 1505095.
Image with quote: Catherine Martin at the Academy Awards, 2 March 2014, holding one of her Oscars for The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, Australia-USA, 2013).