The Art of Costume Design

BY TRAVIS GREEN

Renowned Australian costume designer Marion Boyce spoke with NFSA Assistant Curator Jenny Gall about the characters, costumes and designs on Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries:

Go Deeper...

THE IMPORTANCE OF COSTUMING - NFSA CURATOR JENNY GALL

There are two purposes of film costuming, according to costume designer, historian and Distinguished Professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis, in her introduction to the 2012 Film Craft book, Costume Design: ‘the first is to support the narrative by creating authentic characters (people); and the second is composition, to provide balance within the frame by using colour, texture and silhouette.’

The costume is the skin that an actor puts on to become the character that the story requires, and the garments are part of the visual language of the film or TV show. Costumes in a film don’t keep appearing in a series of glamourous ensembles as they would in a fashion parade; instead, they are as varied as the clothes that we all own, and they change with the evolution of the characters they clothe within the curve of the story.

Costumes are designed to illuminate critical moments in plot development. They embody the physical, psychological, social and emotional condition of the characters in one of these critical moments, enabling the audience to identify with the character. As Landis notes, ‘the subtleties of the costume design are well beyond the cut of a period sleeve; they reach into the very soul of the character'.

Miss Fisher Crypt of Tears poster featuring an elegant 1920s woman holding a golden pistol.

Poster for Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, 2020

In dressing Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) for the popular television series, Marion Boyce was working with a heroine who is glamourous, physically daring and dismissive of social conventions. Because Phryne has recently returned to Australia from a bohemian life in Paris, Boyce felt she had greater freedom to design a wardrobe that was more adventurous with its colour schemes and accessories than the High Street fashions of the era. The bold colour schemes create a colour palette for each episode and flow into the outfits worn by the extras to convey a particular atmosphere matched to the theme of the episode.

Hats are a feature of Miss Fisher’s outfits and they are used skilfully by Boyce to frame Davis’s face and direct the viewers’ attention to the heroine’s most expressive feature – those memorable smouldering eyes.

Boyce created nearly all of the outfits for the Miss Fisher film, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (Australia, Tony Tilse, 2020), because although good 1920s garments do survive, on the whole people were much smaller in the 1920s. Also, the dyes used in silks of the period often render the garments extremely fragile. And because Phryne is an action hero, her outfits need to be robust and provide freedom for her to move easily and swiftly. Boyce also designed a handbag that, while the epitome of elegance, facilitates quick access to the celebrated pearl-handled pistol!

The key to the beautiful line of 1920s women’s fashions is the skill with which garments were cut ‘on the cross’. Seamstresses did not use darts as a mechanism to fit a garment to the body’s undulations. Instead they cut on the bias and incorporated panels of fabric into a dress design which provided movement and a very flattering, non-clinging drape. Boyce’s designs embrace these techniques and use authentic fabrics such as silk in all its various weights and textures.

What we wear affects the way we move, and Boyce’s designs are of great assistance to the actors in remembering that the footwear and accessories of the 1920s influenced the length of stride when walking and how layers of underwear and the weight and cut of fabric encouraged a straighter, more formal posture. Costumes enforce the physicality of how a period character moves.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries has been successful worldwide because Boyce’s designs are inextricably part of Phryne Fisher’s irresistible character as a fearless crime fighter with an eye for luxurious elegance. Miss Fisher fans gather together and dress in her style for Murder Mystery events, thus embodying Phryne’s strength, wit and sensuality.

Every piece of clothing that we wear daily has a story of its own, but there is irresistible appeal in viewing close-up, or putting on, a costume that can transform us, temporarily, into a character we admire, with romantic and heroic qualities we aspire to have. Miss Fisher’s costumes offer a world of chic escapism for her many admirers.

You can find available streaming options via Just Watch for episodes of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and the 2020 feature film, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears.

Marion Boyce and The Dressmaker

Marion Boyce is an internationally renowned costume designer in film and television. Her career started in her early twenties when, after studying Fashion Design at RMIT in Melbourne, she was approached to design costumes for film. Her immense knowledge of fabrics and designs has graced some very notable characters on screen, and her credits include The Dressmaker, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, Hollowmen, Prisoner and The Starter Wife, just to name a few. She won Best Costume Design at the 2014 AACTA Awards for Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and again in 2015 for The Dressmaker.

In 2019 the NFSA hosted The Dressmaker Costume Exhibition. Go behind-the-scenes and learn more about this popular Australian film, including the memorable costumes, in our curated collection devoted to the film.   

Marion talks about fashion as a tool for revenge, while cast members Kate Winslet, Sarah Snook, Liam Hemsworth  and Hugo Weaving consider the film's costumes 'works of art, not just clothes'

In this clip Marion Boyce talks about how she transformed the character of Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) through The Dressmaker costumes:

The NFSA collection boasts many iconic film costumes. Take a look inside our wardrobe of 90 years of Australian film costumes.