Picnic costumes: the details in the dresses

BY JENNY GALL

Valentine's Day 2020 marks 120 years since the (fictional) events at the heart of Picnic at Hanging Rock occurred. Documents and artefacts curator Jenny Gall takes a close look at two of the costumes in Peter Weir's film, released 45 years ago in 1975. They also feature in our online exhibition about Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The NFSA collects costumes as evidence of the creative process of filmmaking. In presenting costumes from the collection online and in exhibition spaces, we seek to provide audiences with an understanding of how costumes create character, and to acknowledge the skilled teams who translate the designer’s vision into clothing that supports the film.

Miranda’s picnic dress – worn by Anne Louise Lambert

Textiles are among the most fragile of items in the NFSA collection which is why they are only rarely placed on display. The Picnic costumes were designed by Judith Dorsman; some were donated to the NFSA by Anne Louise Lambert, and others by producer Patricia Lovell.

Miranda’s favourite flower, the daisy, symbolises purity, joy and innocence. Pictured below is the recurring daisy motif which decorates the machine-made cotton lace trim on her dress’s neck and sleeves:

Lace – an openwork fabric of threads forming decorative designs – is a delicate tool used by costume designers to convey much about character. An abundance of frothy lace suggests wealth and ostentation; here, the restrained use of lace suggests otherwise. The dress’s lightness and movement in relation to the actress’s body create an image of transitory beauty.

Miranda’s dress is made of muslin – a loose weave fabric used for making garments worn in very hot or humid climates. Picnic was filmed on location in February 1975, during the harsh Australian summer. Rows of pintucks (very narrow ornamental tucks in a garment) sculpt the front of the dress and the delicate material is inset with the daisy motif lace:

Multiple editions of costumes are usually prepared as a precaution against the physical damage to clothing worn on set, or to convey the sense of time passing through visible degradation of the fabric. Here, a tiny tear has been carefully repaired (see below). A shadowy mark made by contact with vegetation or earth is a reminder of the bush location where Picnic at Hanging Rock was filmed:

We carefully monitor these blemishes within our textile conservation plan at the NFSA.

Miranda’s petticoat – worn by Anne Louise Lambert

Anne Louise Lambert, when donating her costume to the NFSA, noted that the piece of lace that Michael hands to Albert after finding Irma alive at Hanging Rock was torn from this petticoat (below):

The drawstring waist and buttons (below) recreate the authentic fastenings of the era:

Mademoiselle’s picnic dress – worn by Helen Morse

Elegance underlies every feature of this beautiful cream Edwardian afternoon gown, and Helen Morse as Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers brought costume designer Judith Dorsman’s vision to life:

Silk was chosen for the garment; a luxurious, light fabric with a bewitching sheen and fluid drape that interacted with the distinctive lighting used to film the afternoon picnic scenes.

Corsetry was essential to create the hour-glass figure sought after by women at this time, and female actors on the set of Picnic were carefully equipped with the appropriate undergarments.

Mademoiselle’s strikingly stylised sleeves, tight waist and upright carriage, assisted by the authentic corset underneath her dress, ensure that she stands out as a representative of modern fashionable society. Her appearance is beautiful but, in the context of the Australian bush, absurd – marking her as an intruder in an ancient, natural environment.

You can see more details in the images below:

Long after the film has wrapped, the costumes retain the imprint of the actor’s body. This is both fascinating and concerning for holders of costume collections. Body sweat and the effects of interaction with the environment on set leave a chemical residue which must be monitored and treated when required. The visible evidence of the ageing process is shown in the deepening hue of the cream silk, and we carefully control each costume’s exposure to light during storage.

Miranda and Mademoiselle Dresses – Photo Gallery

In the gallery below, you can see photos of both dresses from different angles. Click on each image to enlarge.

You can read more about Edwardian fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum website.