Catherine Martin is the most awarded Australian in Oscar history and in 2023 she was a three-time nominee for ELVIS (2022). Here we shine a spotlight on her design achievements and share highlights of Catherine’s career from the NFSA collection. Curator Jenny Gall has written a series of in-depth articles exploring her feature film collaborations with director Baz Luhrmann. Catherine's work featured extensively in the Australians & Hollywood exhibition, which was on display at the NFSA from January 2022 to January 2024. You can get a taste of Jenny's articles below.
The dazzling outfits in Strictly Ballroom (1992) launched the on-screen collaboration between Catherine and Baz. Jenny writes, '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 discusses 'diabolical beauty' in this promotional clip about the making of the film:
Baz and Catherine's follow-up to Strictly Ballroom (1992) was an ambitious global production with 20th Century Fox – a groundbreaking retelling of the Shakespearean tragedy, Romeo + Juliet (1996) that spearheaded their entry into Hollywood.
Concept books by Baz and Catherine capture the evolution of Bazmark’s planning for the look of the film. You can view illustrative excerpts from Romeo + Juliet Bazmark concept book 1 and Romeo + Juliet Bazmark concept book 2.
Catherine's work on Moulin Rouge! (2001) saw her win her first two Academy Awards – for Costume Design (with Angus Strathie) and Art Direction-Set Decoration (with Brigitte Broch).
Jenny writes, 'The dizzy underworld of the Moulin Rouge and its clientele is depicted in the extravagant, bejewelled and multicoloured can-can costumes... Baz described the line of dancers creating the visual illusion of a giant, moving coral reef with hidden fish suddenly flashing into view.'
For the 1940s epic blockbuster Australia (2008), Catherine's challenges included re-creating a superficially simple costume worn by David Gulpilil that required extensive research to acheive a satisfactory level of accuracy and authenticity. The film also called for partnerships with several luxury fashion houses. According to Jenny, 'Placement of these high-end [props and accessories in the film] 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.'
These fashion partnerships were also integral to The Great Gatsby (2013). When re-creating New York in the roaring 1920s in Sydney, Catherine was implementing Baz's vision for, as she told one interviewer at the time, 'a New York that feels as vibrant and sexy and visceral and modern as it would have to... any of the characters in the book'. You can see the actors – sometimes in costume – in candid photos (by Douglas Kirkland) taken during rehearsals:
ELVIS (2022) is the biggest creative venture for Bazmark to date. As Jenny writes, 'Catherine Martin and her colleagues had to assemble over 9,000 individual extras outfits encompassing shoes, underwear, socks, pants and jackets for the large concert scenes – all laid out in advance on a giant Warner Bros sound stage on the Gold Coast. There were 90 costumes for Elvis alone...
'In making a biopic about Elvis Presley, the legendary King of Rock'n'Roll, it was imperative to capture Elvis' persona at different ages and during the eras in which he lived. This meant adapting authentic clothing designs to suit the storyline, rather than creating mere reproductions of period costumes which could risk looking like the outfits of a low-budget Elvis impersonator.'
In the article, Jenny highlights a range of costumes and accessories worn by actors Austin Butler (as Elvis), Chaydon Jay (as young Elvis), Olivia DeJonge (as Priscilla Presley) and David Wenham (as Hank Snow) in the film. You can see details from some of the costumes in sparkling close-up in the video below:
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Main image: Nicole Kidman as Lady Sarah Ashley in Australia (2008). Photographer: Douglas Kirkland. NFSA title: 1498414