If you have never watched the amazingly funny and sexy show, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, do yourself a favor and go watch it now. I will wait.
You’re back? Excellent. So, as you now know, the show is about the Honorable Miss Fisher, a sassy outspoken lady detective living in 1920s Melbourne, and her wonderful posse of friends and family. And the delectable Detective Inspector Jack Robinson. The stories are fun, frothy, exciting, with the heroine sleuthing and romancing her way across gorgeous houses, tennis, docks, theater and carnivals.
But the real star might just be the incredible costumes that Miss Fisher gets to wear (which is not a diss to the fantastic Essie Davis, who plays her to perfection). I was lucky enough to go see the costume exhibition for series 3 in Brisbane yesterday, and also managed to get a ticket for an evening with Marion Boyce, the brilliant costume designer on the show. What a double act of genius, fabulousness and fun!
There are lots and lots more photos on Flickr, with some notes on the costumes, so if that’s your jam, head there!
The exhibition is in the Old Government House in Brisbane, built in 1860’s, a lovely historical setting in the bend of Brisbane river. The exhibition is organized in rooms, with relevant costumes in each room. If you go, do find your way not only to the main exhibition rooms but also Marion Boyce’s workroom and a cellar with a staged murder scene, which I almost missed!
The Hall was the main room and the one you entered first. Here you have four Phryne’s evening gowns, a suit worn by Jack, and a gorgeous suit worn by Dr Mac, who prefers trouser suits. The dresses are exquisite, light as feathers, shimmering, slinky creations that Essie Davis was born to wear. The gold dress was perhaps my favorite, and it was surprising to see just how sheer it was! I wonder whether Essie wore a slip underneath it in the show, or perhaps it was just lit in a way that didn’t reveal the sheerness. Time to re-watch the show, especially series 3!
The mermaid room had the itty bitty golden costume Phryne wore to perform a Houdini-esque escape stunt from a water tank, a coat for lounging at home, a midnight blue evening dress and a glorious kimono. There’s more about the mermaid dress below, and the evening dress is one that I also mention below, which is just a panel at the front and back, held together at the sides. The designs look deceptively simple but the results are gorgeous!
The drawing room was next, with dresses from Dot and Aunt P, as well as a trouser suit of Phryne’s. There was also a sleuthing outfit for Phryne, with wide white pants and an orange patterned coat, with almost a 1970s pattern. This room also had a trio of Phryne’s trouser suits with fabulous coats and hats, in front of a painted library scene. The purple hat with feathers was probably my favorite one and of course the one of which my photos were fuzzy. There was no flash photography allowed, so that explains why some photos look quite dark.
The sitting room had outfits worn at home, with a feather topped pajama for Phryne, a stunning silver dressing gown, a dress for Dot and a trouser suit of Phryne’s with another top that could be from 1970s with a shell design. In the corner of the room was the green dress worn by Phryne when she danced with Jack in a lovely moment between the two. Was there ever a slinkier dress! Bias cut makes dresses just slide on the body, which explains why many of the dresses on the show are cut that way. It also makes the best of the vintage fabrics, which ms Boyce explained later are much narrower than modern fabrics.
The tennis pavilion was a narrow corridor connecting the main exhibition to a room for jewellery from the show, and culminating in Marion Boyce’s workroom. The tennis outfits were some of my favorites: the dashing white and cream outfit for Jack, one of the few times he wore anything else than his grey suit, two superb outfits for Phryne, also in shades of white, and a rare costume by a guest star, an outrageous lounging-by-the-pool orange concoction that Jack had the dubious pleasure of unfastening. Compare the tennis outfits then to those of today. In 1920s all outfits were made to be fabulous (within the best circles only, of course), well made and tailored. Modern easy to wear and wash outfits are a recent invention.
The workroom was fascinating, with several hats, a few of Phryne’s costumes and best of all, Dot’s ethereal wedding dress under an arch in front of the windows. The workroom also offers some glimpses into the design process, with an open sketch book, fabric and feather samples, and the sequin fabric that was cut into the mermaid costume (see below). After the workroom, I made my way to a dress-up room where I tried on a fabulous 1920s evening coat/cape with a (fake) fur collar. I posed in front of a large poster with Phryne on it and hoped my sensible flat ballerinas didn’t show underneath the cape.
I hadn’t realized there was a cellar scene until I got my hands on a printed layout of the rooms (doh!). It wasn’t easy to find and I had to ask directions twice. But it was worth it. It was a small room in the cellar with a domed ceiling, suitably muted lighting, with a dead lady in impeccably designed dress, lying at the feet of Bert and Cec and Jack and Phryne. There were some travel trunks and fake money scattered about as well. The light was so low that I couldn’t get a good photo of Jack and Phryne’s outfits. Well, Phryne’s trouser suit and coat were perhaps the plainest she’s ever worn, with a floppy rimmed light tan color hat to match. Very sensible for murder scenes, for a change!
While I was touring the exhibition for the second time, making sure I had seen everything and gotten pictures of all the wonderful details, one of the volunteer guides pointed out two ladies who were going around the costumes and – gasp – touching them. This was alright, as it was actually ms Boyce herself, inspecting the exhibits and straightening out a scarf here, or shifting a dress to make it fall more elegantly. Her dedication to presenting the costumes to their best advantage is extraordinary.
But it shouldn’t be surprising, as the exhibition was really well done. There were a few screens with clips from the show, choice props to evoke the era, a few fully painted back drops that put the dresses in their element, many of the dresses were on pedestals that revolved slowly, and best of all, many of the description stands included pieces of the fabrics from the dresses, so that you could touch and feel how sumptuous and slinky, soft and seductive they were. Many ladies there said the same, that if it wasn’t for these swathes of try-me fabrics, our fingers would have itched with desire to run our hands all over the precious and fragile dresses.
Listening to Marion Boyce tell about her process with the show, and about some of her favorite pieces, after seeing the costumes themselves was such a treat. Ms Boyce is not only a genius costume designer, but also very funny and warm on stage, and humble about her own success. The venue was marvelous, Room Three Sixty is on the 10th floor of a side building on the QUT campus with a 360 view over Brisbane. Getting to the top and being handed a complimentary glass of bubbly (or whatever was your fancy), then seeing this breathtaking view at sunset, no less!, was the perfect way to prepare to ms Boyce’s chat with Marie-Louise Thiele, the moderator and interviewer.
It was equally fun to watch the other participants, classy, sassy ladies of all ages, many of them dressed in their best Phryne wear. Embroidered coats, chinoiserie, black bobbed hair, scarves, jewelry, wide legged pants, dazzling hair bands – these ladies went all out! I felt like a country bumpkin in my jeans, even with the nice cardigan I bought for the Sydney Opera. At least I was wearing my gorgeous jewel-toned pashmina, with swirling patterns of Phryne-esque colors of blues, turquoises, and shades of plum and pink.
Some fun moments from the talk. Ms Boyce was asked about how she signed on the show, and she explained that she usually doesn’t do TV shows as they are so taxing. The Miss Fisher show produces an episode in 16 days each, which stresses the costume design department to their limits. But ms Boyce had read a few of the books by chance some years earlier, and when the opportunity came, she couldn’t say no. Phryne’s world is so opulent and fabulous, with frequent excursions to distinct sub-worlds of theater, beach, fashion shows and circus, among others, that allow for an even greater opportunity to stretch her skills.
The budget is also very limited, like on all TV shows, compared to movies, and when she was asked how they manage to keep to it, ms Boyce answered that they don’t. Many of the costumes include fabric, buttons, feathers, jewellery or lace from ms Boyce’s own personal collections, so she ends up owning many of the pieces made for the show. She loves them like they were her children, and loathes to part with them, but will donate a big bulk of the exquisite costumes to Melbourne museum. Funnily, ms Boyce quoted her agent (or possible accountant?) as saying “You know Marion, you take these jobs to make money….”. That got the biggest laugh of the evening from the audience.
Many of the costumes include vintage fabrics, which are not only delicate, but might be too narrow to make a proper dress. There are a couple of dresses on the show, one of Phryne’s and one of Aunt Prudence’s that are basically a handmade sheath underneath covered with a vintage fabric that just hangs in panels on the front and back, sown together at the shoulders and held together on the sides by clasps or sashes. And they are fabulous, very true to the era in their silhouette. That was actually what ms Boyce said of designing vintage dresses: if you get the style, the silhouette and the proportions correctly, you can play around with the details. This was in response to her incredible work on The Dressmaker, a film with Kate Winslet, which was one of the most surprising and darkly funny movies I have seen in a long time. With stunning costumes, of course, as it tells a story of the titular dressmaker who returns to her small Australian home town in 1951 after years abroad. ETA: I also saw an exhibition on Marion Boyce’s costumes for The Dressmaker!
The one costume that took the most time was the Mermaid costume, that Phryne wore to her water tank stunt. The fabric caused them a lot of headache as it needed to be something that not only looked great dry, but that wouldn’t darken, shrink or fall to pieces by being immersed in water. They finally found a fabric with sown sequins that they cut into fish scales and built the costume from that (see right). The shimmering, translucent tail was created to fall away before Phryne went into the tank as it was more delicate.
Words and photos don’t do justice to the wonderful costumes or the funny, interesting tales of ms Boyce. So if you are a fan of the show, or 1920s costumes in general, and happen to be in one of the cities the exhibition tours, do yourself a favor and go see it. It’s the time very well spent, I guarantee you!
And don’t forget, there are more photos on Flickr!