The Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries series is set in 1920s Melbourne, starring Essie Davis as Phryne Fisher and is based on Phryne’s personal and private exploits as a detective. The costume designer for series
1 and 2 is Australia’s own Marion Boyce.
The following interview was transcribed via a telephone conversation between Marion Boyce and Michelle Moriarty from Vintage Made magazine, from questions put forth by Rie Natalenko.
The Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries series is based on the written work of Kerry Greenwood, aired on the ABC and adapted (by Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger) for television. It is set in 1920s Melbourne, starring Essie Davis as Phryne Fisher and is based on Phryne’s personal and private exploits as a detective.
“I started studying fashion at RMIT, learning patternmaking and cutting, but I was not that interested in mainstream fashion. I needed to put myself through college and found a job with a costume designer. From this I started doing fashion parades at night clubs, and was soon approached to design for a film. This was a better fit. I have been designing for many years now.” Marion Boyce, on how she got started in costume design.
What sort of research do you do for the series and the character of Phryne?
“I am always doing research in some form or other. I have a great love of the 20s and 30s period but I also read a lot…history, social etiquette, books on architecture, painting, theatre and novels. It is helpful to get involved in the whole period and its social nuances.”
How did you decide on the ‘Phryne’ look?
“Creating the look is challenging for an existing character, especially to adapt it for film, as you are interpreting someone else’s vision. I find this aspect terrifying. To get a feel for Phryne I started reading the books and got a real feel for where Kerry Greenwood (the author) was going. It was never going to work to try and follow directly from the book, so instead I created a ‘Phryne style’ that would stay true to Kerry’s intent.”
How much freedom are you given in the design?
“Quite a lot really. It is a curious thing…there are lots of meetings and discussions from various information pools and departments. You read the script and sort it out from there (where you are heading) as every episode has its own feel to it. You need to design for the emotional content, as well as the time period, to bring something else to the table for each episode”.
Did you design based on ONLY the actual styles of the times (do reproductions) or do you transport yourself back to the 20s and imagine what a designer of those times would be thinking, then come up with new things?
“Phryne was not a typical or traditional lady from 1920s Melbourne. She was ahead of her time and a bit bohemian—she made a lot of her own rules, so her wardrobe was developed according to her character. Phryne was a very stylish, exotic creature with overseas adventures and influences. So, it was a conscious decision to make her ‘new and shiny’ as opposed to a ‘faded glory’ that would have come from using exclusive 1920s pieces. We came up with a lot of new things for Phryne.”
Do you prefer to design the evening clothes or the day clothes for Phryne?
“It depends. Some of my favourites are the day clothes—day outfits have a particular journey to travel. I may have a piece of cloth and an idea but you cannot complete the design until you have all the components…it is a hunt and compiling them helps inform the design.”
How many costumes are there, on average, for each episode?
“Wow! It depends on the script and what is happening. There was very little used from the 1st series. You make day coats, evening coats, opera coats, bridge coats, car coats, evening dresses, day ensembles, underwear, hats and handbags. It totally depends on script requirements how many. Around 95% of Phryne’s outfits are made from scratch.”
Are costumes reused? Where do the outfits go after they are used on set? Will they be on exhibition in the future?
“Some of the things are hired and what is hired is always returned. There was an exhibition of costumes recently at Rippon Lea Estate (an historic property located in Elsternwick, Victoria, under the care of the National Trust of Australia). I own a lot of the chinoiserie, jewellery and accessories. Some of the fabrics come from my own collection, so they will be preserved for the future. The rest go into storage.”
Do you have a favourite Phryne outfit?
“There is a dress in series 2, where I had a piece of black and white beaded cloth (that I had picked up in Italy). I made it into a sheath dress—this is one of my favourites. It was an interesting learning curve to create the correct drape, but it was good fun.”
Did any of the outfits present any interesting problems?
“Often. We have to be aware of the script and be true to the mood and character. You are only successful if you design for the emotional and physical content, taking safety and the need for multiples (of the same outfit) and other factors into consideration (many factors). It can be problematic to create an outfit for a scene that requires grace, drape and a karate chop, for example. By looking closely at vintage clothing you get to be informed on how the clothing was pieced together and this can tell you a lot. The construction methods are becoming a lost art.”
Where do you source the fabrics from?
“All over the world. A lot come from India and Italy but also from Australia. I am lucky enough to travel quite a lot, but things sometimes come from strange sources or collections.”
Is there anything else you think our readers would like to hear about the process of making such delicious costumes?
“Clothes should never get too serious…they should have a sense of humour and you should be able to have fun with them. You put a lot of yourself into it (creating designs) and it is nerve wracking. I am thrilled that people are interested in vintage again. Vintage can tell us so much about the history of the world. Fashion now is very disposable and homogenised. Even in remote villages in central China you find ‘brand names’ and it is a pity because we are losing the traditional beauty, textures and cloth that help define us.”
Vintage Made is a relatively new biannual magazine all about the love of vintage, and the girls who run the mag were kind enough to share this recent interview they snared with Marion.
All images copyright and courtesy ABC TV.