• Charlotte Dallison

Designer Profile: Marion Boyce

Marion Boyce is someone I’ve admired from afar for a long time. My first experience in consciously viewing her work was when watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries upon my return to Australia from living in London. I was feeling pretty disillusioned about returning to boring old Australia. But when I watched this enchanting ABC show, the wardrobe and world Marion and her team had created for Phryne Fisher was so irresistible that suddenly even Australia seemed glamorous (and I make no secret of the fact that the programme was part of the pull-factor that made me move to Melbourne later on!). Around that same time The Dressmaker film was being released, an equally inspiring visual marvel, full of glamorously gowned characters, once again all set in humble old Australia. When the movie came up I did what I usually do and I looked up who this costume designer was - of course it was Marion Boyce!

After being captivated by her work, I researched her I came to know she’s one of Australia’s most prolific costume designers, and has been working in the film industry consistently for over 30 years. I’ve since been to exhibitions held in partnership with the National Trust, showcasing the costumes from both aforementioned dramas. Between lockdowns I also had the privilege of being put in touch with her when I began sourcing stock for my vintage shop. Marion graciously invited me to her studio and was so generous in sharing her knowledge on sourcing with me.

When I walked into her space carrying an early 2000s Moschino handbag, she instantly recognised the design by identifying the way the strap was affixed to the body of the bag, and it turned out she’d used a similar bag in a look for Crocodile Dundee in LA. Now that is a woman with an eye...!

She’s since been gracious enough to sit down for a chat to discuss her career and creativity for my Designer Profile series. I hope you’re as inspired as I am by her story, her hard-working nature and her appreciation and deep knowledge of fashion design and costume..

The glamorous world of Miss Phryne Fisher.

I start off with the rather obvious courtesy question of how Marion is doing in this second lockdown? “Well I’m not good at sitting still…!” Like me she’d just moved house, and unlike me she’d just been working on her garden, plus overseeing various Christmas campaigns (all rather complicatedly via Sydney and/or virtually as Melbourne was still in semi lockdown when we spoke in October). Regardless it’s clear she’s still in demand and she’s still busy. And once we got the covid-courtesies out of the way we jump straight into it…

So how did Marion get started? Where did her fascinations and design abilities stem from? “Well I was the kind of child who was always obsessed with things like my grandmother’s box of antique lace, I would spend hours rummaging through it and just looking.” One assumes this was a welcome escape when growing up in a large house with seven siblings. “After that I started visiting op shops from about age 12. I would then dye the things I’d found, reinvent them. It was a clear passion of mine, reworking clothes.” You hear of fashion designers doing this kind of thing and often on-selling their up-cycled creations at markets, etc. Was Marion entrepreneurial like this too? “I wasn’t selling anything per se, I was just creating things and making things.”

Her family clocked on to the fact that her hobby was becoming a full-blown obsession. “My parents eventually gave me my own space, a little space, where I could go on reworking these clothes. So in that they encouraged my pursuits. My father even used to help me do things like dye clothes in my mother’s pasta pots! Though she never knew that of course...” This strikes me as unusual for a child, albeit very impressive. Were any of her seven siblings like this too? “My mother had grown up as only child and had no idea what to do with us all, so we’d all just disappear and go into our own worlds. We really could do what we wanted all day, as long as you were home half and hour before dinner, or it’d be obvious you’d been out all day!”

After completing school Marion opted to study fashion design at RMIT. Upon graduating she started doing fashion parades at night-clubs in Melbourne. “One night a producer or director saw one of my fashion parades and asked me to costume a feature film. I just thought ‘Great! Sure!’ That’s the arrogance of youth I suppose!” So she did the film and in that found her calling. “I never wanted to be a traditional fashion designer or anything so in costuming this film I really found my tribe.” After the film had wrapped she came across an ad in the newspaper looking for wardrobe hands for Channel 10. “I thought that working for Channel 10 would be fantastic as Young Talent Time was one of their shows. Little did I know, when I got the job I was to be put on Prisoner!” Working on Prisoner was far from a jail sentence for Marion however, she said it’s where she learnt most and gained the foundations required for a career as a costume designer.

At the time working in film and television wasn’t as normal a career choice as it may be perceived now. “My parents were very upset I’d decided to pursue film - my father said it was a ‘World full of divorcees and homosexuals’.” Eventually they came to support her, and somewhat understand her career choice. “Years ago I worked on a mini series with Gregory Peck in it. There was such high security on set and my mother was desperate to meet him but wasn’t able to. I’m sure she never forgave me for that!”

Marion happy in her studio.

Post Prisoner and Channel 10, she was poached by Crawford Productions. Marion came to work under a person named Claire Griffith - “Claire was really quite generous with what she shared.” After a few years she came and went from projects for Crawford, freelancing on her own then returning to jobs for the production company. By the time she was 26 she was working on a big budget series as the head costume designer and her path as a costumer designer was set.

As a young, established creative I imagine Marion must have felt confident on her path. But when did Hollywood come knocking? “You just get phone-calls. People would see your work and get in touch. Suddenly I found myself working on projects with Gregory Peck or for Disney! During that time I was on the road for about 7 - 8 years without much of a break. So much so that friends and colleagues here [in Australia] thought I’d moved to LA. I was home so infrequently really, despite having a home here... I often refer to us as ‘Carnies with a better title!’”

Her time on the road and working independently were clearly fruitful. Working on productions such as Crocodile Dundee in LA and The Starter Wife (for which she was Emmy-nominated!). At that same time she would’ve or could’ve permanently relocated to Hollywood, but her home life had altered after getting married and forming a close bond with her stepson, Sam, who’s now 18. “We travel for our work all the time, so in some ways it doesn’t matter where you live. Anyway, as much as I love America, I wouldn’t want to live there full-time” It seems a bold career move, to stay in the southern hemisphere despite being so in-demand. “Really I just wanted to build my family life, and that’s in Melbourne for me - so I certainly don’t regret it. Of course, I’ve been lucky to have had so many great projects here since.”

Still from the set of The Dressmaker. A strong example of the type of project Marion has been able to costume in Australia.

Which brings us to Miss Fisher. Any costume fanatic I know is obsessed with this show. Set in the seductive world of 1920s Melbourne, following Miss Fisher, lady detective. The wardrobe on this show is so strong, it’s basically the reason one watches the programme in the first place! What was it like for Marion? “Well I love details, so it was a perfect project for me. I had a very small team on Miss Fisher, and a very small budget... Sometimes it would take eight weeks to find the right thing to complete an outfit. When you finally found that last piece to complete a look it’s a very exhilarating feeling.”

A touching story from that time was when Marion’s assistant, Gareth Blatha - “He’s an incredibly talented individual” - went the extra mile to aid Marion. “There was a scene set amidst the snow and I desperately wanted a small acorn shaped button for the character Dr Mac. I looked and looked and was on the verge of giving up. Then one morning I came to work (I usually get to work around 5.30-6am-ish as it’s the only time I have to design) and on my desk was a beautiful box waiting for me. Inside was a perfectly hand carved acorn that Gareth had made for me!” Wow to think what dedication Marion instills in her team. It’s certainly not taken for granted though. “It makes you cry when someone cares that much… Of course a few hours later his partner called me saying he was relieved and that Gareth had finished the bloody button and could put dinner on the table for him again!”

It’s not a secret that there wasn’t much of a budget for Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and when I visited Marion’s studio she showed me a few of the beautiful costumes, at which point I thought it was a little peculiar that they were still in her possession. “Well I did a bit of a deal with the Every Cloud Productions where when I used my fabrics I could keep the corresponding costumes.... In any case, in order to pull the looks together we were helped by many kind people in the industry who really were very generous with what they enabled us to source.”

The wonderful wardrobe of Miss Phryne Fisher for Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries set in 1920s Melbourne.

Finding fabulous fabric is once thing but how did Marion come to create such remarkable looks for these characters, all within the realms of 1920s Australia. “You need to understand every facet of the era before designing, you must understand why an era was the way it was, what society wanted people to be, and what the silhouette was exactly - the underwear, etc. Miss Phryne Fisher, for example, was a total maverick, which actually gave me some freedom in what I designed… I used huge amount of cloth and fabric for her looks as Phryne was quite cyclonic when entering a room!” Another freedom Marion had was the fact she could create looks with a chicer, Parisian influence, despite the 1920s in Australia really being more influenced by the UK.

She also referenced her own archive of wares she’d been gathering for practically her entire life. “I have an incredibly large collection, which I’ve almost collected subconsciously. I’m always vintage shopping. A large amount of my collected treasures - clothes, fabric, accessories - ended up on screen for Miss Fisher, and that’s why you collect them in the first place, of course!” I will just add here that Marion’s large studio is FULL of clothes (many pieces I could only dream of getting my hands on). “In the end I used an enormous amount of original buttons and trims, however we made about 98% of Phryne's [Miss Fisher’s] clothes. Vintage from that era is harder to use as people were more petite and fabric that aged often loses a bit of bounce and brilliance.”

The thing that astounds me is the ratio of outstandingly detailed, beautiful 1920s costumes versus a gruelling schedule and small budget. How on earth did she do it?! It seems that so few people could handle such a task. “The schedule on Miss Fisher was mind-blowingly hard, we were doing two episodes every 16 days, there was only one fitting enabled every two weeks, so I really had to know her [Essie Davis’] figure. As a result, every single thing was meticulously organised. I would put together a colour palette to work off for every episode to make it cohesive. It’s sort of like a painting, doing it that way, with the actors in the foreground and the extras in the background.”

Aunt Prudence, a series favourite character, in her 1920s wares.

After three seasons she was ready to leave her post as Miss Fisher’s designer. “I adored the actors and my team, it was a great time of my life. It was a job that lasted over seven years too, which is a really long time for something like that… I suppose I was scared of being pigeonholed as the 1920s girl as well.”

When I connect that Marion wasn’t responsible for the Miss Fisher’s Film looks, a film which came out in early 2020 (pre-lockdown) everything clicks. I noticed when watching the film myself, that the costumes seemed a tad glossier than in the visually-perfect television programme. At this point I share with Marion my thoughts on the film’s costume, as I saw - well half saw - it in the cinema in February. “When I saw the Miss Fisher film-earlier this year and noticed the costumes were a bit lack-lustre - well actually overly lustrous as they seemed a bit shiny? I assumed this was the fault of the big screen?” I went on to share that I’d had a head cold that week of seeing the film, and as it was a pre-planned Friday night outing I decided to attend despite my condition (again pre-pandemic). I’d drugged myself up on Codral and right before the screening I’d enjoyed a negroni at a bar across the road. This lead to me sleeping through practically all of the film, bar the first 20 minutes. Oh dear. When I tell Marion this she giggles hysterically.

And what about The Dressmaker? “So I did the third season of Miss Fisher at the same time as I did The Dressmaker” Oh my God… “Yes, I know!” In order to handle the two jobs the ABC had to provide Marion with the scripts for Miss Fisher far in advance so she could get started. “I was overseas buying at that time anyway. When I came back I had to keep two different workrooms, two teams, two locations. I was extremely organised and everything was compartmentalised as a result. Buyers could only call me at certain times of the day…” I interject and say that sounds very high pressure! “Well I quite like high pressure, but costume design is quite high pressure… You have to be quite adaptable… It’s better to not panic!”

Like Miss Fisher, the story line of The Dressmaker involved costumes so much more than the average project. And in The Dressmaker, clothes are the arc of the storyline. How did Marion cope with such pressure and yet conjure such incredible creations for this new film? “I went to the location and there was essentially nothing there, just tufts of grass. As I was standing there I saw a beautiful bird with a huge wingspan that glided down to us - that’s when it clicked. The plumage these women had, the capes, the feathers… That’s who these characters were.” My mind flicks back to the film, when the frumpy redhead character emerging in her new outfit post-makeover. She raises her sleeves that resembled such a striking set of wings, even an albatross would be put to shame!

“The 1950s are probably the era that’s the most copied to this day. I needed to make something that was very exciting, I didn’t want it to look too American as at that stage the US was still quite independent with it’s style. I looked at many images by Avedon and Irving Penn - their photos were exciting and fresh, lively. I thought that that was the influence The Dressmaker needed.”

Influences of a birds wingspan and the images of Irving Penn are clear in Marion's costume designs for The Dressmaker.

I then ask her whether she even gets time to work on set? “I do work on set. If things are being established on set I make an effort to be there. The first time something’s put on a character you need to be there to make it happen.” She’s not above anything either. “I do a lot of the big background dressing scenes - involving extras and so on. That can be a lot of fun as it’s sort of freehand dressing - you never know who you’ll get!”

Marion’s work for Miss Fisher and The Dressmaker haven’t just been for the screen. As I mentioned earlier I’ve had the pleasure of viewing her works in person amidst the aforementioned exhibitions with the National Trust - The Dressmaker’s costumes being shown at Ripponlea in Melbourne, and Miss Fisher’s costumes in Parramatta Government House in Sydney. Marion didn’t just contribute to these exhibitions, she was totally involved in setting them up too. “I knew I needed to get involved in order to convey the characters correctly…. of course a hat can become dowdy if worn wrong, or equally it can come to life on the right tilt!”

“Of course a hat can become dowdy if worn wrong, or equally it can come to life on the right tilt!”

Her collection isn’t just made up of clothing, but books as well. When I visited her in person at her studio, before this interview, I was as impressed with her library as I was with the costumes themselves. How on earth does someone so busy have time to read so much? “I have a very busy mind, I never sit still! You have to keep reading, visiting galleries, and travelling, because it does inform your work.” I can relate as not being able to go to any major art gallery had personally been one of the biggest challenges for me throughout 2020. ” What books does she specifically collect you may ask? “Well, I really adore 1880s - 1930s children’s fancy dress costumes.” But of course!

How does Marion feel about technology (obviously we’ve all been forced to use a lot more of it this year). “I occasionally use it - Zoom post covid, the odd mood board for a job on Pinterest and Instagram is great for vintage buying. But for most things I hand draw and make a bible for the team and I to reference. That way my ideas are out and together we can see our group aim, our group goal. That creates a sense of achievement at the end too.” Naturally such visual communications are necessary for collaborating with any art department, hair and make up team, and the DOP as well.

Hair, makeup, lighting and photography, along with costumes, bond strongly to create characters like Phryne Fisher.

And on working with well-known or famous people: “Well there have been a few times where I’ve gotten the job, find out who’s on it and think ‘far out!’ but really they’re just people, you get over that very quickly” I will mention here, Marion is extraordinarily humble. “The really great actors, the Gregory Peck's and the Patrick Stewart's that I’ve worked with are wonderful. They are superstars but they also want to work and collaborate with you. I’d say the people who haven’t quite got to that level of stardom are more the divas.” Knowing a few out of work actors myself, I can say they’re certainly not the easiest dinner party guest. “All I’ll say is actors from the golden age of Hollywood had a lot more mystery, no political opinions or anything like that.”

The thing is, Marion is famous now too, more so than many actors or directors in this country. The internet means the notion of fame has changed as well. Personally I’m much more likely to flip out upon seeing an admired fashion journalist, furniture designer, or even a design influencer on the street, over spying some random Netflix actor. And between you and me, I am a big fan of Marion’s (in case you can’t tell). “I am a very private person. When I started in this job you were just the back room girl... now you’re a part of the publicity machine as well!” She admits to her own exacting high standards in her work. “In my workroom nobody is allowed to use a hot glue gun - everyone has to do things properly!

Another major shift that’s really solidified lately is that people are now watching television over films. There’s no denying that TV productions are attracting higher calibre of contributors these days. Does Marion think the cinema will make a comeback? “It’ll be quite curious to see how people react when cinemas properly reopen again, who knows! In my own life having takeaway for the first time in five months was SO exciting.” Personally I’ missed the cinema almost as much as the gallery last year. And I'm committed - I’ve literally moved into apartments due to their proximity to a cinema as I’m not much of a TV gal myself (though I watch it all the time, of course!). I’m keen to know what Marion Boyce watches on television? “Mrs. America - the costumes are fantastic.”

TV or film. As long as the costumes are good...!

Lastly, what about fashion? Do her projects morph their way into her wardrobe, or does she have a uniform? “Look, period project or not, I always get to the end of a job and think ‘Oh My God Marion, what have you come as!’ " She shares that after her Emmy-nominated work for The Starter Wife she found herself with a high-end handbag addiction, which she swiftly got rid of when she realised she was not really and "it-bag" person. “I basically wear the same thing all the time, no matter where I am, even if I’m down the coast. It’s quite streamlined really.”

And which fashion designers does she like, “Well look, there are some designers I really love - of course some of them I can wear and some I can’t. Dries van Noten I LOVE!" We then take a moment to talk about his documentary film, Dries, which anyone interested in fashion must watch! “As for Australian designers, I love Lee Matthews. I love having the freedom to interpret her clothes however you want, and of course they’re well made and in great fabrics.”

“I often think fashion gets far, far too serious, and it should be joyful. Dries Van Noten makes me laugh. I think our commercialism as a society and consumerism has meant fashion is lacking in personality somewhat, however in the last few years I’ve seen glimmers of hope with certain designers bucking the system… Obviously the pandemic has helped this - people have literally gone back to making things themselves, which is a good thing.”

What’s next? Her upcoming project is set in a rather grim part of the 1980s. In this it’s clear her work is incredibly diverse. “I really enjoy the diversity. Some of my most enjoyable projects have been set in current times too.”

After all of this one can't help but wonder when does Marion have time for a personal life - because it’s clear she has one, yet she's bloody busy! “It’s not easy for families or relationships when working in this industry. My sister has gotten in the habit of prompting me to call people on their birthday’s… I mean without that kind of thing I’d have no friends left at all!!” I finish by asking her whether she ever sleeps “Look, I’m not a great sleeper but I do love my job! Really my job as a costume designer is to help the actor interpret the character. It’s paramount you get the costume right so the actor will walk the right way, become one with the character… We [film folk] are so privileged to be let into people’s worlds, to witness the generosity of the human spirit like that… That’s it really.”

Passion, talent, hard work and sacrifice, all leading to beautiful results for so many viewers to enjoy. That is Marion’s career in my eyes. I can tell you that she’s a fabulous woman too - giggly, humble, eloquent and bold. I notice she’s much more of a wordsmith than most other designers I know. In person she’s extremely observant, yet very easy to be around. Everything she does and has chosen to do makes perfect sense in my eyes. And I think that we Australians are terribly lucky to have her.

Visit Marion Boyce's website here, and instagram here. All images courtesy of Marion Boyce.

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