For the next two months, Ayers House Museum will be home to a stunning exhibition of costumes by award–winning designer Marion Boyce from the third series of Australian television drama Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
Based on novels by Australian author Kerry Greenwood, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries follows the personal and professional life of Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis), a private detective in 1920s Melbourne.
Boyce is responsible for the costuming of the entire cast, with a particular focus on bringing the main character of Phryne to life through vibrant and authentic 1920s pieces.
“[Phryne is] quite a loved character,” Boyce says. “When Kerry wrote her, she certainly had very much a fashion angle in mind so it was great fun exploring that, [as well as finding] the essence of Kerry’s idea of Phryne and how to make it work on the screen.”
Boyce’s interest in fashion design began at a young age. Her demeanour is warm and enthusiastic as she reminisces on her childhood, telling The Adelaide Review about her next-door neighbour Miss Fisk and her glass conservatory full of treasures, including silver scissors in the shape of swans, where she spent most of her time as a four-year-old.
Her passion only increased as she got older. “I used to always be in my mum’s dress-up box,” she reflects. “By the age of 11, I [would] drive my mother completely insane. I said once, ‘I want a full-length denim coat,’ and she’d come back [after having] searched and, you know, she’d been quite fantastic, but I said,‘Sorry, it’s the wrong cut’. So from the age of 11 I bought my own clothes.”
She would also ask her father for help with dyeing her own clothes. “I’d find blouses and say, ‘It’s not the right colour, we need to make it this colour,’ so my father learned how to dye and he actually became quite good at it. [Design] was always a passion, and I was quite a determined child!”
Boyce studied pattern making in school and went to RMIT to commence fashion design, although she did not complete the course. She then started designing for fashion parades that took place at nightclubs, and was offered a role as costume designer for a film by the time she was 21.
“I always knew I didn’t want to do mainstream fashion and you know the arrogance of youth, I thought, ‘Well that’s easy, I can do that!’ I realised that there was an enormous amount of work, but I also realised that this was where I wanted to be.”
Boyce’s technique is precise, thorough and masterful. When preparing for a film, she conducts in-depth research of the era she is aiming to portray to replicate authenticity. “[I research] not just fashion but history, art, architecture and social etiquette.
You need to research every facet of life to understand character: the period, the time, [and] what informed people.” Boyce has designed costumes for a variety of projects including films Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles and The Dressmaker, as well as television shows, mini-series and a number of commercials for large-scale companies.
She states that she is particularly inspired by early 1930s fashion. “The early 30s just has this supreme elegance with the bias cutting, the fabrics and the cuts – they’re glorious, and I think [the designers of the 30s] are truly geniuses.”
Her favourite Australian designer is Akira Isogawa. “He has an incredibly beautiful aesthetic. He’s not trend-driven and his fabrics are really glorious.” Her own style is unique, playful and whimsical.
“I love movement and things that make me laugh. I really love fashion that doesn’t take itself too seriously.” In the exhibition, viewers can expect to see an element of cheekiness in the pieces on display. One of Boyce’s favourite pieces is an original 1920s pyjama set that she bought for the character of Phryne, which can be seen in the upstairs hallway of Ayers House.
“It made me laugh and laugh and laugh! It’s this glorious piece of fluff; it goes from yellows to pinks, and, the whole idea that you would actually put it on in the morning to write your letters – this little cloud! – it just sums up the 20s and the excess and amboyance.” The exhibition itself ts perfectly into the exquisite Ayers House Museum, managed by the National Trust.
The mansion, built in a Colonial Regency/Victorian style, is an opulent and elegant building that was renowned for its glamorous parties in the late 1800s. The exhibition is spread across three storeys of the stunning mansion, and brought to life by backdrops, music, and props from the third series of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. “‘I really adored being in this house. It’s a really beautiful house – the detail is glorious. [The exhibition] has settled here really nicely and it feels at home.”
A highlight of the exhibition includes a stunning sequinned one-piece, worn by Davis in a mermaid-themed dance scene. Situated atop the stairs of Ayers House, the iridescent number is showcased on a rotating plinth next to a projection of the scene is it featured in.
“I spent a long time finding a fabric that wasn’t going to change colour in the water, since some of the luminosity of sequins doesn’t keep when wet. I also had to find a tarnished piece of fabric as it couldn’t be modern and do an enormous amount of testing in the water, but it was great fun. The chase and adventure is an enormous amount of fun. There’s a great joy when it comes to it.”
The exhibition is a testament to Boyce’s remarkable attention to detail. Each piece is scrupulously planned and constructed in relation to the series. “It took me days to find a fabric that would move and ow in a scene where Phryne runs down the stairs,”
Boyce notes while pointing out the lead weights sewn into the hem of a luxuriant robe to encourage movement. “A lot goes into finding one fabric. A lot of them are original – we try and incorporate a lot of original pieces.”
Even the mannequins on which the clothes are displayed were a stylistic choice on Boyce’s part: “I picked these mannequins for the show. There were lots of different sorts but the character of Phryne has an enormous amount of exuberance, and I wanted something that was highly gestured. She needs that movement – it really suited the period.
When I’m putting these shows together, I work out exactly what the gesture’s going to be for each outfit so a lot of stuff goes into putting it together.”
The Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries Costume Exhibition Ayers House Museum 288 North Terrace Until February 14 missfisherexhibition.com.au