The Sapphires: a costume drama

The Vietnam War is raging. Thousands of miles away, four Aboriginal girls stand in a row, orange dolls in front of an alien panel. They waver as nerves cut through their steely calm.

Little do the singers know that they are on their way to being famous. Little do we know - the way showbiz should be - that, in reality, the actresses are wearing dresses held together by sticky tape.

Just moments before, The Sapphires costumes had been hastily repaired.

"These are demure girls, but these dresses had no hem, they were chopped off to the wahzoo", recalls costume designer, Tess Schofield, as she remembers shooting the audition scene in the hit film. "We had 15 minutes to add a couple of inches to each dress. Some of it was done with sticky tape - it was nuts."

As homespun as the outfits may have been, the Aussie hit is set to gross $15million at the box office and two of its stars, Jessica Mauboy and Deborah Mailman, have just been honoured at the Deadly Awards.

Schofield, who is now working on the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Kate Grenville's The Secret River, speaks about the period outfits with affection - charming shortcomings and all.

Overseeing over 1000 costumes and working with a team of about 15 on the looks, Schofield recalls the challanges of the project. "Originally I was told 50 extras, on the day, we'd have 200.

"It's the biggest number of costumes that I've had to deal with," she said. She made sure that plenty of make-up was applied to tell-tale tattoos, checking hundreds of extras for any giveaway contemporary alarm bells.

The filming, packed into a "mad" eight weeks, unfolded in Victoria's Yorta Yorta country, Western Sydney sets, inner Sydney locations, and, of course, Vietnam.

There, the usual routines of the costume department were thrown - in that predictably unpredictable way that is so much a part of that bright, frenetic country.

The team's costume bus, which has a trailer attached to it, was a no-go for the Asian location filming. "They don't use them," explains Schofield, "so, the head of the Vietnamese production company arranged for a school bus to be transformed. Rails were put down the sides, seats removed, some days we'd leap onto the bus and clothes would fall down. It was an absolute circus."

But there were, of course, upsides to the country. "In Vietnam, luckily, you can get a suit made in a day."

It was a far cry from the workshop in Leichhardt where the costume department in Sydney set up base – but even at home, there is no such thing as an entirely smooth costume preparation.

Every show outfit had to be made in four versions and in multiples of two or three for each girl - something that put paid to any chance of the dresses being sourced from vintage suppliers.

"A lot of designs were done on the backs of envelopes, we ran out of time."

And as much of a star role as they play, the famous sparkling blue dresses were almost a tragedy. "The first thing that happened was that the wonderful fabric I had chosen for the sequin dresses wasn't accessible in Australia. So, we arranged to have it designed and imported.

"When it turned up, it looked like fairy bread - it was multi-coloured. In eight days, we had to re-source fabric and import it to our workshop - it wasn't the fabric I wanted, but it worked. The silvery underside gave a watery feel, it wasn't flat.'

The bolt was sent to seamstresses with measurements and instructions.

"But when the dresses came back from the seamstress, we were four short - and we didn't realise until we had filmed the bomb scene, when the long sequinned dresses are destroyed."

Doing their best heavy weaponry impression, Schofield and her team had taken cheese graters, blow torches, spray paint and oil to the glittering frocks. "It was great fun", she said, until the team realised they were four gowns down.

"Right, we'll take the bodices off the short dresses and remake the skirt for the long sequin dresses," Schofield recalls. The team cleared out the dining tent and, taking a trestle table each, set to work.

Time and time again, she praises her "wonderful" team and the "fantastic" actors. "Wayne [Blair, the film's director] put together a wonderful crew with big love."

But, logistics aside, the sheer scale of the story made the outfits a vast research project in themselves. "Socially and politically, there was so much going on in the '60s. Rendering that sassiness in the mainstream world of Australia - up against the country town, pub, station mentality, added another dimension", said Schofield.

Immersion came naturally for the seasoned costume designer, who devoured soul music record covers, vintage journalism photos, personal albums from Vietnam vets and Bob Hope Christmas Concerts. She feasted on Entertaining Vietnam, a Super 8 documentary that she found a "great inspiration" and worked with a military uniform expert.

The clothes told a tale. "Motown was on the rise, soul vibe is directional, towards the 70s it turned sexy, funky, sensual loose and groovy.

"We needed the girls to go on a journey. The songs each have a particular energy - you can't wear a go-go dress for People Make the World a Better Place after a bombing. Every outfit has a special vibe for the song that is being sung.

"The Sapphires love the mish [mission], they're dignified, not slutty, not overt, but respectful and demure."

And this is where the coral dresses, with their hastily-scalloped egdes come in. Sticky tape and a pair of pinking shears later and the dresses suited the scene – and stayed true to the girls from the mish.

"The dress lived out the song. It was meant to be a little, cobbled, homemade frock - and it really was."

The triumph? "The white boots. People love them. I wanted them to be shorter, with a chiselled toe and a different heel. We searched and searched and searched - in an ideal world, we would have had them made and in my eyes they weren't the perfect boot, but people loved them."

But, perhaps, the less we notice, as an audience, the better. "Costumes should be invisible", Schofield says. With the right clothes, "it can feel like actors are inhabiting their characters."

The story The Sapphires: a costume drama first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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