Alice Babidge discusses creating the costumes for True History of the Kelly Gang, the new film about the story of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly and his notorious band of bushrangers
In True History of the Kelly Gang, a new film from director Justin Kurzel about the infamous 19th-century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, the titular band of bushrangers face their enemies in beautiful dresses. The Kelly Gang – whose core members were Dan Kelly (played by Earl Cave in the film), Steve Hart (Louis Hewison) and Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), lead by Ned (George MacKay) – were notorious in their opposition to the Australian police, and much has been made of their leader’s life on film, the first example of which dates back to 1906. In Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang, based on a novel of the same name by Peter Carey which won the Booker Prize in 2001, we meet Ned as a young boy and follow his introduction to bushranging, his volatile relationship with his mother, the formations of the gang and the acts of violence that lead to their demise.
Kelly’s story plays out in an almost mystical and often eerie Australian landscape (captured here in photographs by Matthew Thorne, published exclusively on AnOthermag.com). Costume designer Alice Babidge was tasked with dressing the inhabitants of this world. “Justin and I have known each other for almost 20 years, and I’ve always been in awe of his aesthetic sensibilities,” she tells AnOther. “We hadn’t worked together for a few years when we made this film, so for me it was like coming back to a relationship that I adore and still feel challenged by and nervous about – I feel a great need to deliver. I say that all the time when I work, but with Justin I have a particular desire to reach whatever heady heights he’s attempting to get to. It’s like walking out into the abyss with him.”
For True History of the Kelly Gang’s wild costumes, that meant “creating the rules of the world that we wanted to inhabit – and then deciding whether we break those rules”, Babidge explains of the universe dreamt up by Kurzel. “The way that I begin working is to build reference boards, and I chose images that I responded to,” says Babidge. “I didn’t care where they were from in terms of period, location, being feminine or masculine – I wasn’t interested. It was more about evoking the right sensibility, and playing into that vastness and timelessness – that’s what I wanted the world to have.” She cites a “ridiculous, flight of fancy” jacket worn by Joe Byrne, embroidered with horses and “probably from 1980s Colorado or something” as one such piece, that somehow fits into this surreal outlaw world.
It’s reported that gang member Steve Hart would wear dresses to disguise himself, and in True History of the Kelly Gang we see how delicate gowns become a form of protection, and armour, for the boys. “It’s about an emotional sense rather than a physical sense of armour, which becomes a fascinating dichotomy,” says Babidge. “I worked in all natural fibres, and with lace, silk, organzas and chiffon for the most part. I created these little kind of ideas and motifs – like that Steve Hart’s dresses would always have flowers – so that there would be a sense of a story behind the dresses that these characters chose to use as their kind of armour.”
Replete with ruffles, rendered in pastel shades and some in the most diaphanous of materials, it’s compellingly jarring to watch these angry boys fight their battles in such gowns. It was the beauty of the boys’ dresses that prompted Susie Cave, whose son Earl acts in the film, to invite Babidge to work with her on a collection for The Vampire’s Wife; a partnership which is now just over a year old. “I like to think of my work in film or theatre as clothes rather than costumes – to me these people are human and you’re just dressing them. Great fashion tells stories and helps to create characters too,” Babidge explains.
And then there is the gang’s physical armour: bulletproof iron suits, crafted by the men and famously worn by Ned during his final face-off with the police. Babidge saw the original suit in person. “I didn’t think I would be quite as touched by it emotionally as I was but we were looking at the armour that someone wore to protect him and his brother and their friends from bullets,” she says. “You look at this armour and you can see where bullets have hit, and to think that this was forged by hand by these people, and the weight of it and the difficulty of the material – it’s a phenomenal thing.” We see these polar opposite outfits meet in the film’s gut-wrenching depiction of the infamous shoot-out: Ned, armed with shotguns, walks towards a row of firing police encased in his indestructible metal suit with just a slit to see through and underneath, a gauzy black lace dress.
True History of the Kelly Gang is in UK cinemas from February 28, 2020.