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Priscilla designer on his Oscar win: "It closed as many doors as it opens"

Arts & Culture

When Tim Chappel was first asked to design the costumes for Stephan Elliott’s 1994 low budget indie flick, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, he thought it was going to be just a “little, cute, nothing Australian home movie.”

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“They were fun people,” Chappel recalls. “And I’d never worked on a film before, so why not?”

Chappel was only a few years out of his BA in fashion and textile design at the Sydney College of the Arts when he got the call. Elliott had seen the colourful and bold creations Chappel designed for drag queen friends performing at the Albury Hotel in Paddington, and thought it was the perfect fit for his road trip film about two drag queens and a trans woman.

“He liked what I did, and knew that I would be cheap, so he asked me to do the film,” Chappel says. “And that was the start.”

Not long after, Chappel was standing on stage in LA alongside his co-designer Lizzie Gardiner, accepting the Academy Award for Best Costume Design. The entire costume budget for the film was a relatively tiny $20,000, and still beat out some major Hollywood players.

The Priscilla costumes — including the gumby costumes and the famous thong dress (which cost just $17 to make, pictured below) — are still among the most recognisable images in Australian film history. And the stories of Chappel and Gardiner on the road in the outback, hot-glue gun in hand, fixing costumes that had overheated and melted in the back of a repurposed ice cream truck, are now legendary.

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But Chappel is quite modest about his work on Priscilla.

“I didn’t invent that look – I was just a conduit to the mainstream,” he says.

“At that time, because we were so isolated from the rest of the world, with no internet, Sydney was an incredible melting pot of artistic work and individuality. I was just lucky enough to be around during the time when drag stopped being the traditional Les Girls, men pretending to be ladies, and became something more interesting — a way of expressing gender politics, and grief, and joy, and the macabre, and all of those other aspects of performance that weren’t a consideration in drag in Sydney before that time.”

In 2006, Chappel and Gardiner were asked to recreate their costumes (alongside a whole series of new ones) for the stage musical version of Priscilla, which has now toured all over the world. The Broadway production had a costume budget of more than $1 million, and won the Tony Award for Best Costume Design.

Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner with their 2011 Tony Awards for 'Best Costume Design of a Musical' for 'Priscilla Queen of the Desert'. Photo: EPA/Peter Foley

Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner with their 2011 Tony Awards for ‘Best Costume Design of a Musical’ for ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’. Photo: EPA/Peter Foley

The phenomenon of Priscilla brought Sydney’s drag culture to the world, but Chappel says much has changed since then.

“Gay men don’t appreciate the value of drag and what it can bring to the community. It’s such a personal theatre — you have your performer within touching distance, and within that there’s great power, and a great ability to communicate different ideas.”

In the years after the Priscilla movie, Chappel moved to LA, where he worked on various projects for 14 years, including films Miss Congeniality, The Simian Line, Boat Trip, and music videos for Cher and Missy Elliott. It’s always assumed major studios will clamour to work with Oscar winners on any films, but Chappel says the experience was quite different.

“It’s funny,” he says of the win. “It closed as many doors as it opens. I would never take it back, but now people tend to hire me for just big, lavish, sparkly, fun stuff. Which is fun and easy to do, and it provides a lot of joy to the world and I’m very grateful to do it. But I actually find the storytelling component, and building interesting characters, more satisfying, because it’s harder.”

A few years ago, Chappel moved back to Australia, and has been working more and more in the theatre. He’s designed costumes for Black Swan Theatre Company’s The Sapphires, as well as musicals Gypsy, Sweet Charity, and Little Shop of Horrors.

His latest project is Dream Lover, which he says has been a unique thrill.

“It was one of those musicals where the costumes are most successful when they’re almost invisible. Everything had to be about pushing the story and the timelines forward using the fashions of the period, but not drawing attention to the costumes — making sure the costumes always backed up the story and helped develop the character.”

This article was first published in Daily Review.

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