Yep, it’s another remake — or reboot, or whatever, argue amongst yourselves about the terminology, IDGAF — of the 1967 novel and 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock. This one is a six-part miniseries produced by Australia’s Foxtel and distributed in the U.S. by Amazon.
Joan Lindsay’s original novel was framed as a true story (it’s not!) and something of an unsolved mystery set on Valentine’s Day 1900. Three schoolgirls and one of their teachers disappear during the eponymous picnic away from their boarding school in Victoria, Australia, and mayhem ensues. Both the novel and film were hugely influential, and this version tries hard to set itself apart by giving the individual characters more depth alongside the great mystery of the story.
Miranda (Lily Sullivan), the most outgoing of the schoolgirls, is a horse-riding tomboy who both fools around with and fights off a stable boy in the early scenes. Irma (Samara Weaving), the heiress with a Parisian wardrobe, is also Jewish, which means she’s looked down upon by the snobby English expats. Marion (Madeleine Madden) is a math wiz, yet she’s a judge’s bastard with an indigenous Australian woman. Disappearing with these three is one of their teachers, Miss McCraw, who hides her queer love letters. Each of them are somehow “other,” which the script highlights but ultimately the story punishes through their mysterious fate.
Then there’s Mrs. Appleyard (Natalie Dormer), who came to the wilds of Australia to escape her unsavory past and create this upper-class boarding school. She is symbolic of the battle for a sense of true identity that’s at the heart of this adaptation. Appleyard is covering up her real self, and she’s always afraid of being found out. Likewise, she’s teaching the girls to be perfect little Englishwomen, all the while, these white colonialists are ignoring the country they are actually living in and that it is already inhabited by a wholly separate people with their own culture. The layers of false identity are more suffocating and restrictive than any corset and high-necked blouse. Ultimately, it is the wildness of the Hanging Rock — aka Mount Diogenes aka Ngannelong — that undoes them all.
Costumes in Picnic at Hanging Rock
The story is set in 1900 and the preceding year, and the costumes designed by Edie Kurzer reflect a late Victorian on the cusp of Edwardian sensibility.
Almost all the characters are British subjects and dress according to the current British / Western European fashions, and how very up-to-date they are depends on how fashionable or wealthy each character is. Kurzer did a nice job giving visual distinctions to the characters through the choice of clothing, and she discussed her thought processes in several interviews, as did the directors and actors.
Director Larysa Kondracki suggested in The New York Times that “The costumes are not decoration … but an extended symbol of the societal oppression women faced during the Victorian era,” saying “These girls have to dress themselves up to constrain themselves into a form that was expected of them.” Again, this emphasizes the idea of hidden identities and what is the true self. Each of these women is struggling with a sense of who they really are and who they are supposed to be, and this plays out in what they look like.
Mrs. Appleyard’s Costumes in Picnic at Hanging Rock
The headmistress presents an image of the ultimate upper-class, proper lady with extreme restraint and gentility. She presents herself as a wealthy widow and always wears dark, rich colors with sumptuous details. But flashbacks and dream sequences reveal her actual background. As Natalie Dormer told IndieWire about the character: “She’s got style but she dresses in a very contained, repressed way. She’s trying to keep all the secrets in, literally and metaphorically.”
The first time Mrs. Appleyard is seen, she’s presented all in black, in mourning. Costume designer Edie Kurzer describes this outfit in The New York Times:
“It’s often quite difficult wearing black in film or TV. I don’t usually use a lot of black because it disappears. So we did a lot of beadwork. It was about finding things that would reflect the light. Our costume attachment spent two weeks sewing all of those beads onto the back and the front. The beading shows her wealth, all that detail, but from a practical point of view, it gives a lot more definition to the outfit.”
In same New York Times article, Kurzer also described the details of Appleyard’s striking red dress:
“That braid that goes around the edge of that dress around the bodice for me was a key to her character. It was quite bold and strong, but it wasn’t busy in the way a lace or something floral would be.
I bought the braid in Sydney from a woman who had the most incredible shop when I was a teenager. In Australia there isn’t a lot of stuff as old as the 1900s. She had undergarments and bloomers and bits of lace. One of the things she was also selling was vintage sari trim, for Indian saris. I bought a number of them from this woman without knowing necessarily what I was going to do with them. You stockpile stuff that feels right and start putting those things together. I built the costume around that trim. It was a real eureka moment.”
What’s odd, however, is when Appleyard strips down for a nap when the students are gone and her blouse is sleeveless. Maybe you could find a historical precedent for it, but this certainly isn’t the most typical style.
Likewise, the little sunglasses. Kurzer told The New York Times:
“The glasses came into play as a bit of a mask. Having such small ones, you’re still aware of her eyes and the person behind the glasses. That was the shape that was quite common from the late 1800s into the 1900s. They kind of became everybody’s favorite. They snuck into a few more scenes than was the idea initially.”
Yes, the shape was common, but not for sunglasses. I’ve researched the topic pretty thoroughly, and before the 1920s, tinted glasses were considered a sign of illness or infirmity (such as blindness). It wasn’t until outdoor sports became popular for the upper classes that sunglasses were used widely. Small nitpick, but hey, that’s what we’re here for!
These accessories, however, are fantastic — the chatelaine is extremely Victorian and very much the kind of affectation that fits her character. It’s a status symbol, as are the luxurious fabrics.
Natalie Dormer noted on Emmys.com:
“I always submerge myself into the historic period. Working out everything, like how long she [Appleyard] would have been on the ship from London to Australia. And Edie Kurzer, our amazing costume designer, was very authentic with the way she dressed us — from our under-garments all the way to the detail of the amazing chatelaine that swings by my hip.”
The fit on this gown, in particular, is gorgeous, especially considering how little time the designer had. Kurzer said in an interview on Mandy.com: “Natalie Dormer only arrived in Melbourne four days before we began shooting, so all her costumes had to be made with the possibility of easy alterations if need be.”
Teachers’ Costumes in Picnic at Hanging Rock
The teachers outfits are subtly distinctive. None of them are dressed as richly as Mrs. Applegate, of course, and they each have their own quirks. As if to emphasize how out of place these women are, many of them are dressed in mixed-up prints with a bit of looseness or casualness that’s not standard-issue Victorian.
Then there’s the fundamentalist Miss Dora Lumley, who dresses like she has a stick up her butt. As Kurzer told The New York Times:
“Lumley was very much a religious person, a simple kind of woman from a quite lowly background. Her outfits weren’t matched very well and were quite busy in that Victorian way, in exact opposition to what we were trying to do with Appleyard. For Lumley, it was cotton and it was dark colors, and it wasn’t particularly flattering in any way.”
Finally, there’s the French teacher Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers who is dressed sweetly and simply, because that’s who she is.
Schoolgirls’ Costumes in Picnic at Hanging Rock
The girls at Mrs. Appleyard’s school essentially wear uniforms during lessons — modest blue or white dresses. We see more individuality in flashbacks to their home lives, when they are arriving / leaving the school, and at a few social events. And really, it’s Irma that has the biggest wardrobe because she’s an heiress and more of her history is shown. Kurzer explained in The New York Times:
“Irma was an international traveler and had to be distinctively different. She goes through the development of becoming a young woman. We were trying to reflect that in the costume. When she goes to the fete, her outfit has a lot more netting and lace and things you can see through. There’s a lot more skin revealed than on anybody else. By the end, when she’s leaving to go back to England, she wears a mushroom-y kind of silk, and has quite dark red gloves on and a hat and a gold sort of cape. She’s still very expensive in what she’s wearing, but it’s a little more demure in how much skin gets revealed.”
Would-be wild-child Miranda isn’t shown in tight, fitted clothes. Her non-uniform costumes veer towards 1910s pigeon-front in an attempt to give her a sense of visual freedom that her character craves in life.
Young orphan Sara’s oft-worn blue dress is a tenuous link to Miranda’s blue, along with Sara’s crush on her elder friend.
And we can’t forget the classic white dresses at the picnic itself. Kurzer discussed them in The New York Times article:
“The white dresses are very much a look from Victorian times. We asked ourselves, ‘Are we going to take any artistic license or are we going to stick with the iconic picnic dresses?’ It seemed obvious that we had to stick with what was of the time, of the period.”
What do you think of the 2018 Picnic at Hanging Rock? How does it compare to the film version?