TBT: My Brilliant Career (1979)


My Brilliant Career (1979), the adaptation of the 1901 autobiography by Australian writer Miles Franklin, isn’t a showy movie. The script and pacing are naturalistic, as are the costumes, which span VERY rural/workaday to nice/upper middle class but not showy. Nonetheless, the film is one of my absolute favorites, because it so perfectly captures the struggle women face when trying to choose an independent life of the mind — plus it has well done, historically accurate costumes and a sweet love story.

(Stella) Miles Franklin (1879-1954) grew up in rural Australia. A precocious child, she wrote this semi-autobiographical novel while still a teenager. It was published in 1901 and was a huge hit (which caused its own complications in Franklin’s life).

Author Miles Franklin

Author Miles Franklin

The story focuses on Sybylla, a headstrong, intelligent young woman growing up in rural Australia during one of their worst droughts. Her family is struggling, which isn’t helped by Sybylla’s determination to be a writer; Sybylla, of course, feels misunderstood and like her nascent genius is being wasted. Her mother becomes so frustrated that she sends Sybylla to stay with her well-to-do grandmother, where she meets wealthy neighbor Harold and things get complicated. As I wrote in my Top 5 Historical Costume Movies for Book Lovers, Sybylla “faces the ultimate choice: love or an independent life of the mind? … Have tissues ready, not because it’s tragic, but because it will resonate so deeply.”

The film was directed by legendary director Gillian Armstrong (Little Women, Oscar and Lucinda) and stars Judy Davis (this was her breakout role – she’s SO YOUNG! in this) and Sam Neill. Credit for the costume design was given to Anna Senior, who was nominated for an Oscar for her work on this film… but according to an interview with director Gillian Armstrong, it was actually production designer Luciana Arrighi who designed the costumes:

“Anna was her head of wardrobe. When we made that little film, which we never thought would actually get out of Australia, Luciana who was also the production designer. She thought that Anna had done such a wonderful job as her right hand person, so she gave her the title of costume designer, and then lo and behold, it was nominated for an Oscar. My producer and I rang the Academy and said that Luciana did the costumes and not Anna, and we got her original drawings and everything, and they said, ‘I’m sorry, we go by the credits on the screen.’ Luci did of course win that Oscar for Howards End for production design” (Gillian Armstrong: “Film is not a level playing field for women”).

While crediting Arrighi’s “artistic direction,” Senior shared various reminiscences for a book called, “Performance Costume: New Perspectives and Methods.” The project was

“demanding… given the tight six-week shooting schedule, constant moving between locations and budget constraints. Costumes were worked out as shooting progressed. Senior recalls that the team literally finished the last frock on the last day of the shoot. Wherever they moved to film, it was a matter of setting up a work room, a dye room and a wardrobe department in a hired hall.”

The film starts off (and periodically goes back to) rural poverty:

1979 My Brilliant Career

Sybylla (right), her younger sister (center), and mom (left).

1979 My Brilliant Career

Sybylla tries to focus on art and music and writing.

My Brilliant Career

Despite very difficult circumstances.

1979 My Brilliant Career

But hold on, because Sybylla goes to live with grandma, where her aunt takes her under her wing and guides her in dressing well (among other things):

Brown blouse with rows of black ribbon around the neck.

1979 My Brilliant Career

Note the front tucks.

This is very tailored yet country.

1979 My Brilliant Career

Same outfit, I think? Note the belt buckle.

1979 My Brilliant Career

Another shirtwaist blouse, this one with lace.

1979 My Brilliant Career

Sybylla embraces the shirtwaist and skirt look.

1979 My Brilliant Career

A crocheted (??) yoke

1979 My Brilliant Career

In different light.

Driving in a suit with nicely pointed collar.

1979 My Brilliant Career

A key scene where Sybylla goes boating in a white frilly dress and red parasol.

1979 My Brilliant Career

That dress is now on display at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Click through if you’d like the see the dress in the round.

1979 My Brilliant Career

The parasol is a bright pop of color against the cream dress.

According to Performance Costume,

“The early twentieth-century costumes were created using period garments and elements of 1900s clothing and accessories. The striking red parasol used by Sybylla in the boating scene was an antique possession of Senior’s. Sun damage has resulted in the fabric perishing along the spokes and the frayed fabric was replaced by Senior with strips of antique black lace, thus creating a prop that is more visually effective than the original item. The parasol signals Sybylla’s transition from tomboy to lady – a process which is only partially effective, as she cannot repress her instincts sufficiently…

“As there was only one version of the cream outfit (on productions with larger budgets there are multiple versions of key costumes prepared), it had to be whipped off after each take and carefully dried in readiness for the next attempt. Miraculously, the treasured red parasol never fell out of the boat.

“What might appear to be a one-piece gown in the film is in fact, a cream coloured long-sleeved blouse with lace around the shoulders, neck and wrists with a matching cream full-length skirt. Close observation reveals a rip (repaired) on the hem that occurred during filming.”

1979 My Brilliant Career

An evening dress in subtle greens.

1979 My Brilliant Career

The same gown. Note all the different fabrics and layers.

1979 My Brilliant Career

From the front.

1979 My Brilliant Career
1979 My Brilliant Career

This purple blouse has tons of tucks and frills.

1979 My Brilliant Career

In another key scene, Sybylla wears this square-necked, wide-sleeved evening dress. The styling reads a bit more modern than the “Edwardian” looks seen throughout.

1979 My Brilliant Career

Lots of lace.

1979 My Brilliant Career

Note the petticoats underneath.

1979 My Brilliant Career

The sleeves are sheer.

Sybylla’s Aunt Helen also has a GREAT wardrobe:

1979 My Brilliant Caree

I love how you can see the collar stays holding up the high, pointed lace collar.

1979 My Brilliant Caree

Helen is always perfectly put together.

1979 My Brilliant Caree

This blouse has a sheer striped overlayer.

1979 My Brilliant Caree

You can’t go wrong with black and white!

1979 My Brilliant Caree

Looking very tailored, with a distinct corset line showing! That’s grandma on the left.

1979 My Brilliant Caree

Patterned blouse and cameo.

1979 My Brilliant Caree

Not my favorite look, but it suits Helen.

And lest you be concerned that there isn’t enough eye candy, Sam Neill is the love interest, and he is SO CHARMING:

This relationship will break your heart in the best possible way.

1979 My Brilliant Career

Hello starched collar!

1979 My Brilliant Career

He loves his pup!

Is My Brilliant Career flashy or showy? Nope. But it’s a truly beautiful, heartbreaking, and inspiring story with stunning performances. So the next time you’re ready for something subtle, put this one on. You won’t regret it.


Are you a fan of My Brilliant Career?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

10 Responses

  1. the Storyenthusiast

    I didn’t expect to, but I fell in love with this film and its’ heroine’s journey. The depiction of her struggle resonated so strongly with me.

  2. Northcountry girl

    I remember seeing this back when it first came out and was blown away by it. However I will admit that I had a hard time imagining giving up Sam Neill!! The costumes look like clothes that people really are wearing, not costumes.

    • Susan Pola Staples

      I too am a fan and wished she could have had Sam and her career, but am glad she stuck to her own inner voice. If she had given up the writing for him, I believe it, in the long run, would have soured the relationship. Down with the patriarchy.

      • Roxana

        I can think of nineteenth century women writers who were married. Miles Franklin herself seems to have managed to write in spite of a succession of ‘day jobs’ so I don’t quite understand the either/or, unless of course Harry demanded she give up her writing in which case he is definitely Mr. Wrong!

    • M.E. Lawrence

      I agree about the sheer believability of the costumes. And, OMG, that crocheted, or whatever, yoke! Also the red parasol. (But I feel sure that the whole article is just an excuse for certain people to gaze transfixed at men in starched collars. As one does.)

  3. MrsC (Maryanne)

    I’ve not seen it since it came out but it is so beautiful. It’s also great to see a film from this era wit proper underpinnings – fashion was awash with Edwardian inspired pin tucked blouses and dresses and accessories, and it was all too easy to sort of let the side down. Like the lace number with the mediaeval sleeves shown above. Go them!
    Interesting and also a bit sad about the Oscar.

  4. Jennifer Gall

    Hi Kendra, its great to see your Blog and the quotations from my chapter in Performance Costume. These frocks are so special and we have recently acquired several other costumes from My Brilliant Career for the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. I’ll keep you posted about when they will be next featured.
    Kind regards,
    Dr Jennifer Gall