Interview: Wendy Cork

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Costume designer Wendy Cork has dressed an impressive range of films and television series, in almost any genre you could think of.  Her latest project, Ladies in Black,  has given her the opportunity to plunge into the high-fashion world of a late 50s department store in Sydney.

Wendy spoke to Glam about her incredible career, and the work that went into the very clothes-driven Ladies in Black.

When I was five I went to my first opera and I still remember what the costumes looked like. And I grew up with something like 52 paper dolls! But I didn’t think that you were allowed to be a costume designer in the real world. I thought you had to have a sensible job! So  I actually started studying social work.  But [costume design] was something that was always there. 

Although known primarily for her screen work, Cork started with the stage.

I started working at an opera company as a seamstress. Then I became an art finisher in the film industry which lead into  organizing, supervising and so forth. Until one day the producer just said to me “Why don’t you design the film?” So after that, I was the costume designer!  So it was other people believing I could do it, that made me do it.

For Ladies in Black, Cork was designing not just the characters clothes, but the gowns that they are selling in the department store. And some of the most elegant, designer gowns are the real deal.

The gowns that are named as “Hardy Amies” or “Elizabeth Arden” are actually gowns by those designers: the provenance is correct. The other clothes were designed by the team, referencing styles of the time, and many were sourced from The Mabs Collection in Adelaide. 

Part of the story revolves around one particular gown which Lisa ( Angourie Rice) falls in love with, but cannot afford. Although described in some detail in the novel, Cork tells us that director Bruce Beresford didn’t like the sound of that dress, which was a red polka dot,  so an original design had to be developed.

Most important to the costume design was the eponymous “black” work uniforms.

I referenced actual clothes worn by women at the time. I found great photographs of women working at Mark Foys and Waltons, in 1959. Then it was a matter of defining each character within the confines of the work uniform.

Some of the most exquisite costumes in this film are found on the equally exquisite Julia Ormond, who plays Magda. Even her under-garments were specially designed by Cork and the costume department.

A woman’s body in the 50s was very much manipulated. Women were still wearing long-line bras; the Dior new look had panniers built in that make the hips stick out; there were shoulder-pads. We were still coming out of the era when women wore corsets.

Along with the wonderful gowns, Cork’s department had to dress every extra and back-ground character.

All the extras were dressed from the under-wear out: except the tram driver, who came from the tram museum! I had a team that would dress them, and then on the day of the shoot we would line them up and I would accessorize them. It was a lot of work and a lot of hours. I think there are just over 2000 outfits in the entire film!

Ladies in Black opens today and is showing at various cinemas around Adelaide.

Click here for more information.

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Tracey Korsten is a freelance writer, poet, speaker and performer, based in Adelaide. She blogs at middleagedlove.

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