No one is more resourceful than a drag queen. Or the costume designers who dress them. Tim Chappel and Lizzie Gardiner were the Academy Award-winning duo who pooled their resources on a shoestring budget to create the bright, fun, and flashy costumes in the 1994 cult classic, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Twelve years later, the pair came back for the stage version of the show that ran all across their native Australia, London, Toronto, and New York, earning them another armful of awards, including a Tony.
Chappel shares sketches of his work from the show with The Advocate and gives the behind-the-scenes scoop on that flip-flop dress.
The Advocate:Where do you start when you're faced with the process of having to design costumes from scratch?
Tim Chappel: It’s always different because, as a designer, I’m getting a brief from the director or some idea that the actor has, or research into the characters. With Priscilla, we started with the music. I was allowed to just do free association to the songs, and come up with ideas from that point. It was a truly creative experience. I was allowed to abstract ideas. My favorite thing to do is to take elements that people recognize and reform them in abstract ways so that they’re both unique and familiar at the same time.
Interestingly enough, the flip-flop dress came from the fact that they’re going shopping in that scene, so I wanted to make a dress out of credit cards, based on... tile dresses in the '60s. I thought that would be funny, to do it with credit cards. But when we did the movie, no credit card company would come near us because we were doing a little movie about drag queens. So then we thought, flip flops are Australia’s national shoe. We can string them together in the same manner.
The budget for the stage version was considerably higher than the film. How did having a bigger budget affect your process?
The thing about musicals is that the costumes have to be built to withstand a nuclear war. They’re worn every night. The show done in Australia — the costumes were worn 1,500 times. They have to be built to last. There’s stuff in the film that only had to last one scene. For the film, we had $20,000, but we had considerably more than that for the musical.
What were some of the costumes that you really enjoyed recreating or coming up with for the Broadway show?
There were some really fun things. In “Color My World,” the chorus was going to get involved in painting the bus. So the director was like, “The chorus is in this scene, and they’re going to get involved in painting the bus.” That was my brief. So I was like, “What can I do here?” At first I thought about the contents of a drag queen’s handbag, and that people come out of it as mixing sticks and rollers, and stuff like that. Then we thought it would be nice to do uniform costumes, so we thought about paintbrushes. One of the great things about working on Priscilla was that the different creative heads would take the reins with each scene, and we worked very tightly with the choreographer. And on that one, the choreographer just said, “We can make it that way, but we have to make it a little more Marie Antoinette." So what we did was make these paintbrush dresses, and the choreographer did a combination of Marie Antoinette court dancing, and a bit of Hawaiian dancing in there, so it’s fabulously abstract.