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Ladies in Black: Putting on more than an LBD

Heather Wallace

In a hot Sydney summer in 1959 everyone is rushing to the exclusive Goodes for party frocks to make their dreams come true.

Behind the counter of Ladies Frocks and in the glamorous Model Gowns, the ladies in black serve customers while struggling with their own hopes, disappointments and ambitions.

Teenage Lisa is waiting for her end of year results to see if she can convince her strict father to support her hopes of university, Patty is disillusioned and bitter about what life has to offer, and Fay is tired of crass ocker men with wandering hands. Just down the hall in Model Gowns is sophisticated Magda, exuding European glamour and maintaining insouciance at the suspicions directed at “New Australians”. As an Australian Christmas and New Year approaches, fashion, passion and literature will open up new opportunities.

In a crowd of musicals adapted from films, The Ladies in Black shines. Adapted from the 1993 novel Women in Black by expatriate Australian author Madeleine St John, the Queensland Theatre Company first staged the production in Brisbane before touring it to Melbourne last year and Sydney at the start of 2017. The show opens at the Canberra Theatre Centre on 24 March.

Canberra Theatre Centre Ladies in Black Feature

Full disclaimer, I loved the novel after reading it in one sitting almost 10 years ago. I reread it every year, and each time I’m filled with as much joy as I was the first time. It’s a sweet and hopeful story about Australia changing under the influence of new cultures, and both the novel and musical is set in a period when Art Deco, my favourite design period, was having a late revival around the world.

Talking to designer Gabriella Tylesova, who oversaw both stage and costume design, was a chance to hear what it takes to reproduce the period in a fresh way.

“The director Simon Phillips and I have worked together for almost 20 years and he came to me when the music was composed. I loved Tim Finn’s music immediately, it was a much more laid back version of a musical, and that made it so different,” she says.


Gabriela Tylesova

Gabriela Tylesova

Tim Finn has said he didn’t want the songs to have an overly 1950s feel and that approach stops the production from feeling like a nostalgic homage. The music glides from Lisa’s internal struggles to Fay’s shocked jubilation in “I kissed a Continental” to the wry ensemble piece of Patty and her sisters singing with tea cups in hand about their husbands’ short comings, “He’s a bastard”. Gabriella says that is one of her favourite scenes, and was one of the songs that attracted her to working on the production.

“Originally we were planning for a bigger budget and we were very ambitious. That changed though, and we had to be very creative in how we used the same stage pieces to create different environments,” she says.

“Rather than the whole boardwalk of trees I had wanted to create, we used the pillars of the department store to be palm trees the characters lounge under on Sydney’s northern beaches. Using pale blue as a strong element meant we could play with space, curtains and floors in the store could also become sky and the ocean. It also helped make it very dreamy, there is a strong fantasy element that takes it out of real life.”

That dreaminess frames my favourite scene, when one of the characters immerses herself in the novel Anna Karenina. The audience is swept away with her, as a vision in a fur-trimmed velvet cape reaches out to her lover from beneath a luminous St Petersburg street lamp, snow swirling around her. It’s so beautifully realised through simple details that it’s no surprise when Gabriella says the 18th century is the period that most inspires her.

“Sculpture was more abstract and not so heavy with reality,” she says.

magda black

The velvet cloak (I still covet it a year after seeing it on stage in Melbourne) is one of 30 costumes used in the show and most were found in the Queensland Theatre’s costume department and in vintage stores.

“The smaller budget meant we couldn’t make everything new,” Gabriella explains. “There are seven metres of fabric in the Dior New Look gowns, that is a lot of organza. I had a team of costume designers and makers who scoured the company’s stocks and in op shops to find costumes and original fabric. Many of the pieces you see on stage are originals from the period that were embellished. The team worked so hard to make the costumes look wonderful.”

That hard work has paid off, and not only do the clothes look stunning, they help define characters and act as agents of change in the lives of the eponymous ladies. One costume in particular is very different from how I imagined it in from the novel. When dour Patty buys a filmy black negligee, a whole world of possibility suddenly opens up in her passionless marriage. Gabriella laughs when I say the stage version of the negligee is much racier than I’d imagined, “That’s actually one of the found pieces, we just had to add more lace and some ribbon. The cut of the costumes are different for each character, Fay and Patty’s work uniforms are more fitted and sexy than teenage Lisa, and Magda is effortlessly glamorous.”


Adapting found pieces has another challenge, as many of the actors have dual roles and need to make quick costumes changes. This is something Gabriella is used to in her work with opera and ballet companies, she works with choreographers to find out exactly how long actors have to get changed.

lisa pink dress - Copy

“It’s important to know if you have one minute, less than a minute, and what makeup and hair changes are needed in that time as well. You create whatever shortcuts you can, fasteners rather than buttons and simple seams. Sometimes you have to sacrifice cut and fit enough so that the audience won’t notice but the clothes are easier to get on and off.”

lisa blue party dress

The ladies themselves might be dressed in black but everything else about this frothy, charming musical is bright and colourful. Come in your best frock and be part of the fun.

Want to see the show with us?

It’s Canberra’s turn to get frocked up for the most alluring little number of the season and you can join us at our first Click&Connect event for 2017 on Monday 27 March at 6.30pm.

Join us for pre-show food and drinks in the foyer and enjoy a refreshment at interval for the same price as A-Reserve tickets – bonus!

For details or to purchase tickets, click here.

The essentials

What: Ladies in Black
Where: Canberra Theatre Centre
When: Monday 27 March to Sunday 2 April 2017
Tickets: $69 to $99, purchase them here


Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (, is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

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