You probably wouldn’t call Alice Babidge a theatrical dresser. Most days, her get-up is plain black – the standard camouflage of theatre professionals lurking behind the scenes.
“I used to be a crazy dresser,” says Babidge, laughing. “I have friends who ask what happened to ‘crazy Alice’.” Truth is, though, the once fashionably adventurous young designer has given up wearing out-there outfits in favour of dressing up others.”
Since graduating from NIDA’s Design course in 2004, Babidge has become Sydney’s busiest theatre costume designer. She has disguised gods and decorated royalty for landmark Sydney productions The Lost Echo and The War of the Roses, and fitted out several celebrated characters of the stage, including George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman and Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Later in the year she’ll rug up Beckett’s idling tramps in Waiting for Godot and bedeck mortals and mythical figures alike for Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Even when designing for opera, Babidge’s costumes, for the most part, aren’t the extravagant and frilly kind that wins Academy Awards every other year. In War of the Roses, for example, she clothed Richard III’s naked villainy in a baggy T-shirt. Her passion is contemporary, everyday dress in the service of story. The crucial irony is that, in Babidge’s work, the concealing act of clothing bodies is instead an act of revelation.
“A great costume has to represent the person and the world that we’re being made an audience of,” says Babidge. “It should give you clues into that person, with all the great subtleties that any person’s clothes have when they get dressed each day.”
It’s not so much what one wears, though, as how they wear it. “It might be as subtle as a shirt tucked too far into a pair of pants. Or maybe you wear something that’s slightly too big for you or sits off your shoulders a little bit because you’re trying to make your silhouette feel larger or more commanding.” One of Babidge’s recent costumes, a precisely ill-fitted tan suit for Colin Friels’ beaten Willy Loman in Belvoir’s Death of a Salesman (2012), comes to mind. “It’s the tiny things that people do subconsciously that say so much.”
Babidge has an important role to play even when actors are laid relatively bare.
“I probably know too much about undies,” she says. “The thing about putting an actor in undies is, even if you’re trying to make them look less than good, you have to, in a way, make them feel good. It’s a less than empowering thing to do to someone.”
Costuming ideas, for undergarments and otherwise, emerge out of the “filing cabinet” of Babidge’s mind – a swirling stockpile of images she then has to physically recreate. But, she says, an effective final costume is refined and realised through discussion with all the artists in the rehearsal room.
“I’ll always walk in with options. It’s about opening up a dialogue to try to find the right thing.
“It can be really useful for me to draw a costume ten times to find out what I’m trying to say. But if I give an actor something that feels really concrete on the first day of rehearsals I’m not entirely sure that’s helpful. There’s something to be said for a collective vision, of opening a world and finding it together.”
The world Babdige is currently exploring, as set designer as well as costume designer, is that of The Maids, Sydney Theatre Company’s latest production, directed by Benedict Andrews.
In a way The Maids is a play about playing dress-ups. It revolves around two sisters, Claire and Solange – to be played by Cate Blanchett and French actress Isabelle Huppert – who enact their murderous fantasies draped in their mistress’ clothes. The script itself, by Jean Genet, is resplendent with mentions of silks, lace, furs and a pair of particularly exquisite dresses. It is, in short, the perfect playground for a costume designer – and good reason for Babidge to revel in some sartorial splendour.
“The sense of play that surrounds the clothes in this production is really exciting. And not just clothes, but extraordinary jewellery and amazing shoes… It all sounds so petty and horrible!” Babidge worries that she’s coming off as materially obsessed as the gussied-up maids themselves. “But I have this incredibly sick love of costume design. I love making characters.”
This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in May 2013.