Help the performing arts recover

20 July, 2020

One object, multiple stories.

The Australian Performing Arts Collection team share their stories about Dame Edna’s Scream Dress, unveiling more of its hidden history.

 

The Curator’s Perspective: History of the Object
Margaret Marshall, Curator, Theatre and Popular Entertainment, Australian Performing Arts Collection

What does a megastar wear to host their own television show? For Dame Edna Everage, the choice was never going to be a garment of understated elegance. Instead, she opted for maximum impact and comedic creativity.

 

Costume worn by Dame Edna Everage on Dame Edna’s Neighbourhood Watch

 

Costume worn by Dame Edna Everage on 'Dame Edna’s Neighbourhood Watch', 1993
Designed by Stephen Adnitt
Gift of Barry Humphries, Cultural Gifts Program, 1999
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Reproduced courtesy of Stephen Adnitt

 

This costume was worn for an episode of Dame Edna’s Neighbourhood Watch (1993), a UK television show in which Edna critiqued the homes of contestants selected from the all-female audience. Inspired by Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream (1893), the dress was described by Edna as depicting a “little Scandinavian lady and her friends who are having a big midlife crisis”. Edna claimed the frock was designed by her talented son Kenny, who helpfully ‘improved’ on Munch’s original artwork.

The dress was in fact designed by Stephen Adnitt, the creative talent behind Dame Edna’s most extravagant outfits. It was made by Sally Willis and painted by Mathilde Sandberg. One of many costumes donated to the Australian Performing Arts Collection by Barry Humphries, it demonstrates Dame Edna’s ability to carry off exaggerated fashion like no one else.

 

Detail of costume worn by Dame Edna Everage

 

Detail of costume worn by Dame Edna Everage on 'Dame Edna’s Neighbourhood Watch', 1993

 

The Conservator’s Perspective: Materials and Construction
Carmela Lonetti, Conservator, Australian Performing Arts Collection

Dame Edna’s costumes can often be classified as ‘soft sculptures’. This design has been realised with the use of moldable latex rubber and foam. Latex rubber is flexible, relatively light weight and paintable, making it an ideal material that will move with the performer and create a sense of animation.

 

Detail of costume worn by Dame Edna Everage on Dame Ednas Neighbourhood Watch

 

Detail of costume worn by Dame Edna Everage on 'Dame Edna’s Neighbourhood Watch', 1993
Three dimensional latex and foam sculptural figures emerge from the surface of the costume.

 

Preservation of this costume is complicated by the unpredictable degradation of the latex rubber and foam. Plastics in general are difficult to care for in museum collections as there are no specific treatments for degradation. However we can slow this down, with appropriate storage and managing exposure to light.

As with many of Dame Edna’s costumes – this dress contains a ‘gag’. Examination of the interior of the dress reveals that the white bloodshot eyes on the largest face are attached to wires and a portable power pack that sit inside an internal pocket. Footage captures the moment during the performance that with the flick of a finger, the eyes move simultaneously with the distortion of the face and the emanation of a muffled scream. The selection of construction materials make animation of the face possible.

 

Detail of costume worn by Dame Edna Everage on Dame Ednas Neighbourhood Watch

 

Detail of costume worn by Dame Edna Everage on 'Dame Edna’s Neighbourhood Watch', 1993
During the performance the bloodshot eyes move simultaneously with distortion of the face.

 

Detail of costume worn by Dame Edna Everage on Dame Ednas Neighbourhood Watch

 

Detail of costume worn by Dame Edna Everage on 'Dame Edna’s Neighbourhood Watch', 1993
Interior pocket concealing the wires and power pack.

 

The Registrar’s View: Storage
Ria Green, Registrar, Theatre and Popular Entertainment, Australian Performing Arts Collection

The Dame Edna Scream Dress is a personal favourite of mine, although less so as an object due to the difficulties of caring for it in the Australian Performing Arts Collection. I say this because it is a complex and challenging combination of materials and construction techniques. Made from non-typical costume materials including plastics, foam and metal - it is also surprisingly heavy. Normally, a heavy costume such as this would be stored flat in an archival box, but because of the sculptural elements and deteriorating nature of the materials we have instead created a custom padded hanger with dust cover to safely hang this costume.

As an art lover, I really enjoy having a collection item that references modern art. In this case we have a costume that directly appropriates the iconic Edvard Munch’s The Scream but in a super playful and typically Edna way. The Barry Humphries collection is so cheeky and clever - this is just one excellent example of how he incorporated popular culture into his stage persona through costume.

 

 

Explore more of the Barry Humphries Collection

 

Australian Performing Arts Collection logo

 

Go to the top