How did you become interested in costumes?
I learnt to use a sewing machine at the age of 11 and immediately began experimenting, much to my mother’s dismay. Then, after a B.A(Hons) in Pure English from Melbourne University and a Diploma of Technical Production from the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney I began work at Opera Australia (then The Australian Opera) in the Stage Management team. Between rehearsals I would disappear down to the Wardrobe Department for a chat. I felt totally at home amongst the rows and rows of fabulous opera costumes. I remember watching the wigs being created, hair by hair and realized that fine detail takes time and a lot of patience but makes all the difference. I worked on productions designed by such great designers as Luciana Arrighi, Brian Thomson and Michael Stennett and was able to watch them work. I was very lucky!

When did you begin to design your own costumes?
Life led me to Florence in 1986 and there I met a cousin, Donald Francis, who had opened a historical dance school several years before. He had begun organizing an annual Carnival Ball in period costume at Palazzo Borghese in the centre of Florence, which he still does to this day. These Balls are reproductions of a 19th century Ball with orchestra, historical Buffet Froid, ball cards and, of course, waltzes, mazurkas, polkas and galops. I decided to sew my own costume for the evening. I loved the process and the dress, though basic, was a success. It hasn’t survived unfortunately. I recycled it into something more lavish but my second dress still goes dancing at least once a year.

Are your costumes historically accurate?
I would love my costumes to be historically accurate but almost no one would wear them if they were. Historically accurate costumes must have the appropriate corset under them to give the body the correct shape. The woman who wear my costumes are often wearing period dress for the first time. And they’re dancing. For most of them wearing a corset would be out of the question. They need to feel comfortable. So I adapt the dress itself with lots of bones, drill cotton and elastic to give the right look.
Hiring out the gowns also means they need to be cleaned regularly so I choose fabrics that may not necessarily be historically accurate but wash well. Dancing leads to sweating, so the bodices are all lined in cotton. With heavily decorated bodices or those made in velvet I sew an inner cotton bodice that can be detached to clean.

Where do you get inspiration for your designs?
I’ve been a mad film buff since University days and especially love historical dramas. In the last 30 years more attention is being paid to creating historically correct costumes. Luchino Visconti was probably the first director to insist on historical accuracy. His partnership with costume designer Piero Tosi produced unforgettable films such as The Leopard (1963), Death in Venice (1971) and The Innocent (1976). Piero Tosi’s assistant Gabriella Pescucci then went on to win an Oscar for her stunning costumes in The Age of Innocence (1993). Jenny Beaven, designing for Merchant and Ivory won numerous awards including an Oscar for A Room with a View (1986).

Do you get inspiration only from Cinema?
Cinema gave me that initial passion for costumes, but moving to Florence fed that flame. I have chosen to live in a city that is home to the richest collection of Art in the world. The city itself is a Renaissance jewel and the countryside surrounding it is even more inspiring. The Italians themselves are beautiful and have an innate sense of fashion and design. I can’t help but be influenced by this constant beauty.
I also love secondhand clothes markets. I often find great pieces of old fabric that immediately inspire me to sew. I love the feel of old fabric. Old curtains, sheets, bedspreads, embroidered linen, hand-made lace. Things that are so hard to find nowadays. Florence was full of exquisite fabric shops 20 years ago. Now, unfortunately, they have almost all closed down and the few that have stayed open sell cheap fabric made in China. For 700 years Florence and Prato have been the centre of high-quality fabric manufacturing. They are also famous for their habedashery. Those days are almost over.

How do you research for your costumes?
I have a great collection of books on costume. I search the Internet for paintings and sketches and I love visiting costume museums and regularly visit the wonderful collections of historical portraits and court scenes at the Pitti Palace and the Uffizzi Gallery. I also study historical dance, from Renaissance through to 1920 and this gives me a real feel of how they would have worn their clothes at a Ball. I tend to sew costumes in batches, concentrating on one period at a time. I completely immerse myself in the fabrics, art, music, architecture and dance of that period and then begin designing and sewing. I try to see the world as they did. What colours did they use? What were their ideals of beauty? What was considered sexy!

Which part of making costumes do you enjoy the most?
I love every phase. The period of initial historical research, the pure artistic input at the design stage and the artisanship involved in the actual sewing, embroidering and beading. Each stage requires a different talent. I love exercising all three. How has your costume collection grown over the years? I started out with a small collection of Edwardian dresses but soon realized that I should also hire out accessories to do the dresses justice. I began by buying gloves. Today I have a huge collection of petticoats, bustles. crinolines, paniers, gloves, shawls, shoes, bags, jewellery, jackets, cloaks, capes, coats, spencerjackets, hats, spectacles, umbrellas, parasols and venetian masks! I even have a collection of easily-applied Regency ringlets! I’ve made simple period jewellery and a series of fairly plain bonnets. One day I’d love to do a Millinery course! I have around 150 costumes, complete with matching accessories.

Who has worn your costumes?
In 2000 I was asked to dress a group of guests at the Stibbert Museum in Florence for the event “Dances of the Second Empire”. In 2007 I was commissioned to dress the female dancers in a group demonstrating the dances from the court of Elisa Baciocchi, Grand-Duchess of Tuscany and sister to Napoleon Bonaparte at an event organized by The Rotary Club of Florence at the Grand Hotel in Florence. In 2008 I was approached by the University of Florence to create 3 costumes to be worn at a charity dinner held at Villa Le Quiete alle Montalve, on the outskirts of Florence. The 3 most important woman in the life of the Villa, Anna Luisa Maria de’ Medici, Vittoria delle Rovere and Eleonora Ramirez de Montalvo were represented, each from a different historical period.
In 2008 I was asked to dress 20 woman in a group of dancers invited to recreate a Ball in Napoleon’s Villa, Palazzina dei Mulini, at Portoferraio on the Island of Elba. This was the first time the Ball Room had been used since 1814 when Napoleon himself occupied the Villa while exiled on the Island.
Every year L’Atelier de Danse holds Historical Balls and my costumes are hired out for these events. I also hire out for private parties and theatrical events.

What is your latest project?
I am in the process of extending my Regency collection to include Napoleonic Court Dress for an up-coming Grand Napoleonic Ball celebrating the bicentenary of the Imperial Court of Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi residing at Villa del Poggio Imperiale in Florence from 1809-1814. Napoleon ordered all ladies at his court in Paris to dress in velvet and silk satin, hoping to revive the ailing French textile industry. All ceremonial dresses had a robe that fitted over the gown and detachable, embroidered, velvet trains. All very grand! This project should keep me occupied for some time.
I’ve just formed the Jane Austen Society Florence and our first big event will be a Jane Austen Weekend on the 22nd & 23rd May, 2010. Ticket bookings are already open and it looks like being a huge success! You can find the Society on Facebook.