Date: Saturday November 26, 3pm

Location: Sydney

Director Phillip Noyce recently called Norma Moriceau Australia’s greatest costume designer, adding she could “look at an actor and immediately see their potential to be someone else, someone that dreams are made of. She did it for Mel, for Harrison, Nicole, Angelina and Paul Hogan. She created Icons.”

He’s not the only director, producer or actor to say or feel exactly the same thing. In fact when you look at the number of films she styled either as a costume or production designer you can only be struck by how pioneering and singular her vision was.

From the anarchic Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle in 1980 to the charming Something Wild with Melanie Griffith in 1986, or Babe Pig In The City, the Crocodile Dundee movies and of course the apocalyptic Mad Max 2 Road Warrior and Mad Max 3 Beyond Thunderdome, Norma’s costumes not only came to define them, but changed culture and fashion in their wake.

Many of the world’s top designers like Balmain, Rodarte, Gareth Pugh, Rick Owens, Haider Ackermann and Balenciaga, to name just a few, have acknowledged her influence and catwalks continue to channel her hard edged, tribal aesthetic.

While Norma came to exude what someone called an ‘incredible worldliness” and Magda Szubanski described as “effortless eccentricity” her roots were squarely in Australia, a heritage she absolutely celebrated even if she had to take off for the rest of the world for a few decades to reclaim it.

Tall, stunning looking and with long, jet black hair, Norma was only 16 when went from the June Dally Watkins modeling agency in Sydney on an ocean liner to England in the early 1960’s, but typically jumped ship in Naples and took a far more interesting route to Swinging London, a place she adored and thrived in from day one.

Norma ultimately talked her way out of modeling and waitressing into fashion journalism in the early 70’s, first as an editor at the achingly hip, but short lived London Life, then with stints at the Evening Standard and very cool Nineteen magazine where she quickly got noticed.

“Her fashion spreads were darker and more androgynous than the usual pretty pictures we’d seen up till then,” actor and director Rachel Ward, a young London model at the time, said. “She just pushed the boundaries and was uncompromising about it.”

No wonder she was immediately smitten by the raucous punk scene unfolding in London’s working class suburbs, not only promoting and wearing Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s audacious SEX shop designs, but going on to photograph both them-Norma’s photo of Vivienne in torn T shirt is still iconic-and many of the other leading lights like the Sex Pistols and Billy Idol.

Norma took to photography effortlessly. “I remember photos she took of black models in black hats in the Sunday Times which described her as an up & coming photographer,” said former ABC journalist Jackie Bowmer who lived with Norma for a while in London. “She was inundated with requests to see her portfolio, but of course she didn’t have one.”

By the late 70’s Norma had begun her movie segue, starting with the award winning Newsfront and a long association with Phillip Noyce who’s last movie with her was The Quiet American in 2002 starring Michael Caine. Despite her growing disquiet about being so associated with the Mad Max juggernaut-and the cultists who besieged her-she loved making the movies and took costume design to a whole new level of feral creativity.

As Rolling Stone Magazine said about Thunderdome’s costume design at the time: “The dress Moriceau concocted for Entity (Tina Turner) is an expressionist classic: a 32kg soldered amalgam of dog muzzles, coat hangers and chicken wire, the whole overlaid with gleaming chain-mail butcher aprons and accessorized with pendulant auto-spring earrings.”

Someone who saw the process up close was producer Roger Monk, Norma’s assistant for Road Warrior shot in the desert outside Broken Hill, describing how they scavenged everything from car parts, American grid iron costumes and foundry castoffs to fetish leather outfits they’d drag behind trucks on the red dirt roads to age. “Norma knew all these weird artisans in Sydney and we’d hit their workshops or garages to collect stuff. They all adored her.”

Norma’s work style was equally unorthodox and most assistants said they quickly learned to read between the lines or interpret broad descriptions of ideas because she rarely sketched anything. One of her costume supervisors described an interaction with a dyer as:

Norma: You know how I asked you to dye that fabric green…..well, I meant blue.
Dyer: What sort of blue?
Norma:….. Ummm…… A nice blue

But what most people who worked with her remember is her generous, democratic approach to everyone on set, indifferent to fame or studio power and readily charmed by any one who appealed to her, including “those great stunt guys”. One of my favourite stories was when Norma was on the set of Babe and suddenly felt a hand slide into hers only to look down into the limpid eyes of the star orangutan. I fell instantly in love she said.

It’s not hard to see her appeal given how striking and charismatic she could be. Robyn Elliott, who worked for Norma on Mad Max and the brief, rather fraught engagement Norma had on Italian director Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, summed up her signature style.

“Tall and slim and with short black spiky hair she cut herself, she appeared in the workroom in a Vivienne Westwood jacket with Keith Haring drawings on it, massive African jewelry and cuban heeled cowboy boots. She lived on a diet of coffee, chocolate cake and cigarettes and when 6 pm rolled around it was always time to break out the chardonnay.”

Norma started to travel the world for fashion shoots in the 1970’s and just kept going when film locations kicked in. She loved going anywhere, but exotic locales like Africa, New Guinea, Jamaica and the Australian outback were her favorites and she even lived for periods in Kenya, Mexico and Rajasthan.  The trips fueled a voracious collecting bug as she dragged back Aboriginal art, African fabrics, huge tribal statues, crocodile shaped coffee tables, Indian temple doors, shell lights and Hindu beds to her apartment on the top floor of an art deco building in Elizabeth Bay in Sydney.

In the last decade of her life it’s where she spent most of her time and to some degree became reclusive-I told her she was having her Greta Garbo moment-knocking back job offers, shunning any publicity, reading books, vigilantly working through cryptic crosswords and, as she put it, “wafting”.

In the end the world came back to Norma as carers and nurses from the UK, India, Africa, China and Japan as she became ill with throat cancer. As usual all of them found Norma and her apartment fascinating and I would often find them looking at the art of the wall, flicking through one of hundreds of art, design or travel books, and even translating the writing on the swathes of African fabric she’d draped over her hired hospital bed because it was “ugly”.

Invariably they always ended up asking me what Norma did. Quite a lot as it turned out.

Steve Freeth

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