"More is more" is the philosophy behind the costumes in the musical of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. The show is currently previewing at the Palace Theatre in the West End of London, and the maestro behind the rhinestone-studded, camper than Christmas wardrobe is Tim Chappel, who won an Oscar for his costumes for the original movie.
The cult film about three drag queens who go on tour in the Australian Outback had a budget of just A$20,000. However, the musical's budget of more than a million dollars has enabled Chappel to unleash his kitsch imagination. "It's very cheesy," he says. "It's like, would you like more cheese with your cheese?"
The costumes, which include all the outfits from the film, plus many more for the chorus, include belle époque-style corseted dresses in space-age silver and rhinestones; orange and yellow jumpsuits inspired by lizards; emu costumes (think Cher's Moonstruck-era Oscar outfit crossed with the flightless bird); boots inspired, rather lyrically, by a snail moving through a garden at night; and Marie Antoinette-like dresses that turn into replicas of the Sydney Opera House.
While the final effect might not be exactly subtle, there is a lot more to the costumes than simply covering a ballgown in glue and rolling it in a pile of sequins. The clothes are intricately designed and multilayered, and contain numerous visual jokes. Chappel's inspirations include the designers Thierry Mugler and John Galliano, while a hat that looks like a cross between a clown wig and a flower arrangement, based on the idea of Christmas on Bondi Beach, evokes the Harrods Christmas windows as designed by Leigh Bowery.
Chappel is also a master of pacing – not every costume or scene is just an explosion of feel-good colour. "We do the Wizard of Oz thing and start in black and white," he says, "and when we introduce colour the show really begins." The acerbic designer believes that now is the perfect time for such a riot of razzmatazz. "The world needs a bit of sparkle," he says. "You come out feeling all jazzy and uplifted... and then you go home and they repossess your house."