Cappi Ireland’s work as one of Australia’s most revered costume designers has seen her in some extraordinary situations. She stood upon a table in the slums of Kolkata, attempting to give instructions to hundreds of extras in Hindi during the filming of Lion, worked alongside Tarantino on Kill Bill and adorned the phenomenal Joan Chen in exquisite cheongsams for Tony Ayres’ seventies drama The Home Song Stories.
Her latest project put her in an extraordinary situation, too. She was a fundamental part of shaping the aesthetic and style of SBS series New Gold Mountain, set in 1857 Ballarat. Through careful costume design, Ireland has ensured that each of the characters comes alive through the specific elements in their costumes. Whether it’s a button, a fabric, the shade of their scarf or the looseness of their shirt, every little aspect has been researched, considered, discussed and trialled. Her expertise in costuming multi-national, multi-generational films and TV has been on show in the aforementioned films, as well as in Animal Kingdom, I, Frankenstein, Mortal Kombat, Balibo and The Dry.
“You don’t ever get bored, that’s for sure,” she laughs.
Indeed, Ireland had no time for anything as indulgent as boredom once work began on New Gold Mountain. Typically for Australian TV, costumes are purchased pre-made and fitted to actors well before shooting begins. COVID forced the team, including director Corrie Chen and executive producer Kylie Du Fresne, to navigate pre-production differently. For Ireland though, the first step – as always – was to source information on the clothing of the time. Along with 2015 film Bone Tomahawk and British period dramas, she looked to artwork from the period.
“Researching for this period can be quite tricky because there are not many photographs from  and most of the photography was largely used for portraits, which were often only afforded by the middle classes,” explains Ireland. “One of the biggest sources that I used were actually paintings from that time. There was this amazing artist called ST Gill who was a huge resource. He painted a lot of watercolours and lithographs of all the miners in the field, and also in the town, and it was really lovely.”
The textures, colour palette and finer details of fashion are exaggerated in paintings, which translate to the drama and detail in the series. In its depiction of both the Chinese and the Australian experience of regional Australia over a century ago, it is pioneering, since history has largely been retold through a purely colonial lens. It is particularly meaningful for Ireland, who studied Chinese at school and university. She was also reminded of her work on The Home Song Stories when working on New Gold Mountain.
“Home Song Stories was very much about putting the traditional Chinese looks into the modern urban Australia of that time, which is the sixties and seventies, so it was a similar process to this one.”
It is unsurprising, then, that Cheung Lei’s costumes are Ireland’s favourite. Lei has arrived in Ballarat as a representative of her powerful father, with orders from China. It is only as she gains confidence that her clothing evolves from understated silk to elaborately embroidered outfits in a carefully chosen, breathtaking shade of red. It is a colour rarely used in TV and film, due to its “eye-popping” effect. Apart from the signature shade of red, Ireland sounds smitten when asked what other details appealed to her about Lei’s costumes.
“[The] cherry blossom embroidery on one of her dresses,” she recalls. “And the actress [Mabel Li] is so remarkable. In 1850s TV shows or films, it’s not often that you see a woman in traditional Chinese dress walking through the Australian bush. I think maybe that sort of resonates with me because I had Joan Chen walking down the Bourke Street shopping mall in a cheongsam in the seventies in Home Song Stories.”
The process of making New Gold Mountain has befittingly combined contemporary film-making and costume design with old-fashioned techniques. As well as researching costumes of the time, Ireland also embraced the opportunity to commission costume illustrators – a rarity in contemporary Australian film and TV.
Due to COVID restrictions and the inability to access fabric shops in Victoria, fabric was mostly purchased overseas and the costumes were made in Melbourne, London and Bangkok. It turned out for the best, since the Bangkok-based, Malaysian-born tailor was expert in working with the specific Asian fabrics and techniques for costume-making that are quite complex. The costume makers relied on the Melbourne-made illustrations.
“The illustrations on this particular job were important, firstly, because we’re all working remotely so I could send the drawings to the makers, but also, of course, initially [I showed] the drawings to [director] Corrie [Chen] and [executive producer] Kylie [Du Fresne] to approve. It was just a way for me to have the full show drawn so everyone was on the same page. Because of restrictions and lockdown, it was really the only way to go.”
The series itself is an expression of Australia’s history, but in its contemporary cross-national approach to costume design and production, it reflects Australia’s present: a place and people that are capable of working in unison.
New Gold Mountain premieres exclusively in Australia on SBS and SBS On Demand at 9.30pm, Wednesday 13 October. See the four-part series on Wednesday and Thursday nights over two big weeks, screening 13 October, 14 October then 20 October and 21 October. Watch the trailer now: