All That Glitters: Showcasing costumes from Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection

Gown worn by Jill Perryman as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly!, The Gordon Frost Organisation, 1995. Designed by Tim Goodchild. Gift of John Frost, 2001. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Photograph by Jeremy Dillon.

All That Glitters showcases some of the most breath-taking examples of stage costume from Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection. The exhibition celebrates the vision behind these costumes, the creativity and skill of those who created them, and the show-stopping performances that brought them to life.

Costume has played an important role in the development of the Performing Arts Collection since its inception in 1977. The spectacular stage wardrobes of Dame Nellie Melba, Dame Edna Everage and Kylie Minogue lie at the heart of this collection and epitomise the drama, exuberance and glamour of theatrical costume at its most dazzling. These stars of the stage, along with magnificent gowns recently donated by Opera Australia and a number of newly conserved pieces from the hit musicals of the 1950s and 1960s have been the inspiration for All That Glitters.

The exhibition draws together a rich selection of costumes by leading Australian designers including Hugh Colman, Roger Kirk, John Truscott, Kenneth Rowell and Kristian Fredrikson. Many of the costumes have been created to form the centre piece for some of the most lavish productions ever staged by companies such as The Australian Ballet, Sydney Dance Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, Bell Shakespeare and Opera Australia.

Cloak worn by Nellie Melba as Elsa in Lohengrin, c. 1891. Designed by Jean-Phillipe Worth
Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Photograph by Jeremy Dillon.

Each costume has its own unique story and All That Glitters retells these stories with photographic images of the costumes in performance, capturing some of Australia’s most charismatic performers in action. Large scale productions from the world of opera create a major focus point for the exhibition with three extraordinary gowns created specifically for Dame Joan Sutherland.

Stunning costume jewellery will offer a historic glimpse at the captivating stage persona of performers such as Nellie Stewart, Queenie Paul and Esme Levante whose appearances lit up the Australian stage in the first half of the 20th Century.  Also featured are treasured pieces from a famously extravagant production of Aida first seen in Australia in the 1930s.

All That Glitters presents a dramatic display of treasured costumes from Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection, which are unique to Australia’s performing arts heritage.

All That Glitters
Gallery I November 16 – February 23, 2014


Nellie Stewart, George Musgrove and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Nellie Stewart as Nell Gwynne in ‘Sweet Nell of Old Drury’, c1902. Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection.

This week marks the anniversary of the horrific 1906 SanFrancisco earthquake and fire that left much of the city in ruins and an estimated 300,000 people homeless. Caught in the mayhem that followed were Australian entrepreneur George Musgrove and Nellie Stewart, star of pantomime, light opera and drama, whose beauty and talent won the hearts of the Australian public at the turn of the twentieth century.

Nellie Stewart was a star of the Williamson, Garner and Musgrove’s Royal Comic Opera Company and throughout the 1880s performed in many of their productions including Patience, La MascotteHMS Pinafore, Iolanthe, Dorothy and Princess Ida. When Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado premiered in Australia in 1886, Nellie Stewart was the obvious choice to play the lead.

Buoyed by her singing success, Nellie Stewart attempted to make the transition to grand opera in 1888 taking on the role of Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust. Her success in the role was unfortunately marred by severely strained vocal chords, the result of unwisely singing the role for 24 consecutive nights. Vocal problems continued to plague her and the damage was compounded by further years of singing.

At age 43, Nellie Stewart decided to reinvent herself, this time as a dramatic star. As fate would have it her first non-musical role would also become the one for which she is best remembered. The play was Paul Kester’s Sweet Nell of Old Drury which premiered on 15 February 1902 at the Princess Theatre. The role was that of Nell Gwynne, a real-life rags-to-riches story of a poor ‘orange seller’ turned actress who became mistress of King Charles II.

Apron worn by Nellie Stewart as Nell Gwynn in ‘Sweet Nell of Old Drury’, c1902.1931. Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection.

Nellie’s gamble paid off with sell-out performances and rave reviews following around the country. On the back of its success Nellie and her partner, entrepreneur George Musgrove took the ambitious step of sailing to San Francisco to undertake an American tour of Sweet Nell of Old Drury.  They arrived early in 1906 with a full dramatic company, stagehands, scenery, costumes and props.  The production and its star were an immediate success and following a successful season, Nellie and daughter Nancye travelled on to Colorado Springs while George remained in San Francisco organising further tour dates.

When the city was struck by an earthquake and ensuring fire on 18 April, Musgrove was caught in the midst of the devastation. A week later, ragged and battered, he made his way to his worried family. Scenery was destroyed in the disaster and the Sweet Nell tour had to be abandoned. It was a financial loss from which George Musgrove and Nellie Stewart never fully recovered. To enable the company to return to Australia, they sold their home in England and Nellie sold all her jewellery.