The Secret Life of Us: articles

Inside their secret wardrobe

An impromptu St Kilda roof party: music, vodka, the scent of sea and smog. Sexual tension ripples in the heat like a mirage. The trendy twenty-somethings are attractive, interesting rather than plastic beautiful, with distinct personalities, problems and styles. They are also figments of the imagination and figments—especially ones hoping for regular invitations into the lounge rooms of strangers—need to be dressed with care.

The Secret Life Of Us hit Australian television earlier this year—the first season's cliffhanger finale screens on Monday and shooting on the second series begins in early December. It has won a respectable following here and in Britain, largely due to strong characterisation and a look that, while reflecting a seductive TV gloss, is grounded in reality. Much of this feel is consolidated—palms, trams and rollercoasters aside—by the clothing chosen by Secret Life's wardrobe mistress Jane Hyland.

Have trouble finding things to wear? Try shopping for work and casual clothes for a dozen people—fictional people at that. Hyland responded to the challenge with a mix of local design labels and retro gear, her fashion radar on constant alert for items that reflected the diverse personalities. She is so in tune with their requirements she can't switch off, spotting things like "Evan shirts" (for the dishevelled character played by Samuel Johnson) long after her work on the first series was done.

"It's tricky because the characters are so different, but once you have an idea of them in your head, you know what suits. They are character-driven choices in the end, rather than the actors being clothes hangers for the latest fashion," says Hyland, who trained as a fashion designer in England before moving into costuming for television, film and commercials.

Her first work in Australian television was for The Last Outlaw, in which a young John Jarratt played Ned Kelly. Until Secret Life, her TV costuming was almost exclusively for period drama and her approach to this modern tale still has something of the fashion anthropologist about it. Her reference? Twenty-first century inner-city Melbourne.

"I'm in awe of the way people dress in St Kilda," says Hyland. "You sit and have a coffee and watch people walking by; they put things together in such a remarkable way. It has a particular look you don't see anywhere else. Then there's Brunswick Street (Fitzroy). It's inspirational and Secret Life is a great opportunity to pick up on that eclectic look."

Local designers play a significant part in Hyland's vision for her fictional charges. She matched Melbourne label Vixen to Claudia Karvan's character straight away. "I admire their clothes and what they do, but it also fitted well into the character of Alex," says Hyland. The colorful clothes of the sunny Kelly (played by Deborah Mailman) were sourced from many places, though Hyland imagines Kelly poking around Brunswick, rather than Acland, Street.

Other factors inform Hyland's choices, too. In Friends, Jennifer, Courtney and co. might have ever-changing wardrobes and New York apartments their characters couldn't possibly afford, but in Secret Life, Hyland considers the characters' "budgets" as well as their look. As a result, doctor Alex can swathe herself in Vixen sarongs after work, political staffer Gabrielle (played by the svelte Sibylla Budd) can stride off to the Ministry in Scanlan & Theodore and her estranged lawyer husband, Jason (Damian De Montemas), can appear before magistrates in Saba and Calibre. Struggling actress Miranda (Abi Tucker), however, is the queen of retro while resident writer Evan shambles about in 1970s shirts that "look like he's just picked them up off the floor".

She found local labels—she also used Indigo and Grab—very supportive. .

Apart from the demands of character, script, producers, overall feel and the actors,  Hyland must also consider something that's the last thing on the mind of the average shopper—and it's something that really comes into play when dressing Secret Life's men.

"I love dressing the guys but, Jason's work clothes aside, the main effect is that they seem to be living in their clothes, that they're comfortable in them. You have to ensure the audience never thinks 'Oh, Richie's just put on another new T-shirt'.

"There's something about a genuine second-hand shirt and I try to get those when I can. If it's a new shirt I'm hooked on—maybe I love the graphic—I can send it off to get 'lived-in', but it's not the same."

You can get clothes lived-in? "We send them to the same places designers send things to get them stressed, sand-blasted and so on," says Hyland.

Does her lifetime of shopping, designer contacts and fashion awareness mean Hyland herself has a wardrobe to die for? "Oh, no," she exclaims. "I'm like the plumber with leaky taps or the mechanic whose car never works. I'm terrible with my own clothes."

By Annmaree Bellman
November 21, 2001
The Age