News & Commentary, Stage, Theatre

Costuming James Joyce’s Ulysses, one literary period at a time

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In June, Melbourne celebrates its 25th ‘Bloomsday In Melbourne’ festival, the annual literary event commemorating James Joyce’s famous novel Ulysses. The festival includes a stage production of Holy Cow! James Joyce Slaughters the Sacred Cows of English Literature, directed by Jennifer Sarah Dean at fortyfivedownstairs in Flinders Lane, Melbourne.

The festival’s director Frances Devlin-Glass looks at how its costumier, Rhiannon Irving, is dressing the cast for the dramatisation of the period-hopping Oxen of the Sun chapter of the book. It involves 50 costume changes, most of them performed on stage. 


 James Joyce’s Dublin 1904 is a plain look for a costumier – lots of tweedy (or at best silk) waistcoats, scummy collarless shirts and baggy brown pants (more tweed and flannel), flat caps, one bowler for Bloom, and women are more often seen in a white nightie, a corset or a Virgin blue blouse and skirt, apart from the occasional very rare excursion into Edwardian gowns.

Costuming Bloomsday is barely a job and costumes (with one exception, last year’s SteamPunk-themed show, Getting up James Joyce’s Nose, at the Spiegeltent, when Laurel Frank, the Circus Oz costumier, influenced the look of the show) have normally been sourced in people’s wardrobes or op-shops.

Jennifer Sarah Dean, trained at the Globe (London) and the founding artistic director of Melbourne Shakespeare Company (MSC), is Bloomsday’s seventh director in its 25 years of operation. She had other ideas for Bloomsday’s dramatisation of the Oxen of the Sun chapter of Ulysses in which Joyce notoriously parodies the entire canon of English literary classics, while telling his own modern story.

Could the 34 plus major periods of literary history through which the chapter wittily treks, or at least the major transitions between them, be visualised, in part, not only through linguistic, stylistic and gestural work, but also through expressive costumery?


Thirty-four periods quickly boiled down to seven – Medieval, Elizabethan, Cavalier, Georgian, Regency, Victorian and 1920s. What’s more, it was the costumier whom Jennifer Dean had brought along with her from MSC, Rhiannon Irving, still in her twenties, who made the suggestion that she would costume for all six periods.

This was to amplify the modest demands of the Bloomsday script team – merely to accessorise basic blacks with hats, ruffs and lace cuffs. Such minimalism did not offer enough challenge for this dynamo dresser, so, intent on capitalising on her design skills and knowing her competence, the director agreed to fund the more challenging notion of generating multiple costume changes for six of the actors, and fewer changes for three more. In excess of 50 costume changes, most performed on stage.

The costume design is congruent with Joyce’s attempts to see literature working from many angles, and it raises questions about how stylistics (both in dress and language) can govern how one thinks and moves.

Rhiannon Irving is a creative powerhouse. She began acting at high school in Geelong and with Footlight Productions, but quickly gravitated to costume design and construction (she shares with her mother a passion for textiles and making), and when it came time to go to university, it was the specialised course (rather than the broader-based Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) model, involving specialisation in costume design later in one’s course) offered at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) that she knew she wanted.

In Western Australia, the pattern of study was classrooms in the mornings and production-work building costumes for WAAPA’s numerous shows from 2.00pm. This pattern suited Rhiannon’s practical bent. After graduating, she had several months in Sydney and an internship that led to a job in TV series, Soul Mate and Dog Fight; she then took work in a bridal gown maker’s shop to hone her tailoring skills, working at nights on independent musicals and theatre productions. These days, she works full time as a costumier for the Australian Ballet, Melbourne Opera Company and, concurrently with Holy Cow!, as designer/ head costumier for Stage Masters’ current production of Bring It On the Musical.


She brings a lot of cultural capital in her head to the task, but beyond that, her design methodology has been to ascertain, by dint of reading and re-reading and re-reading again Joyce’s highly allusive prose, the main eras to be generated (no mean feat in itself, this year’s script taking up the prickly end of Joyce’s masterpiece), then to seek ideas in books, paintings, the internet.

She opted for broad brush-strokes – visual silhouettes–rather than the much more detailed focus that might inform a play set in just one particular era. That approach yielded insights about the continuities in dress between eras as well as the disjunctions. This approach is highly congruent with Joyce’s attempts to see literature working in cubist ways, from many angles, and it raises questions about how stylistics (both in dress and language) can govern how one thinks and moves and has one’s being.


Only one historical costume change was radically disjunctive, requiring dressing behind the scenes – significantly, the shift from Cavalier to Georgian. A telling and quite remarkable insight into a major shift in the zeitgeist. Mostly costumes are designed to accrete, and deconstruct, with hemlines moving higher or lower, adding pleats or collars or ruffs, so the audience will find the process of historical change happening in front of their eyes, to the accompaniment of songs of the period.


Both Jennifer Dean and her costumier Rhiannon Irving are brave young women, worth watching. Undaunted by James Joyce’s most demanding chapter, they are determined to ensure, using every theatrical trick in overstocked armouries, that the audience come on the tumultuous journey ripping into literary history, fertility and theology, in the tea-room at the Holles Street Maternity Hospital while an elderly multigravida moans her way to her thirteenth child, the tenth to live.

Holy Cow! James Joyce Slaughters the Sacred Cows of English Literature runs from Wednesday June 13 to Sunday June 17at fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, as part of the Bloomsday in Melbourne festival, which also includes a Joyce seminar and a literary lunch hosted by Bloomsday in Melbourne Patron Barry Jones. More info at

Images by Bernard Peasley of costumier Rhiannon Irving fitting cast members.  

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