Antonia Prebble as Rita West on the set of Westside. Photo © SPP.
New Zealand’s favourite television family, the anarchic Wests, returned to our screens recently with the arrival of the second season of Westside, the popular prequel to the long-running Outrageous Fortune series.
This season picks up just over a year from where the first season ended, and while season one spanned 1974 – 1979, this time the second season is spent entirely in 1981. It’s fair to say that 1981 was a turbulent time in New Zealand’s history, the violent protests of the Springbok tour divided the country, while the re-elected National government led by Robert Muldoon became increasingly unpopular, providing a dramatic backdrop that is cleverly interwoven into the series. The romance of Prince Charles’ and Lady Diana’s wedding captured the hearts of the nation that year, and Diana’s cream puff dress designed by the Emanuels made her an instant fashion icon with her style emulated by women worldwide.
Recreating the fashion of 1981 is the job of Westside‘s costume designer, Jaindra Watson, who was tasked with figuring out how each character looks and translating that into wearable outfits for each of the cast. It’s a big job to re-create another time period and the process begins with Watson reseaching books, magazines, music videos and the internet, getting as much detailed information as she can because that reseach is constantly referred back to while making the series. When creating each character’s style Watson references rock bands and pop stars from the era, combined with pictures of New Zealanders from the time.
Even though the 1980s is in our recent past, it can still be a challenge to find good, usable pieces that suit the show. While some items, like Ted West’s leather jacket, were recycled from season one, it was mostly a fresh start for season two. “This season’s costumes came from a wide variety of places, some special items like Rita’s boots were ordered in from Etsy, but the bulk of it came from the hospice shops and the K-Road vintage stores.” adds Watson. Combining old pieces with new to create the right 80s look, Watson sourced bomber jackets, mini skirts, pleated pants, straight leg jeans and stilettos that fit the Westie style. While avoiding anything too extreme like oversized shoulder pads, bright shiny fabrics and popping colours that didn’t suit the darker tone of the series.
Once she has pulled together a selection of costume pieces Watson spends a lot of time styling outfits on mannequins before she fits them on the actors. Fittings can take up to 2 hours per actor and often with the main cast Watson will do two or more fittings at the beginning of the series, then a fitting per episode as the show goes along. It’s during those fittings that actress Antonia Prebble, who reprises her role as fearless matriarch Rita West, gets to figure out her character’s physicality and how she becomes Rita. “I still remember the moment in the first season when I tried on the pair of high-waisted flared jeans and me and Jaindra said ‘Oh, that’s Rita. We’ve found her.’ Because it’s just so part and parcel of who someone is, what they wear and how they dress themselves,” says Prebble.
The women of Westside, from L – R: Esther Stephens as Ngaire Munro, Antonia Prebble as Rita West & Sophie Hambleton as Carol O’Driscoll (left). Antonia Prebble on location at the iconic set of the West’s home (right). Photo © SPP.
The process of becoming Rita on set each day begins with an hour and fifteen minutes in hair and makeup for Prebble, with a further fifteen minutes dressing and styling the costume for her scenes. The finishing touch and her favourite part is Rita’s wig, which is styled in a bouffy lady mullet that perfect captures the popular big hair look of the time. “Her clothes definitely reflect her confidence. Her style is bold, sexy and fierce,” adds Prebble. “Sometimes I’d be walking along in costume from the set and catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror and often give myself a fright. There’s just so much to her and there’s so much going on. Like ‘oh my gosh’ I look quite terrifying in a fierce way.”
For Esther Stephens, who plays the more prim and proper Ngaire Munro, her character’s love of acrylic nails was a definite upside of the 80s look. “I can’t grow awesome natural nails so I love having acrylics, and something about having a perfect manicure really encapsulates Ngaire’s polish and poise,” says Stephens. In contrast to Rita’s bold, sexier look, Ngaire’s outfits are softer and beautifully reminscent of the popular housewife looks of the time. “I especially enjoy the high-waisted pants and big hair, there’s a bit of a nod to 80’s power dressing in Ngaire’s wardrobe.”
Making a television show is a collective process and both actresses are quick to sing the praises of their costume designer Watson, who is instrumental in helping them create their characters. “Our designer Jaindra is really collaborative which I love,” says Stephens. “Fittings are a lot of fun, bouncing ideas around together till we find something we both really dig.”
Esther Stephens as Ngaire Munro and Antonia Prebble as Rita West on the set of Westside. Photo © SPP.
“I’m a huge fan of Jaindra, I think she does a really great job,” adds Prebble. “I love working with her because she’s really open to collaboration. She genuinely thinks that two heads are better than one and she always takes my opinions into consideration and if I don’t like something it’s gone straight away. She really wants everyone to feel comfortable with what we’re wearing and I love that. I think she’s wonderful. And she works so hard, it’s not easy sourcing a period show.” Watson admits that helping the actors find their characters during the fittings is one of the best parts of her job and seeing all the effort come together on screen is the pay off for all the hard work.
When the Westside women are not in costume, they’re definitely supportive of local designers with Prebble citing the likes of Kate Sylvester, Juliette Hogan, Twenty-seven Names, Ruby, Liam and Kathryn Wilson as her go-to labels. While Stephens shares Prebble’s affection for Juliette Hogan, she also loves Miss Crabb and wearing her own NZ-made vintage finds. This season an item from Prebble’s own wardrobe ended up on Rita when she found herself drawn to a black suede skirt with tassels on it while overseas, but later realised it didn’t really suit her own style but was a perfect match for her character.
“I’ve always been an eighties fashion fan,” says Prebble. “I like shoulder pads and I like jumpsuits, although Rita doesn’t wear a lot of those. A few of her jumpsuits that have shoulder pads I would wear myself as I really like that look and have for a long time. It’s funny I’ve had a few people independently say to me that they really love Rita’s mullet haircut and want to get that for themselves. I was at the hairdressers the other day and a lady said that was the exact haircut she wants and I was like ‘Oh ok, that’s great.’ It’s definitely on point somehow.”
Rita West wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sophie Hambleton as Carol O’Driscoll, Esther Stephens as Ngaire Munro & Antonia Prebble as Rita West on the set of Westside. Photo © SPP.
– By Evelyn Ebrey
Westside screens at 8.30pm Sundays on TV3.