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"there’s risk involved"

In #5 in a series of conversations with leading Australian female designers, Antoinette Barbouttis meets an industry legend.

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Jennifer Irwin: “I was in the right place in the right time to learn”

Date: 21 Jun 2018

Jennifer Irwin’s career spans four decades and she creates for drama, opera, dance and ballet and major events.

Most recently, Jennifer designed the lavish costumes for Opera Australia’s The Merry Widow, the Australian Ballet’s Murphy Tribute and Bangarra’s Dance Theatre’s latest production Dark Emu.

Her work has also been seen on the stages of Belvoir and the Melbourne Theatre Company, on screen (the feature film Spear), the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Lincoln Centre (New York City) and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

AB: You are a costume designer, not a set designer. What led you down this track? 

JI: I’ve only ever been interested in costume. Dressing bodies is my primary interest and I could always sew.

I trained as a scenic artist, but my first professional job was with Sydney Dance Company in the early 1980s. So I fell into dance and have been designing for it ever since.

I had permanent employment at Sydney Dance Company, during the grassroots years of the company – the Graeme Murphy period. I designed and made all the costumes, maintained them and toured internationally with the company. Graeme put contemporary dance on the map in Australia. I was in the right place in the right time to learn.

Essentially, I learned on the job. How fabrics work over time, how to cut costumes for movement. If a dancer can’t move due to costume, then it’s not going to work. A dancer has to feel safe in a costume, there’s risk involved. If they fall due to the costume, that could end their career. There are practical issues to consider, too, like partnering and longevity when you’re dancing eight shows a week for months on tour.

Every genre of performance has different priorities. Dancers sweat. Opera singers need to sing unconstrained. Actors need character.

How do your own aesthetics come in to the design process?

Every show I’ve designed is completely different. You’re collaborating with the artistic director and the show’s director and everything needs to sit within the set. We design as a collaborative group, there’s no working solo. It’s an entirely collaborative process.

How did you get involved with Bangarra Dance Theatre? 

I met Stephen Page, artistic director of Bangarra, when he was a young dancer at Sydney Dance Company. He was 19 or 20, I think. Very young! He invited me to do their dance costumes and I have been designing for him ever since.

Working with Bangarra allows me to be more creative. It’s a much more organic experience. You can go anywhere with the costumes. But as a white woman, I also need to be aware of all cultural protocols.

When I design for Bangarra, the costumes are always abstract and create a skin that the dancers transform into an art piece.

You use bold ochres in your costume designs for Bangarra. Can you talk a little about using that kind of natural material?

Ochre is a clay and it comes in many colours and Bangarra usually sources it from the appropriate homelands.

I am very fabric-inspired in my designs. I try to source fabrics that I can turn into something else, something with texture I can paint, or dye, or bleach, or layer with other fabrics. Over the years, the Bangarra costumes have become far more sculptural. I’ve been doing dance for so long now it has become second nature to create and understand the vocabulary of different choreographers.

Every time I do a show with Bangarra, I try to push my design harder than the last one. When you work for a company for 30 years, you have to push forward to maintain originality and freshness.

I love embracing new technology such as digital printing, 3D printing and laser cutting. I love the dynamic juxtaposition, the ancient and the modern.

What are your costume design career highlights? 

The highlight for me is being a part of a company. It’s like family. But Dirty Dancing the musical is a highlight, and it continues to tour around the world since its first staging in 2004. Also having had my work seen in places such as The Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

And I designed 25,000 costumes in one year for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. I love that I’ve had the opportunity to work on an international scale.


Jennifer Irwin’s costumes can be seen in Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu, touring now. More info here.

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