“Four Oscars Can’t Be Wrong”: Formal Dress Shopping with Catherine Martin

Catherine Martin says she rarely thinks of the four Oscars she has won, more Oscars than any other Australian. But the famed costume designer and production designer admits, well, there was one time she talked about it. And her 18-year-old daughter Lilly never lets her forget it.

Martin, who won two Oscars for Red Mill! in 2002, then two others for Gatsby the magnificent in 2014, was helping with a dress fitting before Lilly’s junior prom when the family was living in New York. Lilly said she felt too small in a long dress with low heels.

“I said ‘I guarantee you should just wear something really flat under the dress. Nobody’s going to see it – it’s a big princess dress – but I can make you look taller,’ says Martin .

“She was like ‘you have no idea, what are you doing?’ And I said “four Oscars can’t be wrong”.

And it turned out. After Martin worked magic with pins to create a train in the back of the dress, Lilly conceded she was right: even a small train makes you look taller.

Martin talks in the no-fuss beachfront home she, her director husband Baz Luhrmann and their extended family shared while doing the Biopic about Elvis Presley Elvis on the Gold Coast.

With the film just a few weeks away, she looks relaxed — certainly more relaxed than Luhrmann at the same time — sitting comfortably on a sofa and dressed in a white and blue patterned pantsuit and sandals. Red-painted fingernails and a silver ring are the only gestures towards the sleek designer looks she’ll soon be wearing at the Cannes Film Festival, the Met Gala and premiering around the world.

It is sometimes said that Martin’s creative brilliance is overshadowed by Luhrmann’s notoriety. But four Oscars can’t be wrong, not to mention five BAFTAs, a Tony, and countless other accolades.

Austin Butler’s performance as the king of rock and roll, from a fresh-faced young singer in the 1950s to a stodgy legend in the 1970s, is a highlight of Elvis. The same goes for Martin’s opulent costumes.

The best costumes serve many functions in movies. They show where the characters are in their fictional lives and the emotional arc of their stories. So there’s optimism and sexiness in the sleek pink and black suit young Elvis pairs with a perfect pout and hairdo during a performance where the audience are muted country music fans .

“In the beginning, I must say that my family situation and my own mental health had an impact on my ability to cope”: Catherine Martin.Credit:Rhett Hammerton

Costumes help set the mood and tone of a film, creating contrast between characters. Later in the film, mature Elvis’ look is all red, gold, and black, compared to the greens and blues of his wily manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks.

Costumes also help actors find the characters they are playing. Butler, who needed more than 90 costumes for the film, says he found the famous black leather outfit Elvis wore for TV ’68 Comeback Special “responsible”.

Some costumes are revamps of famous outfits, including Elvis’ white Vegas-era jumpsuit; others draw inspiration from the archives of Prada designer Miuccia Prada, who collaborated on the film.

Showing the scale of Elviseven the Memphis Mafia – the relatives and associates who surrounded Presley – had 26 suits each.

Martin, 57, grew up in Lindfield on Sydney’s North Shore as the daughter of a French mother and an Australian father, both academics. As a child with a passion for sewing, she became fascinated with the technical aspects of costume, design and fashion, developing an interest in film while watching The Wizard of Oz and carried away by the wind.

While taking a design course at the National Institute of Dramatic Art after studying visual arts at Sydney College of the Arts, she met Luhrmann. As he says, “I just met her and I said, ‘I never want you in my life’.”

Catherine Martin with Baz Luhrmann at the 2019 Met Gala.

Catherine Martin with Baz Luhrmann at the 2019 Met Gala.Credit:Getty Images

Married in 1997, they forged one of the great collaborations in Australian film, theater and opera that also spanned musicals, television, fashion house and fragrance adverts, hotel design and its line of designer homewares.

“CM”, as she is widely known, designed and then went into production on Luhrmann’s projects, including Ballroom strictly (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), Red Mill! (2001), Australia (2008), Gatsby the magnificent (2013), Netflix series Lowering (2016-17) and now Elvis.

So how does she see their creative relationship? Martin quotes a phrase from ballroom dancing: the woman is the flower and the man is the vase.

“In a movie, I’m the vase and Baz and the actors are the flowers,” she says. “Baz always has a vision of what he wants. He tells me what he wants and I try to translate it into reality.

“Things like costume design and production design are the scaffolding that helps tell the story in all its glory.”

Luhrmann says Martin’s genius is being able to take an idea and make it a reality.

“In a film, I am the vase and Baz and the actors are the flowers.”

Catherine Martin

“It’s not this CM thing that does the design, then I move the traffic,” he says. “I have a visual language that I’ve been working on all the time since day one, [creating] scrapbooks and tear sheets.

“I’m just a horrible cartoonist, so her burden – and that of the storyboarders as well – is that they have to interpret what she calls a very emotional scribble.”

So what has been the biggest challenge on Elvis? Martin says that was the scale of the production – creating a 159-minute film filled with often convoluted period scenes. As well as sets at Village Roadshow studios on the Gold Coast, they created film versions of Graceland and Beale Street in Memphis.

“It was really difficult,” says Martin. “And very early on, I have to say that my family situation and my own mental health impacted my ability to cope.”

Like so many others during the pandemic, their extended family faced health and personal dramas that added to the pressure to do Elvis.

“I had underestimated the magnitude of the thing and what it would take to put clothes on the bodies,” Martin says. “There’s just such a process from a fitting to an approval from me to an approval from Baz and then all the changes to each background costume.”

Martin says Butler has proven to be the most patient person in the world at costume fittings.

Take to the stage in a candy pink and black suit for a first performance: Austin Butler as the king in Elvis.

Take to the stage in a candy pink and black suit for a first performance: Austin Butler as the king in Elvis.Credit:Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros.

“We had a series of big suits that he had to put on as Elvis got chubpier,” she says. “Sometimes we would try to get him to wear 25 suits. And we could never do 25 in a row. Even doing seven combinations is exhausting after a full day of rehearsing.

Butler had 30 hours to try on the 1968 black leather outfit alone.

“I feel really embarrassed to say that,” Martin says. “It’s taking this iconic suit, translating all the design lines such as the pockets, the height of the waist [for] when he raises his arm, the amount of flare [in the pants]how it goes over the boot, how we keep the flare down, how the collar sits, why the jacket pulls back, all those things, and work on it over and over.

When Luhrmann thought the leather wasn’t thick enough, they remade the outfit in a different leather.


“Then we would compare them both on screen and in motion and then we would collaborate and come back to ‘oh, I think we need to do these parts in the stiff leather but these bits in the less stiff leather’ for that works.”

They made a soft leather version that looked better when Elvis was sitting, another outfit for when he was standing, another for when he wasn’t doing anything in particular, and yet another for when he was rolling on the floor. so Butler could wear knee pads.

Austin Butler wore more than 90 costumes to play Elvis Presley from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Austin Butler wore more than 90 costumes to play Elvis Presley from the 1950s to the 1970s.Credit:Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros.

Next time we talk, Elvis began screening. In a room at the Park Hyatt hotel the day after the Sydney premiere, Martin wears a white robe from the hotel bathroom for warmth. “I’m frozen,” she said, amused by his appearance. “For a costume designer, I don’t look like I can dress myself.”

After being feted at the Cannes Film Festival and other early screenings, she can’t wait to join her father in Paris for six weeks after the Memphis premiere.

“I want to do a lot of things that I’ve never done before, which seems ridiculous because I’ve been going to France since I was 10 months old,” she says. This includes seeing theater at the Comédie-Française and operas at the Palais Garnier and Opéra Bastille.

Beverley Dunn and Catherine Martin with their Academy Awards for Best Art Direction for The Great Gatsby.

Beverley Dunn and Catherine Martin with their Academy Awards for Best Art Direction for The Great Gatsby.Credit:Reuters

For at least the next 18 months, the home will continue to be on the Gold Coast, where Lilly and 17-year-old ‘Egg’ are studying. And while their spectacular five-story New York home is on the market for $20 million ($27 million), they plan to buy an apartment for future stays.

Until they decide on a next project, Martin will be working on his line of housewares and exploring innovative products for their films – perhaps a line of Romeo + Juliet Clothes.

While the box office will determine the success of Elvis the following month, she feels good about what they have accomplished.

“I know I look like I’m getting noticed, but I’m really proud of the movie,” she says. I think Baz did an amazing job. I really thought, ‘oh wow, you’re really pushing your style forward and not just resting on your laurels’.”


The spectacular production design and costumes bring the story to life. As Lilly now knows: four Oscars can’t be wrong.

Elvis hits theaters June 23.

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