Barbara Darragh's working tools include sketch pad, cloth, sewing machine and concrete mixer (great for making clothes look aged).
Darragh has always had a fascination for clothing; she can remember a childhood obsession with visiting the local church second-hand store, finding old dresses that could be reinvented. Further inspiration came from fashion magazines, and the musicians in Rolling Stone. After studying fashion design at Wellington Polytechnic, Darragh began working in television. Soon after, the birth of the second TV channel coincided with a massive jump in drama content.
Darragh's first gig was as assistant to costume designer Alf Weston on pioneering goldmining tale Hunter's Gold (1977). Her first gig as lead costume designer was on Ngaio Marsh Theatre, a series of 30s-era telefilms which became the first Kiwi TV dramas to screen in the USA. Darragh was costume designer on two: Died in the Wool, set on a remote sheep station, and the London-set Opening Night, filmed almost entirely in Wanganui's Royal Opera House.
By 1982 Darragh was costume designing classic Maurice Gee alien encounter tale Under the Mountain. After toiling in the costume department on big budget import Savage Islands, she made her big screen debut as costume designer on David Blyth's front-running genre film Death Warmed Up (1984), New Zealand's first horror movie.
Another five features followed before the end of the 80s, including dressing Temuera Morrison as the journalist hero of Never Say Die, his first big screen starring role; and a teen Greer Robson for stylish depression-era drama Starlight Hotel.
But Darragh's most high profile 80s project was acclaimed hit Came a Hot Friday, based on the Ronald Hugh Morrieson novel. Set in a small town in the late 40s, the movie saw Darragh masterminding costumes for a large cast of conmen, gamblers and glamour girls — not to mention Billy T James' scene-stealing Tainuia Kid, whose dynamite-laced costume had a touch of the Mexican bandito about it.
In 1991 Darragh re-teamed with Came a Hot Friday director Ian Mune and production designer Ron Highfield, to reinvent another Kiwi classic: Bruce Mason's oft-performed solo play End of the Golden Weather. She talks about her work on the film, and being a costume designer, in the book Shadows on the Wall. The research-keen Darragh tried to imagine books that the main child character Geoff "would have read, and the movies he would have seen". Her designs were variously inspired by period photo albums, the illustrations of Englishman Arthur Rackham, and stills taken for movies from the 30s.
Among the raft of NZ Film Awards for End of the Golden Weather, Darragh took away a gong for best contribution to design, marking one of the first times in New Zealand that costumes for film had been singled out for special attention. The reviews were just as keen. The Sunday Star's Russell Baillie called it "a film of high craft in every area, with painterly visuals" and "an understated period design".
Darragh followed the film with the time-hopping, Leon Narbey-directed Footstep Man, some of whose costumes were inspired by the work of 19th century French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (played in the film by Michael Hurst.)
After helping out as a wardrobe coordinator on The Piano, Darragh found herself mixing eras once more. In 1993 she was collaborating again with production designer Ron Highfield, after taking on costume designer duties on World War II home front thriller The Last Tattoo. (Variety's reviewer David Stratton noted the "first-class" work of both).She was also working on a series of American-funded tele-movies based around the mythical character of Hercules.
Darragh worked on five Hercules tele-movies and the TV series that followed, starting with Hercules and the Amazon Women. She also designed the first incarnation of the leather and breastplate costume worn by Lucy Lawless as Xena, for the character's original 1995 debut on the Hercules television series. Searching for a fresh look, Darragh was inspired partly by Roman influences, and in the costume's metalwork, by art nouveau design.
By now Darragh was costume designing one of the most technically ambitious productions shot on New Zealand soil to that date, Peter Jackson's comedy horror The Frighteners. This time her cast of American characters included conman Michael J Fox, ghosts, and a demented FBI agent.
Since then Darragh has worked on many international projects shot downunder — plus two ambitious but troubled productions set in 19th century New Zealand. The first was TV drama Greenstone, featuring Simone Kessell as a young Māori princess whose romances are subject to the political strategies of her father. The show began life as a co-production with the BBC, but was later completed with funding from Tainui Corporation.
The second was Vincent Ward's River Queen (2005), which would win Darragh her second NZ Screen Award, and see her commanding a team of 20. Her designs for River Queen were underpinned by the idea that the fighters were nomadic, with colonial soldiers adapting their uniforms to the rugged New Zealand environment, and Māori incorporating colonial features into their own outfits. The film's colour palette tended largely towards blues and greens; the costume team repeatedly dyed the soldiers' uniforms in different shades of blue, to enable them to show up in the film's dark bush settings.
Other credits as a costume designer include fantasy Bridge to Terabitha, highly-regarded Peter Cook and Dudley Moore biopic Not Only But Always, and Martin Clunes tele-movie The Man Who Lost His Head. Darragh also took on a project in Australia, assisting on costume design for the Queensland-shot Scooby-Doo.
When Hercules-makers Pacific Renaissance returned to Auckland to shoot Spartacus, Barbara Darragh was invited to design the costumes; adding subtle changes to the designs to reflect the characters' development through the course of the first season. In Darragh's opinion, the shows' many demands — from beauties to Roman soldiers — encompassed "everything a costume designer could ever wish for".
Darragh continues to run Auckland-based costume hire company Across the Board, whose outfits range from 1860s colonial soldiers to contemporary hospital gowns, plus pieces by many Kiwi designers, including Vinka Lucas.
'Barbara Darragh on designing 'that' outfit for Xena' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen Website. Director Andrew Whitehouse (Uploaded 13 June 2011). Accessed 14 June 2011
David Stratton, 'The Last Tattoo'(Review)- Variety, 6 June 1994
Sue May, River Queen - The making of the film on the Whanganui River (Booklet) (Wanganui Inc, 2006)
Barbara Cairns and Helen Martin, Shadows on the Wall - A Study of Seven New Zealand Feature Films (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1994)
Robert Weisbrot, Xena Warrior Princess - The Official Guide to the Xenaverse (New York: Doubleday, 1998)