22 May 2018

Ngila Dickson and the Xena costume

From Ours: Treasures from Te Papa, 9:10 am on 22 May 2018

She's a character who hints at being from the Pantheon of ancient Greek mythology, but was in fact born entirely from modern imagination and brought to life not in the temples of the gods, but in west Auckland. 

Xena, the 'warrior princess', continues to inspire a cult following of ‘Xenites’ to this very day. Everyone needs a hero, or heroine, and this feminist icon, played by Kiwi actress Lucy Lawless, certainly fits the bill. 

So, in this week's episode we turn our attention to something a bit different – Xena’s costume, including her fabulous boots. 

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According to the show, Xena was a "mighty princess forged in the heat of battle”. After making friends with Hercules, Xena sought redemption from her dark and violent past and began fighting warlords and gods for the greater good.

Xena's character was the full package – a strong and powerful woman, exceptional in combat, and with a signature battle cry that no doubt instilled fear in her enemies.  

Her partnership with sidekick and best friend Gabrielle also drew fans. Indeed, some have suggested the duo were more than just good friends.

Xena’s character first appeared in an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, but she went on to star in her own spinoff series. 

One of the creators of Xena’s costume, Ngila Dickson, says Xena’s character underwent a makeover after getting her own show. 

“There already was an established costume for Xena. In that time she was quite light, blonde and we were wanting to go for this darker, tougher, stronger image.”

Xena's outfit, circa 1995, by Barbara Darragh, Ngila Dickson, Robert Gillies. Gift of Pacific Renaissance Pictures, 2001.

Xena's outfit, circa 1995, by Barbara Darragh, Ngila Dickson, Robert Gillies. Gift of Pacific Renaissance Pictures, 2001. Photo: Te Papa

The show, which was filmed in New Zealand, ran from 1995 to 2001. When it ended, producers Pacific Renaissance Pictures gifted Xena’s costume to Te Papa. 

Xena’s outfit includes a brown leather dress, armour, a breast plate, gauntlets, arm bands and boots. It was initially designed by Barbara Darragh, then reworked by Dickson.

The costume would not be complete of course without her weapons -including her whip, chakram and trusty sword. Robert Gillies designed the weapons and other props.

Te Papa’s Senior Curator New Zealand History and Culture, Claire Regnault, says the outfit is still very popular with visitors.

“We’ve had designers from all over the world come and see it, wanting to see it up close in person to study it. It’s one of those objects when you say to people ‘We’ve got Xena’s outfit’, you immediately get a reaction.”

For fans, Xena was an inspiring female role model and heroine in a world traditionally full of male action heroes. 

Regnault says the show even inspired the first female US Secretary of State, Madeline Albright.

Albright has been quoted as saying that despite never having been to New Zealand, she considers Xena to be one of her role models. 

Te Papa's senior curator of New Zealand culture and history, Claire Regnault.

Claire Regnault. Photo: Te Papa/ Norm Heke.

That might have been a little tongue in cheek but the character’s influence still resonates today. Dickson says she could spot Xena’s influence in the movie Wonder Woman, which was released in 2017.

“I was really chuffed when I saw Wonder Woman, because I am damn sure that they were referencing right back to Xena and that world.  

“But even better, they cut out the need for women with enormous breasts which was just boring to me,” Dickson says.

Although Xena is a Greek princess, there’s a distinctive Kiwi flavour to her outfit.

“I guess inevitably I’m a New Zealander so it’s going to come out in some Polynesian, Māori design. You’re going to start seeing koru shapes whether you’re meaning them to be there or not they start coming through because it’s what we know so well,” says Dickson.

And Xena's boots are an example of what New Zealanders are known for - the number 8 wire mentality. 

In what is a very innovative design, the boots have been built around a pair of sneakers. 

“The boots are quite fabulous because they seem like normal boots from the outside because Xena had pretty large feet but if you put your hand inside you can feel the tongue of the sneaker,” says Regnault.

Xena’s shoes needed to be comfortable enough for Lawless to run in with ease. 

“When you’re doing something like Xena, I like things to be made really well... I think it helps actors be who the character is,” says Dickson.

Winners for Best Costume Design Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor pose with their Oscars at the 76th Academy Awards.

 Winners for Best Costume Design Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor pose with their Oscars at the 76th Academy Awards. Photo: 2004 AFP

Dickson says she wanted to create an iconic costume that was also practical to wear. 

“You’re talking about gauntlets and arm bracelets and corseting so you can really shape her body within it. So you’re doing all that and then you realise, how the hell are you going to ride a horse in a corseted boned garment?”

Dickson went on to win an Oscar for costume design with The Lord of the Rings.

“What Xena did was gave me all the skills. In fact, when you’re talking about something like Lord of the Rings, you were just endlessly having to try out new ideas and you never knew what was coming next so you had the ability to kind of dig in and do it. 

“Right across the board, for on-set people and makers, everybody learnt how to be true film production people on that show.”

The show may have ended 17 years ago, but a quick Google search reveals a slew of fan pages, YouTube clips, tutorials for DIY Xena costumes, and Xena cosplay outfits for sale.

“It’s fascinating when you go online, particularly into the fan pages,” Regnault says.

“I was reading a reflection recently from a young woman who talked about - she was quite young when Xena came on TV - what it meant to her and how she became a role model and that’s why she thinks she’s a strong person today, she credits her mother and Xena.”

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