State Library of South Australia

The designer who danced with Helpmann

Date: 1 July 2016

Thelma Afford (1908-1996) is best known in Adelaide as the costume designer for the 1936 South Australian Centenary. In 1936 South Australia celebrated 100 years since the foundation of the state as a British colony, producing histories, plays and exhibitions to mark the achievements of the century. The grand finale of the year's celebrations was the 'Pageant of Progress', held in December.

Elizabeth Fisher costume design by Thelma Afford PRG 689 1 6
‘Elizabeth Fisher’, costume design by Thelma Afford [PRG 689/1/6]

In 1986 Thelma Afford donated to the State Library eighty original costume designs which she created for the 1936 Centenary pageant and theatre productions. Many were for Heather Gell's production 'Heritage', while others were for the street pageant 'Pageant of Progress' and the 'Landing at Glenelg and the Proclamation'.

These beautiful costume designs for the 1936 Centenary are now available online for you to view. You can zoom in on the detail and read the handwritten notes by Thelma.

Sturt Pea costume design by Themla Afford PRG 689 1 27
'Sturt Pea', costume design by Thelma Afford [PRG 689/1/27]

Born in Broken Hill, Thelma May Thomas was a successful art teacher and costume designer, who worked on major productions in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney from the 1930s to the 1950s. In 1938 Thelma married professional writer Max Afford in Sydney. They met in Adelaide while Thelma was working as a designer for Max's award winning play Awake My Love.

Thelma Afford shows costume designs to model Miss D Fahey
Thelma Afford shows costume designs to model Miss D Fahey, Sesquicentenary preparations at Town Hall.
Image from the State Library of NSW collections, SLNSW 21473.

From the late 1930s to 1950 Thelma worked professionally as costume designer for companies including the Minerva Theatre, Doris Fitton's Independent, and JC Williamson's. She designed for film producers such as Ken Hall (Cinesound Films) and Charles and Elsa Chauvel. When the ABC branched into live television drama, beginning with JM Barrie's The Twelve Pound Look in 1957, Thelma designed the costumes. At the same time she wrote about fashion and design for newspapers and magazines. Thelma Afford returned to arts teaching in a Sydney private girls' school from the 1960s until her retirement in 1978.

Although renowned as a designer, it is less well known that Thelma Afford was also a fine performer. She began in theatre as a member of Adelaide experimental theatre group Ab-Intra Studio Theatre. The company was created in 1931 by theatre designer Alan Harkness and journalist Kester Baruch. This small short-lived company produced highly acclaimed work until April 1935 when the founders left Australia to gain greater theatre experience overseas. The artist Hans Heysen was a strong supporter, as was Mrs J Lavington Bonython (later Lady Bonython) Lady Mayoress, who organised several farewell benefits for the two Ab-Intra founders. Dancer-choreographer Heather Gell who had brought Dalcroze Eurythmics to Adelaide, collaborated with Ab-Intra on its July 1933 program, 'Plastic Interpretations'. Thelma worked again with Heather Gell, most notably as designer for the choreographer's 'Heritage' production in 1936.

As a performer, Thelma Thomas continually received favourable reviews. Of Ab-Intra's 1932 production, The Robe of Yama, a critic wrote, "In 'Woman song' Thelma Thomas did fine work, she was another performer whose work was invaluable to the studio and whose every appearance was notable for the realism which she gave to her parts." (Town Topics magazine, 19 August 1932) In a further article a few days later, Town Topics editor Douglas Loan, a strong supporter of the Ab-Intra group, produced several illustrated pages on The Robe of Yama program. In it he wrote, "The husky voice of Thelma Thomas and her dryad grace wove a magic spell around one."

In its September program Robert Helpmann (later world-renowned dancer Sir Robert Helpmann) worked with the company as an actor, dancer and choreographer. He devised a short series of dance postures, 'The Stained Glass Window', which he performed with Thelma. Another part of this program performed by Thelma with Robert Helpmann was 'The Aspen Tree', a mime depiction of an apocryphal story from the life of John the Baptist. This was written by a fourteen year old Australian poet, Winifred Shaw.

Thelma Thomas with Robert Helpman in the production The Stained Glass Window
Thelma Thomas with Robert Helpmann in the production 'The Stained Glass Window'.
Photo by Colin Ballantyne for Talk Town magazine in 1932.

Thelma Afford's will left instructions to set up two awards for young Australians. One award was in her name to benefit young designers and the other, the Max Afford Playwrights' Award, in memory of her late husband. The former award was on hold for some time but the Australian Production Design Guild has recently announced a ten thousand dollar Thelma Afford Theatre, Stage, TV or Film Costume Design Award for a designer under 30.

Her work can still be seen in writings on art and fashion and the beautiful and innovative costume designs held by our State Library, Queensland's Fryer Library, the Mitchell Library (NSW) and the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra. But beyond this tangible reminder of her intelligence and creativity, is her work as a teacher in the late 1920s and early 1930's, and again from the 1950's until her retirement in 1978. Generations of art and design students were able to learn, experiment and develop under her expert guidance. Perhaps this is the greatest part of her legacy.

Story by Isabel Story, Community Learning Content Liaison Officer

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