Then and now: new Australian film shining a light on the student experience

17 September 2018
To celebrate the release of the new Australian film Ladies in Black, student Katie Harkin interviewed director and alumnus Bruce Beresford to look back at over sixty years of uni life - and how more than just the on-campus fashion has changed.

We all remember the summer between high school ending and Uni beginning, and the feeling of waiting to find out if you’ve gotten into your dream course. Bruce Beresford’s new film, Ladies in Black, is centred around schoolgirl Lisa while she waits to find out if she’s been accepted into the University of Sydney – where Beresford himself studied. But while the feeling of anticipation might be common to all, a lot about uni life has changed.

Watch the full interview

The growth of a diverse community

Today, our campus reflects our multicultural society, with a diverse international student community and an amazing range of food available to us – within a five-minute walk from campus you can find anything from Vietnamese, to Italian and Thai. But during the 50s, when Ladies in Black is set, these changes were just beginning to take place.

Ladies in Black explores the friendship between Lisa and Magda, a Slovenian immigrant who manages the high-fashion department store floor where Lisa works and who opens her eyes to the emerging international community in Sydney.

“The whole of Australia began to change”, says director Bruce Beresford. “The influx of European migrants (most of them escaping a depressed war-ruined Europe), brought a whole range of talents (and invariably delicious cuisine) that created the successful multicultural society of the Australia we live in today.”

These days, our international community continues to grow, building an incredibly diverse group of students at Sydney.

From frocks to jeans, and everything in between

Fashion has always played a part in the University experience. Nowadays, on-campus fashion is as varied as the students, and no one is surprised by even the most outrageous of fashion choices. Ladies in Black takes us right back to the amazing frocks (dresses) of the 50s and 60s, when fashion meant couture Dior and Chanel, and incredible frocks were worn day to day.

Beresford’s film has assembled an amazing replica of a 1950s high-fashion department store, using antique pieces of cabinetry borrowed from David Jones that evoke a strong sense of times passed.

“We had photographs of what it was like in that period, and then the production designer, Felicity Abbott, built a big set, which was where most of the action takes place”, says Beresford. The result is a spot-on replica of the 1950s store, with amazing hand-made dresses that will satisfy all your vintage dreams.  

Check out the set in these behind-the-scenes shots, as well as some amazing archival images of students at the Uni in the 50s. 

One giant leap for womankind

The University of Sydney was among the first in the world to admit female students, and these days, women make up half of our student community. But this wasn’t always the case - in the film, Lisa dreams of studying at the University but faces anger from her father who maintains that, “No daughter of mine is going to University.”

Unfortunately, this depiction of the time is far too accurate. Beresford says, “The attitude of the father in the film, where he said, you know, “It’s a waste of time, girls are just going to get married and have babies and stay home”, was a very, very common attitude”.

Now, sixty years on, women at the University of Sydney are achieving global recognition and pioneering incredible research, and the amazing female-dominated cast of Ladies in Black – from seventeen-year old Angourie Rice to Logie Hall-of-Famer Noni Hazlehurst – reflects how much attitudes have changed. You can read more about the amazing early female students at University, and the generations of women who have now become part of the fabric of University history.

Some things never change

Ladies in Black celebrates the power of friendship, so it’s fitting that the film is a product of the friendship between Bruce Beresford and Madeleine St John, who wrote the book on which the film is based. They studied together at the University of Sydney with a who’s who of Australian arts legends, including Clive James and John Bell. Madeleine St John passed away in 2006, and over sixty years has gone by, but Beresford says many of the friendships he made at Uni remain strong.

“When I went to Sydney University, I suddenly met a whole lot of people with interests similar to mine”, says Beresford. “There’s a lot of people interested in theatre, and film, literature, the arts, acting and all that kind of thing, and they were from all over Sydney.”

Friendships made at University often become lifelong bonds, as Beresford himself points out, “There were friendships that I made then that have endured, that I still see them to this day.” It seems that these friendships are one thing that will never change about being a student at university.