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Westside’s costume designer teaches us how to dress like a West

Alex Casey talks to Sarah Aldridge, costume designer on Westside, about dressing the early-80s West family.

Look, I love a spot of opshopping as much as the next person. Give me a giant, musty Sallies out in the wops any day, just as long as it contains at least three dog-eared copies of The World According to Clarkson and at least one St Mary’s pinafore that I will mistakenly buy thinking it’s a cute rare vintage dress. It’s not. It’s a child’s school uniform and you are an idiot.

Somebody who knows about the perils of opshopping and vintage wear better than anyone is Sarah Aldridge, currently the head of costuming on Westside. With the latest season drawing upon the best of the early 80s, and previous seasons rocking turtlenecks and flares better than Steve Jobs in an Abba tribute band, I talked to Sarah and assembled this foolproof guide to dressing like a West. 

#1 Always refresh your wardrobe

After the last two seasons of Westside serving up serious 70s brown and orange, Sarah entered the equation and started fresh. “You don’t want to repeat outfits,” says Sarah, “it’s boring for the viewer.” Just as the West’s lives change over time, so too do their wardrobes. 

Carol, Ngaire and Rita: keeping outfits fresh since ages ago.

#2 Seek out inspiration

Sarah made a mood board to keep track of all her fashion inspirations, “there’s a lot of Pat Benatar for Rita, we looked at heaps of musicians and artists.” But your search shouldn’t stop there, why not delve into the rich photographic history of New Zealand to see what Kiwis were rockin’ in the free world of the 1980s. “I looked at the personal collections of photographic journalists who were working in the music industry in the 80s” says Sarah, “a lot of this was pre-internet so there’s a limited amount of stuff out there.”

Sparky, Anne Marie and Dougal: true blue kiwi couture

#3 Buy locally made

In the late 70s and early 80s, New Zealand was still in the pre-importing era, so everyone wore either New Zealand manufactured or homemade garments. “It’s not the 80s that everyone thinks of – New Zealand was still a bit behind. We hadn’t had the big influx of flashy external labels yet.” 

#4 Opshop far and wide

“I spent a whole weekend just ripping around (Sydney’s) Surry Hills and all of the vintage stores grabbing everything I could get – bags and bags and bags.” Sounds like an opshopper’s dream for sure, but Sarah also has some tips to maximise your browsing time: “Scan the room, keep the pace on.”

Make it werk

#5 Make your own

With several other productions set in a similar era, many of the local opshops and vintage stores had long been cleaned out of retro wear. “If you can’t buy it anymore, you make it” says Sarah, who went on a wild goose chase as far as Sydney to find the right authentic vintage fabrics. “Auckland just doesn’t have the demand for vintage fabric anymore, so you have to order ahead or make some dashes across the ditch.”

#6 Keep things balanced

Where the 80s might be known for being entirely ‘too much’, Sarah insists a lot of the West styling was about balance. Take Rita, for example, whose distinctive mullet-ish hair and smoky eye makeup became her main feature over the clothing of the era. “She’s got a really reduced costume – not overly embellished” says Sarah, “sometimes having less is better.”

Keep it balanced

#7 … but add a touch of raunch and leopard

When Cheryl West re-enters the scene, you can expect more than a little bit of raunch and smatterings of leopard print. “I was dealing with teen Cheryl as opposed to Mum Cheryl, which was really fun for me. She just gets bolder and bolder and raunchier and raunchier.” But how much leopard is there? “There’s a little, but not a lot. It definitely creeps in.”


Westside returns to Three tonight, click below to catch up on seasons one and two on Lightbox:

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