Rich, fascinating, stylish and lush in colour, Gillian Armstrong’s 2006 documentary Unfolding Florence – The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst (nominated for four awards and winner of the Queensland & Northern Territory Silver Award and the Australian Screen Editors Award) is aesthetically pleasing to both the eye and the ear. Featuring interviews with sophisticated friends of the Australian style icon, as well as fellow co-workers, aficionados and acquaintances operating at the higher echelons of society – who ponder their words carefully and elegantly verbalise their memories of and their lingering awe of the Australian designer, in top notch English – Armstrong’s film effectively highlights the absolute charisma of Florence Broadhurst and her carpe diem attitude to life; a life led to the fullest.
Florence Broadhurst (1899-1977), of Outback Queensland (Bundaberg) origin and raised by parents who instilled in her a strong belief not only in herself but also in anything being possible as long as you set your mind to it, has left us with an impressive legacy; not only when it comes to artistry and patternmaking but likewise as far as the ability to go from “rags” to riches and the conviction that the world is our oyster if we fearlessly pursue our dreams. In this way this documentary is a must-see if we are intent on taking our own lives higher and further – doing something truly worthwhile and going from words to action. It must be viewed time and time again and from different perspectives (there is always something new to draw from). About a woman who stopped at nothing and was an achiever like few others, Unfolding Florence also highlights the brevity of life yet the ability we all have, if we are lucky, to thoroughly savour every moment of every day. Life is, ultimately, short and it can be taken away from us unexpectedly – even violently (Florence Broadhurst is a perfect example of this). Live and breathe it all in we must.
Also known as Bobby Broadhurst and Madame Pellier, Florence Broadhurst (as we will refer to her from here on; in line with the title of the documentary) was an Australian painter, pioneering designer, entrepreneur and socialite comparable in artistic talent and direction, in part, with Armi Ratia of Marimekko. Both women revealed Japanese influences even if they had their own very personal styles. A wannabe achiever, Florence Broadhurst conquered the world, went from strength to strength, constantly reinventing herself and ending up an elite business woman in her own right – having skilfully navigated the complexities of a post-World War London business life crippled by economic loss. Inspired, in her youth, by female impersonator Ralph Sawyer, Broadhurst symbolically opted for the life of the exhibitionist, choosing drag over rag and herself learning to take on and pull off different personas in a life lived in the sign of performance art where it was quite feasible for her not only to embark on new careers and chapters of her life but to adopt new stage names in the process.
A born chameleon and shapeshifter who moved countries, Florence Broadhurst climbed the social ladder. Did she have time to marry and have children? Yes, but marriage, as has been stressed by both Armstrong and by Kay Saunders in her book Notorious Australian Women (2011), which dedicates a chapter to the Australian-born, highly international designer and trend-setter, may ultimately have been more of a hindrance than a state to hang on to for the sake of appearances – even if marrying London stockbroker Percy Kann in 1929 was a strategically important move for Florence Broadhurst and further reinforced her social standing while it allowed her to open up haute couture business Madame Pellier Ltd Modes et Robes. Its Australian branch brought “Parisian sophistication and chic”1 to this remote nation far away from the trendy boutiques of Europe at the time. Broadhurst’s only off-spring, son Robert, was the product of her much played-down relationship with fellow business partner Leonard Lloyd Lewis who was 14 years her junior, and in the documentary it is claimed that “motherhood was not her forte”.
In a nutshell, Broadhurst was too busy, too impressively wild, too unstoppable, and – quite simply – had too much living to do to abide by the unwritten rules of “conventional” motherhood and marriage structures. A successful patternmaker, throughout the intensely lived decades of her septuagenarian life she went from acting to singing to the visual arts, globetrotting from Australia to India and Shanghai – with a number of Asian destinations in between. At a more mature age, she made London her home until eventually, when the time was right, she set eyes on Australia again: this time with an international career not so much to reflect on but to harness further and with Sydney turning out to be her final destination. The New South Wales capital represented the end of her journey also metaphorically speaking.
Florence Broadhurst, her first name reflecting the flourishing career she would embark on and the floral wallpaper design which makes her famous to this day and which in her hey-day made her stand out from the crowd, was a woman to be reckoned with. Her life cut short in the “elderly midst of it”, the woman is gone but her legacy lives on and if she had been a fly on the wall she would, as reflected in Armstrong’s documentary, still be basking in the glory of her achievements (“She’d be on top of the world. I think she’s there now. She’d be looking down, rubbing hands with glee”). The unfolding of the various chapters of her life and career (not dissimilar to the unravelling of the stunning designs making up the product line of “Florence Broadhurst™ by Materialised”) is covered not only in Armstrong’s celebrated documentary but is likewise a source of inspiration for a long line of academics, fellow designers, artists and style gurus. Christine Schmidt and Jinna Tay compare Broadhurst with Anette Kellerman and write that
“their lives exist as binaristic parallels, expressing contrasting values of: un-Australianness – the disavowal of national identity; and Australianness – the promotion of national identity. Both Broadhurst and Kellerman tested the limits of body, dress, and national identity as vehicles for global recognition.”2
Ambitious, flamboyant, and cosmopolitan, chic yet professionally shrewd, Florence Broadhurst lived her life with bravado. A fearless rebel, trendsetter, globetrotter, “risk-taker par excellence” and “style maven extraordinaire” in Unfolding Florence… the dynamic protagonist steps out from the screen, steps up to the occasion and enters our hearts as we follow the reconstructed pieces of her life come together in a kaleidoscopic overview full of visual charm and allure. A documentary which opens like a whodunnit and which similar to (even if they belong to different genres) Joan Lindsay’s novel Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) never reveals the identity of the potential perpetrator, in the first and last scenes we follow Florence – her outfit bright, youthful and modern – on what would be her last walk before she was brutally murdered in the Paddington inner-city area of Sydney, 15 October 1977. Armstrong acknowledges the event in realistic images but her film about a woman who made a difference and who packed her life with activities potentially as a way to fend off loneliness, is through and through a celebration of Florence Broadhurst’s life. In this important documentary that honours her legacy– with the Sydney Powerhouse Museum holding a collection of her work – Broadhurst is very much alive and present. Long will she be among the elaborate patterns of her cutting-edge interior design industry that connect Europe with Australia; bridging two worlds that are not as far apart as we may once have imagined.
Unfolding Florence – The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst (2006 Australia 82 minutes)
Prod Co: Becker Entertainment Prod: Sue Clothier, Charles Hannah Dir: Gillian Armstrong Scr: Katherine Thomson Phot: John Radel Ed: Nicholas Beauman Art Dir: Melinda Doring Set Dec: Glen W. Johnson Mus: Philip Green Cos: Tess Schofield
Cast: Judi Farr, Felicity Price, Hannah Garbo.