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Thelma May Afford (1907–1996)

by Michelle Arrow

This article was published online in 2024

Thelma Afford, by Hazel de Berg, 1981

Thelma Afford, by Hazel de Berg, 1981

National Library of Australia, 48381147

Thelma May Afford (1907–1996), art teacher, actor, and costume designer, was born on 1 December 1907 at Broken Hill, New South Wales, only child of Victorian-born parents William James Thomas, engine driver, and his wife Ethel Ellen, née Henderson. Later in life Thelma would describe herself as ‘Celtic’ (Afford 1982) in origin, with Scottish, Irish, and Welsh grandparents. Educated at Broken Hill High School and then Presbyterian Girls’ College, Adelaide, she was a talented artist, in 1926 receiving a prize for decorative composition from the Royal Drawing Society, London. She won a scholarship to the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts, and became one of the first art teachers in the State’s secondary schools.

While teaching at Adelaide High School and the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts, Thomas was drawn to Adelaide’s thriving amateur theatre scene. The city supported almost twenty ‘little’ theatres during the 1930s, many of which were created and operated by actors and teachers who had lost their employment during the Depression. She was an actor and costume designer in the modernist Ab-Intra Studio Theatre, founded in 1931. Ab-Intra adapted Japanese Noh theatre, and was known for its ‘strikingly original … symbolic visual effects’ (Rees 1995, 33).

In 1934 Thomas took a year’s leave from the State Education Department and moved to Melbourne, where she studied at George Bell’s art school and worked for the costume designer Pierre Fornari. After she designed the costumes for a play titled Nebuchadnezzar—in which she also acted—at the Garrick Theatre, she was commissioned by the International Club of Victoria to create ten costumes for the Melbourne centenary pageant in 1934. The richly symbolic costumes (including ‘Britannia,’ ‘Prosperity,’ and ‘Peace’) were praised by the Melbourne Argus, which described the figure representing Victoria as ‘breath-taking’ (1934, 5).

Returning to South Australia in 1935, Thomas was appointed costume designer for the State’s centennial pageant in 1936. She proved so successful that she resigned from teaching and moved to Sydney in 1937 to design costumes for the Sydney sesquicentenary in 1938. It was, as she later reflected, ‘a tremendously big job for so young a girl as I was then,’ designing ‘hundreds of costumes’ (Afford 1982). She demonstrated her flair for working with unusual materials such as plastics, tinfoil, and celluloid. For the rest of her life she would remain in Sydney.

On 16 April 1938 Thomas married Max Afford, a playwright, at St Michael’s Church of England, Rose Bay; they would have no children. Each ambitious and talented, they had known each other in Adelaide, but had reconnected when they ended up on the same train heading for Sydney in 1937. There they grew close, and, ‘despite our convictions that we were not the marrying types’ (Afford 1982), got engaged. Leslie Rees, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) play editor, would later write that ‘between [Max] and his wife there was the deepest and most tender affinity in all matters and on all levels’ (Lane 1994, 108). Both were much in demand: Max as a highly successful radio and stage playwright, and Thelma as a costume designer, working for the Minerva and Independent theatres, and on the films of Charles and Elsa Chauvel (The Sons of Matthew, 1949) and Ken Hall (Mr Chedworth Steps Out, 1939). The Bulletin commended her costumes and decor for the Independent Theatre’s 1947 production of Max’s play Awake My Love as ‘even better than usual’ (1947, 24).

Max died of liver cancer in 1954, aged just forty-eight. It was a devastating loss for Thelma, who later noted, with characteristic reserve, that ‘being an only child … can be a lucky thing in many ways because one is then conditioned to being alone at a very early age and to develop inner resources’ (Afford 1982). After his death she worked for the ABC as a freelance costume designer, in 1956 producing the costumes for The Twelve Pound Look, the first drama aired on Australian television. She also returned to education, becoming art teacher at Queenwood School for Girls, Mosman, until 1978.

Afford was petite, with dark hair, defined cheekbones, and a bright smile. She told the Melbourne Herald in 1937 that ‘designing is such a pleasure to me that I really cannot call it work’ (1937, 25). In retirement she researched the history of Adelaide’s little theatres, work that was posthumously published as Dreamers and Visionaries: Adelaide’s Little Theatres from the 1920s to the Early 1940s (2004). She died on 21 August 1996 at Mosman, and was cremated. In her will she established two awards: the Max Afford playwrights award and the Thelma Afford award for costume design in stage and screen—to foster similar opportunities for others. The National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra; the Fryer Library, Brisbane; the Mortlock Library, Adelaide; and the Mitchell Library, Sydney, hold her costume designs.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Afford, Thelma. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 9 November 1982. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Argus (Melbourne). ‘Splendid International Pageant.’ 23 October 1934, 5
  • Bulletin (Sydney). ‘Sundry Shows.’ 24 September 1947, 24
  • Callaway, Anita. ‘Thelma Afford.’ Design & Art Australia Online. 1995, last updated 2011. Accessed 9 October 2023. https://www.daao.org.au/bio/thelma-afford/biography/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Herald (Melbourne). ‘Designer of Costumes for Pageants: Miss Thelma Thomas’s Work.’ 1 May 1937, 25
  • Lane, Richard. The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama 1923–1960: A History Through Biography. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1994
  • Rees, Leslie. ‘Thelma Afford.’ In Companion to Theatre in Australia, edited by Philip Parsons with Victoria Chance, 33–34. Sydney: Currency Press in association with Cambridge University Press, 1995
  • Soumilas, Annette. ‘Dreamer and Visionary: Discovering Costume Designer Thelma Thomas Afford.’ La Trobe Journal, no. 104 (March 2020): 26–38

Additional Resources

Citation details

Michelle Arrow, 'Afford, Thelma May (1907–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/afford-thelma-may-33440/text41811, published online 2024, accessed online 16 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Thelma Afford, by Hazel de Berg, 1981

Thelma Afford, by Hazel de Berg, 1981

National Library of Australia, 48381147

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