Thelma Afford

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Thelma Thomas
Born 1908
Broken Hill, New South Wales
Died 1996
Alma mater Presbyterian Girls' College
Known for costume designer, theatre performer, and fashion journalist
Spouse(s) Max Afford

Thelma Afford (born 1908 in Broken Hill, New South Wales, died 1996 in Sydney) was an Australian costume designer, theatre performer, and fashion journalist who worked in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney.


Early years[edit]

Afford was born Thelma Thomas in Broken Hill to William James Thomas and Ethel (née Henderson) in 1908. Her parents moved to Adelaide, where she attended the Presbyterian Girls' College, Glen Osmond. There she studied drawing and design, and became an art teacher at the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts. She acted between 1932 and 1934, then moved to Melbourne in 1934 to further study at Technical College.

Marriage to Max Afford[edit]

Max Afford and Thelma met when she was designing the costumes for his play Awake my Love performed at the Adelaide Tivoli Theatre, that won the centenary competition in 1936. The following year, Max was called to Sydney to work for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and Thelma moved to Sydney too to work for the sesqui-centenary celebrations. They married on 16 April 1938 at St Michael's church, Vaucluse, Sydney. They had no children.

Max and Thelma circa 1950

Death and legacy[edit]

After Max's death in 1954, Thelma remained in Sydney where she lived until her death in 1996.

At her death, Thelma left instructions to establish a fund with The Trust company for the attribution of an annual $10,000 "Max Afford Playwrights' Award" and a $7,500 "Thelma Afford Theatre, Stage, TV or Film Costume Design Award".

Professional life[edit]


In the early 1930s, Thelma Thomas was an actress in Adelaide, collaborating notably with the Ab-Intra Studio Theatre for Woman Song, The Robe of Yama, The Stained-Glass Window, and The Aspen Tree in 1932. In 1935, Thelma joined the Ab-Intra for their last show Archway Motif before the theatre closed indefinitely.


Thelma started designing theatre costumes in the early 1930s at the Ab-Intra Studio Theatre with Alan Harkness and Kester Baruch, and also at the Adelaide Repertory Theatre, where she worked with Agnes Dobson and Robert Helpmann.

In 1934, she was commissioned to design for the Melbourne centenary pageant, then South Australia's centenary celebrations in 1936, and was later called to Sydney to design the costumes for the sesqui-centenary pageant. She enjoyed costume designing on a large scale, and added that "period costumes give a designer more scope than modern clothes".[1]

She was resident designer at the Minerva Theatre from 1940 to 1950 and designed most of the costumes for Max's plays for the Independent Theatre. She also worked for the Garrick Theatre and the Tivoli Theatre in Melbourne.

In 1949, she collaborated with Charles Chauvel on the film Sons of Matthew.

Thelma then worked on the costume designs for a live dramatic production of Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest, broadcast 18 December 1957 on ABN-2. She remarked that costumes for TV were different than for the stage, since the focus was on the upper-body of the actors instead of the silhouette, and the filming was in black-and-white, more precisely 9 shades of grey.[2]

The same year, she designed the costumes for Cinderella, the pantomime at the Elizabethan Theatre, praised for "its handsome costumes"[3] and described as "Cinderella done in French 18th century style".[4] Thelma worked with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for more television plays, such as J. M. Barrie's The Twelve-Pound Look, also in 1957. She also collaborated with Cinesound Productions.

Cover of Thelma's book showing a design sketch for Heritage Centenary of Federation in 1936


Afford authored articles in drama journals, newspapers, and a posthumously published a book titled Dreamers and Visionaries on the little theatres in Adelaide in the first half of the 20th century.


She worked as an art teacher in the late 1920s and early 1930s, then again towards the end of her career from 1955 to 1978. When she retired, she was Senior Art mistress at a private girls' school in Sydney.



  1. ^ Melbourne Saturday Herald, 1 May 1937
  2. ^ Sydney Morning Herald TV Guide, 5 December 1957
  3. ^ Riddell, E. Sydney Telegraph, December 1957
  4. ^ The Australian Women Weekly, 25 December 1957


  • Afford, T. Dreamers and Visionaries : Adelaide's Little Theatres from the 1920s to the early 1940s, Sydney: Currency Press.
  • Afford, T. "The Ab-Intra Studio Theatre in Adelaide 1931–35", Australasian Drama Studies n.12–13, pp. 167–180. Bundoora, Victoria: Theatre and Drama Program, La Trobe University.
  • Thelma Afford's designs for stage and television. Papers of Max and Thelma Afford, 1912–1987, UQFL184, Album 3, Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library.
  • Robinson Flannery, N. (a.k.a. Robinson-Whittle, N.). "Thelma Afford 1908–1996", Bibliofile vol.10 no.4 August 2002. Adelaide: State Library of South Australia
  • Obituary for Thelma Afford The Age, 11 September 1996 p.B2. Microform at the University of Queensland Fryer library.
  • Ritchie, J. "Max Afford", Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.13. Melbourne, 2002.
  • "Awake my Love by Max Afford", Drama and the School issue 21. Sydney, NSW: C. Felton, 1960.

External links[edit]