Interviews · Movies

The Dressmaker Tells a Story of Vengeance and Rebirth Through Couture

By  · Published on September 23rd, 2016

Costume Designers Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson discuss their swoon-worthy 1950s creations in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s latest.

Jocelyn Moorhouse’s (How to Make an American Quilt) deliciously whimsical and increasingly wild and dark The Dressmaker is many things: A feminist revenge comedy. A dark murder mystery. A witty celebration of the female gaze. A tale of love and loss. But in addition to all that, it’s also an impeccably crafted production that defines and empowers its characters ‐ mainly, residents of a sleepy Australian town called Dungatar ‐ through some to-die-for costumes, serving as confidence boosting vehicles of self-expression.

Adapted from Rosalie Ham’s bestselling novel by Moorhouse and P.J. Hogan, The Dressmaker follows Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet), who returns to her hometown after long years of living and working as a dressmaker in Paris, in a glamorous, cinched-waist black coat-dress and with a Singer sewing machine in early 1950s. “I am back, you bastards,” she mutters to herself. But it might as well be her clothes spouting those bitter, merciless words out: the poised attitude Dunnage oozes with is thanks in large-part to her self-made Dior-inspired frock, as quickly identified by the town’s fashion-obsessed sheriff Sergeant Farrat, played by Hugo Weaving. Wrongfully accused for the death of a boy at a young age and sent away for years of exile, Tilly’s return to Dungatar proves to be with a vengeance and her only weapon would be the thrilling wonders of swoon-worthy haute couture. As she transforms the looks of the sleepy town’s women one by one (many, still stuck in the boxy looks and plain palettes of the WWII era) ‐ starting with the drab and plain daughter of the town’s grocer Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook) ‐ she awakens their goddesses and unleashes their beasts across the town’s sun-soaked, barren landscapes straight out of a Western. Oh, and she steals the heart of one handsome Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth) while she’s at it and sets the record straight with her impassive mother Molly (Judy Davis), a gifted dressmaker herself.

The sizable costuming duties of The Dressmaker were shared by two names: Margot Wilson, who exclusively dressed Winslet, and Marion Boyce, who costumed everyone else in the cast. “I was very fortunate to have worked with Kate in another film called Triple 9,” says Wilson. “She is a very hard working actress and extremely giving of her time with costumes. She had enrolled in a sewing course to learn some of the sewing techniques before she arrived in Australia,” she continues, explaining the involvement of the film’s Oscar-winning star in finding the look for Tilly. “She has a wonderful sense of self and knows what works on her and what doesn’t. I would draw my designs of Tilly’s outfits and source the fabric and show it to Kate and discuss which scene she would where it in.”

Key Costumes of Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet), designed by Margot Wilson.

In one scene, Tilly shows up to a football game in a jaw-dropping red silk coat and dress to distract the townsfolk with shocking colors and her stunning figure. In another, she sports a black strapless pencil dress to prove Gertrude a point; that clothes can serve more purposes than being solely utilitarian. And finally in her exit scene, she puts on a mustard cocoon coat (more a nod to Balenciaga than Dior in this case), leaving the film with as loud a bang as she entered it. Outlining all these key looks, Wilson shares what each of them meant for the narrative and character development. “In the opening scene of the film, we needed to establish a strong sense of time in Tilly’s costume. The black coatdress and the white hat and gloves are a reflection of Dior’s “new look”: the white jacket and black pleated skirt. The red coat and dress she wears to the football to distract the players was designed to make a statement,” she says. And it turns out, that instantly iconic red dress means a bit more to Wilson than the rest of the looks she designed. She bought the red silk moiré taffeta 25 years ago in Milan and she’s been saving it ever since, waiting for the right opportunity to use it. “We had about 20 to 25 looks [for Kate Winslet],” adds Wilson. “I liked them all, but I suppose my favorite was the red coat and dress. Just seeing the silk Taffeta finally making up into a garment after 25 years was very satisfying for me.”

“The Black dress, where she is telling Gertrude that a dress can change things, is an interpretation of Jean Louis’ infamous Gilda dress. A ridiculous place to wear both the black dress and the red dress is the football, but Tilly gets the attention she is after. Finally, her exit needed to be visually as strong as her entrance. Strong color and lines to reflect that this woman still was strong and moving forward even though she had endured heart ache in her life.”

Key Costumes of Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook), designed by Marion Boyce.

Outlining another key character’s journey through costumes, Marion Boyce charts the glorious makeover of Gertrude Pratt, going from a plain Jane to an absolute goddess with clothes she designed: “Gertrude Pratt’s transformation was central to the story line. Tilly and Gertrude needed each other. Tilly needed information to unravel her past, and Gertrude needed to transform to marry her Prince. The first frock was a ball frock, “How to Snare a Husband,” a Cinderella-esque frock ‐ dreamy,” Boyce explains. “The next outfit was “Head Peacock” ‐ the eggshell silk organza cape with a black duchess satin wiggle dress. “Sizing up the Opposition” followed ‐ red spot frock and silk poppy hat, the height of personal assurance. Machinations of her future mother-in- law, culminating in the bad wedding dress, very much based on a pantomime wicked stepmother (following the Cinderella theme). Tilly responded with “How to Seal the Deal,” a va-va-voom, goddess dress. Gertrude’s wedding dress was homage to Madame [Madeleine] Vionnet, who was Tilly’s mentor, inspired by her Grecian period. By then Gertrude had transformed into Trudy and became the “Junior Mrs. Beaumont”, a younger version of her mother-in-law.”

While Boyce doesn’t exactly recall how many outfits ‐ from Mad Molly, all the townsfolk, Teddy, to weddings, baroque parodies and football uniforms ‐ she had to design in total, she still remembers the most challenging one being Gertrude’s silk organza cape, that looks like the majestic wings of a rare bird. “30 meters of pleated silk organza went into making this three-tiered cape. We needed to create an invisible under-harness to manage the seamless movement. And she picks the glorious golden chartreuse silk jersey dress ‐ the appearance of which instantly summons an emotional high ‐ made for Marigold Pettyman (Alison Whyte) to wear to Gertrude’s wedding as her favorite. “It was a glorious transformation,” she adds about the character, who was once just as resigned from life as Gertrude was.

Distancing the look of Tilly Dunnage from her designs.

A standout aspect of Tilly’s costumes is how different her clothes are from what she designs for the town’s women. She favors clean lines, sculpted structures and solid colors, while designing looks with more romance and fluidity for her Dungatar Clients. “We wanted Tilly to have an effortless, well-tailored style,” remarks Wilson. “The designs reflected Tilly’s strength in the solid colors and simple lines. Her clothes were her amour and her strength, and they also become her weapon. Armed with her sewing machine and sense of style, she transforms the women of the town. Doing so gets her sweet revenge on those who did her wrong. Her machine was her weapon in a sense.”

“Having Margot Wilson design Tilly was brilliant,” adds Boyce. “Tilly’s clothes had to differ greatly from her designs for the characters in the town. Her designs were inspired by the inner aspirations of the townsfolk.” And both designers agree that Tilly granted the women of the town with a new type of confidence through clothes. “It also served as a way of the town seeing Tilly in a new light,” says Wilson.

The designers were both thrilled to work with an early 50s wardrobe –an important era of transition for fashion- and have a wealth of options to pull from. “Coming out of post-war period, having to wear drab, not very feminine shapes, fabrics not available…Suddenly Dior’s ‘New Look’ bursts onto the scene,” says Wilson. “A celebration of the feminine shape. There are wonderful designers for research, including Balenciaga and Madam Vionnet.” “The early 1950s was a very exciting time in fashion,” concurs Boyce. “New silhouettes and fabrics all came into play. It was a time of great imagination, a complete delight.” In teaching the actors body language in period garments, Boyce credits the underwear specific to the era. “Corsetry played a part in helping inform the actors’ movements, she says, adding her inspirations for her designs. “I was inspired by the birds in the central location, and used this ‐ birds preening, strutting… I was also very influenced by the reportage of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. They re-invented fashion photography by taking it out of the studio and into the world. They made it fun and powerful ‐ this is what I wanted to bring to the screen. It was a great joy to watch the actors inhabit their ensembles. They thoroughly engaged in the transformation process.”

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.