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Costuming The Dressmaker

Twenty-five years ago, costume designer Margot Wilson was a student living in Paris when she picked up a roll of red, moire silk fabric during a shopping trip to Milan. She didn’t know why, or what for; she wasn’t even a costume designer then, just a talented young fashion grad from East Sydney Tech on a six-month scholarship to France. When it was time to go home, she took the beautiful roll of fabric back down under with her.

Fast forward three decades and a couple of dozen films later (including Lantana, Bran Nue Dae and Lawless), and Wilson has finally found a screen role for her magnificent weave – on Oscar winner Kate Winslet in the film adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s bestselling novel, The Dressmaker. “I’ve been carrying that roll of fabric around forever,” laughs Wilson, who designed all of Winslet’s costumes in the movie. “Every time I do a film I think ‘Oh, I might be able to use it here’. And finally, finally, I found a place for it!”

Kate Winslet as Myrtle "Tilly" Dunnage wearing her red Italian silk dress at a football game alongside Hugo Weaving as Sergeant Horatio Farrat. Costume design by Margot Wilson and Marion Boyce respectively.
Kate Winslet as Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage wearing her red Italian silk dress at a football game alongside Hugo Weaving as Sergeant Horatio Farrat. Costume design by Margot Wilson and Marion Boyce respectively.

Watching Winslet sashay around in red Italian silk at a football game in the bush is definitely one of the sartorial highlights of The Dressmaker – a 1950s revenge comedy romp directed (and co-written) by Jocelyn Moorhouse. In it, Winslet plays a glamorous dressmaker named Tilly Dunnage who returns to her dusty middle-of-nowhere country town in rural Australia after almost 20 years away. Armed with her sewing machine and haute couture style, she sets about transforming the women of Dungatar… and exacting sweet revenge on those who did her wrong.

The decision to split the costume design process in two – Wilson designed the character of Tilly, while Marion Boyce designed the rest of the cast – speaks volumes about the profound importance placed on clothing in The Dressmaker. “The costume design is in many ways what drives the visual narrative of the film,” says producer Sue Maslin. “The people of Dungatar almost disappear into their earthy tones of this little town that’s sitting miles away in the wheat belt, and it’s just really been left behind. And then along comes Tilly.”

Tilly in her travelling coat. Costume design by Margot Wilson.
Tilly in her travelling coat. Costume design by Margot Wilson.

Tilly cuts an impressive figure when we first meet her arriving by late night train to Dungatar – like a New Look-attired gunslinger strutting back into town. Hugo Weaving, Dungatar’s one-man police force, can barely contain himself at the sight of her. “Is that… Dior?” he gasps, running his torch over Tilly’s travelling coat ensemble. “Good eye Sergeant Farrat, but no,” she coolly answers in her glorious Australian accent. “My design, but Dior inspired.”

We soon learn Tilly has been gone since being sent away to boarding school at the age of 10, later running off to Paris and Milan to work under the tutelage of Madame Vionnet and Cristobal Balenciaga (just two of the hugest names in fashion history, no biggie). This new Tilly is a far cry from her horrid childhood nickname of “Dunny Bum” – au contraire; this Tilly is worldy and sensual, with perfectly waved hair and pretty pink lips, her shapely curves poured into gorgeous fitted dresses and sexy pencil skirts. She is not only the most glamorous being in her fictitious country town of Dungatar, but possibly all of 1950s Australia. It is enough to drive a startlingly handsome Liam Hemsworth (as local lad Teddy) wild with lust for her.

Judy Davs as Tilly's mother Molly.
Judy Davs as Tilly’s mother Molly.

Yet underneath Tilly’s confident surface lurk niggling self-doubts over just what happened all those years ago – like why the entire town thinks she murdered a 10-year-old schoolboy. (For all the beauty of the frocks, things often turn ugly in this Aussie oddball mix of humour with tragedy, wit with weirdness.) Tilly also tries desperately to reunite with her completely bonkers mother Molly (the brilliant Judy Davis), setting up a studio in her house, as Tilly uses her phenomenal dressmaking skills to connect with, and combat, those who hold the answers to her past; one piece of haute couture at a time.

“The Fifties, the early Fifties, have always been a great period for me, so I sort of knew quite a bit already,” says Wilson of researching the significant era, when fashion began moving away from wartime rationing, drab materials and austere lines, and shifted into Christian Dior’s New Look with its luxurious use of fabric and cinched-in silhouettes. At the same time, as Tilly well knows, Vionnet and Balenciaga were couturiers doing something else entirely – taking what was already there and draping the fabric across a woman’s body to enhance the good qualities and disguise the bad. (“I wanted to make the distinction between those two things in The Dressmaker,” says author Rosalie Ham of the source book. “You can be feminine and beautiful but you don’t have to wear a corset or alter yourself particularly to be able to do that.”)

Tilly in feathered hat and striking mustard coat.
Tilly in feathered hat and striking mustard coat.

“It was an exciting time for fashion,” agrees Wilson. “But you know, you go to books and look online, and I was talking to Kate because she was playing the role of the ‘dressmaker’, and I wanted to see where she was at, as far as how she saw Tilly. And she was telling me she’d actually taken on sewing lessons prior to the film, which was fantastic. She recognized turns and (she could) interact when I was talking to cutters and all that sort of stuff. That helped her. She said she’s not normally a method actor but in this case, it helped her enormously to be able to be part of all that.”

They both decided Tilly should be more restrained, so “nothing too flouncy”, with strong silhouettes and strong dual colours (like red and mustard, purple and green) as well as black – a far cry from what the rest of Dungatar was wearing. “We wanted to keep her simple and structured and, you know, effortless,” says Wilson. “Keeping in mind too, Tilly is a couture dressmaker – that’s how she’s portrayed – not necessarily a French designer. So it had to, while making her look fantastic and spectacular, (it couldn’t) sort of take her into the genre of being portrayed as a designer.”

Tilly's sailor style suit.
Tilly’s sailor style suit.

Not to mention, Winslet’s gorgeous figure was perfectly suited for the Fifties. “Kate celebrates her figure,” says Wilson, who also worked with Winslet on John Hillcoat’s upcoming heist flick, Triple 9. “And when you like how you look, and your own figure type, you always wear clothes better anyhow. She had the perfect shape for that.”
Given that Tilly is a dressmaker with a preference for putting her own twist on things, most of her 30 or so ensembles were created specifically for the film. It was also a practical decision. “A lot of original pieces (in vintage shops) are just tiny – we’ve grown,” admits Wilson. “And that’s because we’ve got better food and we exercise more, so we’re a different shape now. A lot of the original pieces you can’t use on a lot of people.”

The lack of wearable vintage is compounded by the fact that “you can’t get the fabric you used to be able to get either” adds Wilson sadly, springing to mind her Italian red silk (used very deliberately for the one time Tilly wants to call attention to herself in the movie). “Shops are disappearing, fabric shops; they just don’t do the same weaves anymore from the manufacturers. The fabrics in the 1950s were just magnificent – and the 40s and the 30s.”

At this, Wilson mentions one of her favourite Tilly costumes – a green and black fleck dress with a collar and black tie coming down the front – created out of a vintage frock she found in Sydney.

Tilly's gold fleck dress - Margot Wilson's personal favourite costume.
Tilly’s gold fleck dress – Margot Wilson’s personal favourite costume.

“(It) wasn’t a fantastic design but the fabric was beautiful,” gushes Wilson. “Once I unpicked it, we pressed it out and made it flat, washed it, and I redesigned it. And as I was unpicking it, it came across to me that there were many different coloured cottons and layers of darting – which leads me to believe the dress had quite a few different owners. I like that dress because it’s sort of got a history; it had a history before it came to me, and we revitalized it.”

As thrilling as Tilly’s wardrobe is – the New Look-inspired travelling coat, the sailor suit, the scarlet showstopper, the strapless black gown, even the soft silk blouses (used to great effect during some of Tilly’s more vulnerable moments) – Tilly Dunnage is only one half of The Dressmaker’s richly layered costuming journey.

The other half belongs to the Dungatar residents themselves, and the magic that Tilly weaves to transport them out of their bleak, tea-coloured palette of 1940s cotton pinafores and smocks, and into glamorous visions of haute couture in rich jewel tones. Enter the film’s second costume designer, Marion Boyce, who was tasked with putting together more than 350 costumes for the rest of the cast.

The Dungatar townsfolk. Costume design by Marion Boyce.
The Dungatar townsfolk. Costume design by Marion Boyce.

“Tilly was quite remarkable because she knew the people from that town but had been able to step away,” says Boyce, whose spectacular designs on 1920s Australian series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries have developed a cult following across the globe. (Amongst her other credits are Stephen King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles and The Starter Wife, for which Boyce was nominated for both a Primetime Emmy and Costume Designers Guild Award.)

“She could actually see their inner workings in a way, so she knew what they aspired to, or what their aspirations were, or their inner goddess,” says Boyce. “And so that’s what she appealed to: their vanity. It was lovely finding really strong images for the women of Dungatar.”

Sarah Snook as 'pre transformation' Gertrude Pratt.
Sarah Snook as ‘pre transformation’ Gertrude Pratt.

Tilly’s couture revolution of the town begins with the dowdy grocer’s daughter Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook), whom Tilly transforms into the belle of the country town ball. This kickstarts a bit of a Pygmalion project for Tilly, until Gertrude’s entire wardrobe looks like it belongs on the rack of a 1950s Vogue fashion shoot and lands her the most eligible bachelor in town. Makeover complete. Soon the rest of Dungatar wants in on Tilly’s magic too, gradually coming alive with each new tea chest of sumptuous fabric that arrives from abroad. Tilly’s rich brocades, exquisite broderie anglaise, delicate French muslin and thrilling silks drive the town’s gossipy inhabitants wild with excitement, as jealousies and ugly character flaws start to reveal themselves.

The full Tilly effect climaxes spectacularly about half-way through the film, when we spot Gertrude and several other women going about their day-to-day business in head-to-toe haute couture. Muriel, the grocer’s wife, is up on a ladder changing the lightbulb on a signboard in billowing silk chiffon. The post office girl is draped in glorious jacquard as she does her daily rounds. Gertrude, not to be outdone, flits about in a cape made from 40 metres of diaphanous pleated white silk organza. It is hilarious, and spectacular; a fun antidote to some of the darker times ahead.

Post transformation couture in Dungatar.
Post transformation couture in Dungatar.

“That was all birds preening, that scene,” confesses Boyce. “Jocelyn found this most extraordinary landscape which was quite inspiring, with these beautiful petrified trees and these sort of beautiful birds of prey sitting in these trees. I remember looking at photographs of this location and being quite blown way by the power of it. So (the Dungatar women all represented) birds swanning around the street … the silhouette of Sarah’s cape was plumage of a bird, and then on Prudence, there was feather musks and feather headpieces, and Rebecca was, like flying.”

Another notable scene showcasing Tilly’s effect en masse is Gertrude’s wedding (the end goal of that makeover). Much like a movie premiere, each guest makes a red carpet-like arrival from their automobiles to many ‘ oohs’ and ‘ ahs’ from the crowd. It’s glamour with a capital G, and not because it’s Gertrude’s day; they all feel like leading ladies.

Rebecca Gibney as Muriel Pratt in her 'bird costume'.
Rebecca Gibney as Muriel Pratt in her ‘bird costume’.

As for the individual inspiration behind Tilly’s magnificent creations throughout the film, many of which look as though they’ve stepped straight out of Old Hollywood, Boyce admits to being influenced by photographers Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.

“It’s quite interesting when you start doing the research for pieces,” she muses. “A lot of it, especially in country towns like the town they lived in, their only images of the world came from glossy magazines or the cinema. So that was their only point of reference. And at the time, there was extraordinary stuff coming out of Paris, and the new incredibly exciting way in which Richard Avedon and Irving Penn started photographing clothes, with this extraordinary amount of energy and character to them.”

Alison Whyte as Marigold Pettyman arriving at the wedding.
Alison Whyte as Marigold Pettyman arriving at the wedding.

Boyce says she wanted to emulate that same feeling of “little snapshots” within the film, to make the costumes “sort of like an awakening and that powerful hit that Penn and Avedon created in their pictures”. At the same time, she adds, when you’re doing a period piece, you need to step away from the images (“so it doesn’t become a remake of something”) and get to work designing something true to each character. “(This film) is quite sad and warm and funny and… evil!” she laughs. “It’s all sorts of things rolled into one. But the whole thing is totally driven by character, and at all times you’re working within the boundaries of the character, and their journey.”

Boyce’s long-time team of seamstresses and cutters worked with her on The Dressmaker to create not just the effects of being “Tilly-fied” (or later, “Una-fied”, by rival dressmaker Una Pleasance’s hideous designs) but on most of the supporting cast’s everyday attire too. Marigold’s 1940s day dresses were designed to create a particular colour palette, while Molly’s deteriorating costumes were made to achieve “that really beautiful decay”; a very depleted look Boyce accomplished through building up colour and texture.

Gertrude and Sacha Horler as rival dressmaker Una Pleasance.
Gertrude and Sacha Horler as rival dressmaker Una Pleasance.

Other details, such as original 1950s hats, vintage underwear and frocks for the extras, Boyce was thankfully able to source. “I’m not great with technology,” she chuckles, “but I found these amazing websites that actually sell really beautiful high-end vintage (that) were an extraordinary source for the hats. The hats from the 1950s are still in good enough repair to be able to use them, or use them as a base and embellish them. So that was a fantastic source actually.”

All in all it was a massive film “clothes wise”, admits Boyce, who tried not to let the pressure get to her during just eight weeks of pre-production. “When you’ve got someone (like Tilly) who’s actually got 30 odd outfits themselves, and then the rest of the cast, it’s actually, you can’t give enough space and time,” says Boyce of sharing the job with Wilson. “I’d never worked with Margot before, she’s got a terrific body of work. It was actually quite a good way to do things.”

Tilly with Liam Hemsworth as Teddy McSwiney.
Tilly with Liam Hemsworth as Teddy McSwiney.

Given the fabulous workmanship and amazing detail on all the costumes (which will tour Australia as part of an exhibition later this year) it’s no surprise that Wilson and Boyce have just been announced as co-nominees for Best Costume Design at the upcoming AACTAS, the Aussie equivalent of the BAFTAs, making The Dressmaker the most nominated film at this year’s ceremony. (Boyce is also up for Best Costume Design in Television for Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, the same category she won with the show in 2014.)

“Everything’s the same out there in chain stores,” says Boyce of the public’s renewed interest in costume design as an art form. “My personal view is that costumes, especially period things, are having a bit of a renaissance at the moment because we’ve become so incredibly generic. Everything, no matter where you go in the world, everything’s the same. And people are starting to look for something different, and something with personality, that they can make their own.”

Tilly at her beloved Singer sewing machine.
Tilly at her beloved Singer sewing machine.

And if that inspiration happens to come from an Australian film, all the better.

“God, Australian films, they’re so wonderful,” says Wilson, who recently completed The Daughter (nominated for Best Film at the 2015 London Film Festival) and is currently working on Rachel Perkins’ Jasper Jones. “We’ve got so many fantastic actors here. I love that collaboration… I love working with other people, and you’re listening to their ideas, it might spark an idea off you. That whole process of filmmaking is truly magic.”

The Dressmaker made its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival in September and opens in UK cinemas on 20th November 2015. Click HERE for details on The Dressmaker Costume Exhibition.

By Marie-Christine Sourris

Marie-Christine is a film and fashion writer. She counts Joan Wilder as a personal style influence and likes exploring costume design, Aussie movies, foreign classics and cinema architecture on her blog Cinemazzi.

© 2015 – 2016, Lord Christopher Laverty.