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The Dressmaker. Part I: A glamorous outsider

2015's The Dressmaker is the wet dream of any costume lover in all of its 120 minutes of runtime. The Aussie film directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse is the adaptation of the Rosalie Ham's homonymous novel. After quite an impressive run in the Festival Circuit (it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival) and garnishing numerous nominations and wins worldwide, it finally got a theatrical release, becoming a box office success and the 11th highest-grossing film of all time in its home country.


So there certainly was a lot of hype around it when we finally got to see it and had a lot of expectations to live up to.

ABOUT THE MOVIE

So, is the movie actually that good? ... Sort of? Well, it's complicated. That's our official review tagline: it's complicated. The thing is; the movie has a ton of problems of all sorts. A lot of it doesn't work, but what does work, works really well.

Let's start with the negatives. First of all, the movie is a tonal shipwreck. Its tone is completely all over the place. Maybe that was a problem picked up from the book (which I can't know because I haven't read) but that still doesn't excuse the tonal mess that it ends up being.

And that's, basically, because it tries to be so many things at the same time: a comedy, a romantic story, a full-on melodrama, a live-action cartoon, a social story and even a revenge-slasher.  It reminded me of a weird blend between Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994, Stephan Elliot), Chocolat (2000, Lasse Hallström) and Sweeney Todd (2007, Tim Burton).

It's a very tough act to balance as a filmmaker, and I'm not sure they manage it.

But that brings us to the positives. That almost impossible to balance mix of genres makes the movie quite unexpected. It keeps you on your toes for most of its runtime. Also, another positive, it has a lot of energy and enthusiasm that just radiates out of the screen.

But, probably, the best of it is Kate Winslet's performance and the costumes. These two are a duo made in heaven.

In the end, The Dressmaker is a very irregular film filled with extravagance and bizarreness that, despite its effort, doesn't quite land on its feet. It has tons of potential, but it was a very risky bet to begin with. Still, its greatest merit is that it's very memorable. It's not a movie you'll forget about it.

ABOUT THE COSTUMES

Despite all that, it's undeniable that the Costume Design for the movie is top notch. Costume, here, is not only an amazing eye candy, it's also an integral part of the story, the character and the themes. After all, this is a movie about the essence of people and how clothes help define that. It's about a woman that has made clothing her shield towards the world. It's about dressmaking and its power to transform. It's only logical that we'd want to talk about it here.

Because this is such a remarkably ambitious enterprise, costume wise, they made a rather unusual decision: split the Costume Design into the hands of two different Designers. Marion Boyce did all the costumes regarding the townspeople, and Margot Wilson focussed only on the costumes for Winslet's character.

And, for much the same reason, we are going to split this review into two parts; this first one will focus on Margot Wilson's work on Winslet's character, and the second will focus on Marion Boyce's work on the townspeople.

Fair warning: there will be some SPOILERS, and as this is quite a recent movie, I thought I'd better warn.

TILLY DUNNAGE: A GLAMOROUS OUTSIDER

The movie begins in 1951 with the unexpected return of Tilly (played by the always wonderful Kate Winslet) to her rundown hometown in the Australian outback. Her return presents an immediate rupture of the tense "tranquility" in which the town, and its people, seem to exist. That rupture is visually signified through her fashionable outfits, that violently clash against the stagnated "fashion" of the town.


What better way, then, than to introduce her in a Dior inspire outfit? Especially considering that, coming out from the wartime rationing of the late 40's and its drab materials and austere lines, Dior's New Look created a rupture into the fashion world in much the same way that Tilly does in her own world.

But Tilly, as a character, doesn't only have to be a rupture. That's just the easy part. She also needs to be a constant differentiating element. She needs to stand in stark contrast with everyone else throughout the whole movie, whilst, at the same time, still reflect (through costume) her own personality and story arc. And that's the true genius of Margot Wilson's concept and designs.

Tilly is an outsider. She comes from a poor, austere background and has never truly belonged anywhere. Because of it, she has hardened herself. She's one tough cookie. And so, her designs needed to be elegant but straightforward: "stylish but nothing too flouncy".


Her golfing outfit as she first converses with her mother after her return is the perfect example of this: elegant, chic, but restrained. Stylish but not a show-off. A strong silhouette and dual colors that put the final nail in her characterization. Wilson describes it best when she says that Tilly is "assured silhouettes, practical elegance, bold fabrics and classic glamour".

And that's the cut board pattern for all her designs. Simple, yet profoundly efficient. As a good design should be. It's from this foundation, that the 30-odd outfits she gets are twinkled and modified to accordingly to the narrative necessities of the scene. Let's take a look.

After cleaning up the shit-hole in which her mother had been living, she decides it's time to reenter the social life of the town. And for that, she assembles the most theatrical dress possible.


She decides to go to a rugby match wearing a bright red dress with elbow-high globes and red shoes to match. And thus, she presents herself as glamour incarnated. An ideal of herself far more than a true representation.

This is the perfect revenge dress; it's clearly not something she wears on a day to day basis. But it's not supposed to be that. This is a statement as bold as the red fabric with which it's made. It's meant to throw defiance on their faces.


It's a "f*** you" dress, if I ever saw one. The fact that she's the only one wearing a bright, basic color sets her completely apart and her style and glamour make sure that she's not setting herself aside but above them. She's telling them only through the dress, that she's not going to hide and that she's not afraid of their talk. Basically because, by wearing that, she's inviting them to talk about her.

That idea, is even more reinforced when, after being asked to change so that she won't distract the players, she comes back in an even more scandalous dress.


This Gilda-inspired black dress is the epitome of sexyness and exudes class, glamour and sexuality. If the red dress was meant to be a defiance, this is the whole declaration of war.


The dress, and the spectacle with which she surrounds it (the whole unrobing thing) is meant to shatter the moral and behavioral rules and guidelines of the stifling town-life. She's flaunting in front of them everything they want to be, and everything they want for themselves. Which makes this, probably, the best scene in the whole movie.

But that's not really her. Deep down, she's still just a poor girl. And that's shown through her much more humble "home outfits".


These are still way classier than anything worn by her peers, but it's also something that a working woman would wear. This is not a fantasy, this is the real Tilly; a working woman who's not afraid to roll up her sleeves and get down to business.


It's that efficiency and diligence that seem to set her into a sort of "good" graces with the townsfolk as she labors to turn every single one of their women into fashionable superstars. And those two qualities are very quickly transmitted and supported by her more "homey" outfits.

These also help to shed light onto Tilly's most vulnerable moments. It helps build the sense that this woman has built this image of "fashionable" around herself as a shield. A wall that protects her from people. And seeing her this "naked" and natural helps us point out that we're seeing a hidden side to her persona. A private Tilly, in a way.

That's even made more noticeable during her scenes with Liam Hemsworth's character. But this time, it's not reflected in her style or her level of formality, instead, it's shown through color. Notice how much of the time she's with him, she is shown wearing green, a color that is, otherwise, lacking from her previous costumes.


It is her tremulous sense of hope that we see reflected there? Probably. But whatever interpretation we want to pin upon it, it's certainly a marked difference from the rest of her costume set.

But all that simplicity and breeziness is thrown out of the window the moment she has to face those who wronged her. As she goes to confront her school teacher, she armors herself back with her glamour; with a stunning purple and pink couture dress.


Note the artificiality of the color, the boldness of the contour and the stiffness of the structure. This dress functions in much the same way that her red dress did: it's a statement.

And it really works, as it highlights her toughness and strong backbone. The rigid nature of the structure help highlight the back that she's not going to back down without getting answers. The boldness of the color points out to her directness and "no-nonsense" approach.

Because of these, it also becomes very fitting, that as her whole world comes crumbling down by the end of the sequence and she runs away, her dress and get up start to fall apart: her collar gets crushed and her hair gets tussled and undone. Her armor and walls are thus visually cracked and demolished in one single swoop.

After that, as the hammer goes down on her life once more (she consecutively loses both her love interest and her mother), we see her try to stay on top of it all with her mourning dresses.


She's trying to look like she still has some control over life by still dressing up for the funerals, but she's really spiraling out of control.

That is very much reinforced by the costume department as she radically stops dressing in anything remotely pretty or stylish and falls back to the tackiest print leopard coat possible and barely styles her hair or uses make up for the next few scenes.


For a few scenes there it almost looks as she's going to turn into her poor mother, even going as far as using her "homeless" hats. It's an amazing way to visualize what's at stake here: her sanity, her future, etc.

Thankfully, she bounces from that thanks to a certain event (which, though it's no big deal, I prefer not to spoil) and she comes to the conclusion that it serves for nothing trying to make them love her, because that's never going to happen and they are, simply put, not worth the pain.

And so, she rebuilds her shield and walls, dresses up in a pretty neat black suit and green/yellow coat and exits the story with a bang.


It's noteworthy to point out the integration of green tones into her clothing by the end, something that, before, had only been associated with her love interest and the hope towards that relation. So, maybe, despite the fact that the movie doesn't quite have a happy ending, she ends with a timid sense of hope towards the future. At least that's what I like to think.

CONCLUSION

Tilly's design for The Dressmaker demonstrate an incredible craftsman's ship and commitment to the story and the character in a marvelous way, which is, more than probably, why the movie caught so much buzz in the first place.

But, still, her designs are only one half of this richly detailed costuming experience, which we will be continuing next week when we'll finally wrap this up.

Read Part II here.

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