The dressmaker, despite its many flaws is a fascinating movie to look at. And what makes it particularly interesting for us, is that it's a movie where the Costume Design happens to be what drives most of the visual narrative of the story.
Last week we had a look at Tilly's costume (by Margot Wilson) and how these define her and her arc throughout the movie, but, no matter how impressive Tilly's wardrobe is, it's only one half of the picture. It's Marion Boyce's work on the townsfolk around our main character that completes this mesmerizing ensemble. Because of it, we feel it would be unfair to ignore this other half, and therefore chose to divide this into two parts in order to better develop each of the sides.
And so, without further ado, let's dive into the other half of this equation.
DUNGATAR AND THE MAKEOVER FEVER
Dungatar is a fictional run-down street of houses in the middle of the Australian outback that tries to disguise itself as a town. It's uncared for, dusty, bleak... a complete backwater of the civilized world. And so are it's inhabitants.
When we meet them, this pack of half starved rednecks (not my definition, but the movie's) is hardly anything to look at. These are forgotten people; people whose very lives are never going to mean anything to anyone outside this dingy hellhole. And they are dressed as such.
They are all dressed in earthy, bleak tones and a tea coloured palette matched with cotton pinafores and smocks and rough-spoon aprons. And what that does, is blend them into the desolated landscape, whilst also visually unifying them as to highlight their close minded community and traditions. What their costume design does is turn them into the visual representation of their town. It also backs up the feeling of utter and complete alienation from the rest of the world. These very basic and bland costumes also add a certain sense of barrenness and decay, as to hint that only bad weeds survive out here.
These clothes, their regular clothes, are the complete opposite of what Tilly offers them. That's why her return creates such a shattering change in the community. What she offers, is to bring their biggest, most secret dreams and desires to life in the form of her fabulous gowns.
These people also have dreams and aspirations and ambitions. And that's what Tilly does with the clothes she creates for them; it panders to their vanity, their desires and their true natures. And that's something Marion Boyce truly manages to capture through her "Tilly-made" costumes.
These costumes are giving them the opportunity to transport them out of their bleak lives. It allows them the opportunity to become who they always wanted to be. It's all about the transformative powers of costume. And I guess that's why so many costume lovers grabbed a hold of this movie (myself included).
Also, it creates such a contrasting image; to see these women wearing incredible costumes (costumes that should belong to movie stars) in this barren wasteland. It certainly creates a very striking image. It's almost like a professional photographer's portfolio.
Because of this, I wasn't that surprise to learn that that's exactly where the inspiration for that visual clash came. Marion Boyce has repeatedly talked about taking Richard Avendon's photoshoots as a heavy influence.
For those who don't know, Richar Avedon was the most influential photographer in shaping our notions of how a "fashion photoshoot" should look. His work became very distinguishable in his approach to landscape: always placing high couture models in places where they didn't belong.
To look deeper into these Tilly-gowns designs, we are going to focus on the character of Gertrude, who, because of time restrictions, its the only of the town's women to have a full visual arc of her own.
She begins her journey as the "plain Jane" of Dungatar; a meek, bleak, unremarkable creature that mops around trying to get an ounce of attention. That is, until Tilly offers her a chance to change.
And what that change does, basically, is turn Gertrude into what she pictures herself to be. The dress that Tilly sews for her allows her to become who she's always wanted to be: the belle of the ball.
It was at this point in the movie, when I fully grasped just how much of an essential element costuming was in this movie. Thematically speaking. Costume, in the movie, becomes a tool for these characters to reflect their true natures. For instance, Gertrude, despite always looking like a plain Jane, really has the spirit of a popular/mean girl, and Tilly's costumes allow her to become exactly that.
And so, what started as a sort of Cinderella story, rapidly leaves way to a mean girl story. Tilly's costumes allow her to become the bossy pretty girl that runs the town. Which I think it's a very original idea; just sticking to the Cinderella approach feels so overplayed at this point... and it also allows Gertrude to become a truly dynamic character in the story whilst giving a darker twist to the whole "costume transforms" idea of the movie. It can transform you, but transformation isn't always good.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN
Thankfully, there are other inhabitants in Dungatar beyond this nest of Diva's and self-involved women. Most prominently, there's Tilly's mother, Teddy and Sargent Farrat, the three of whom, conform Tilly's close circle of friends.
Molly Dunnage, as we first meet her, is introduced to us as "crazy molly"; living in a shit-hole and barely leaving her bed. She's a hermit, an outcast from the Dungatar "society". She is someone who has given up on life; having drunk herself to mental illness and unable to even remember she had a daughter to begin with.
And, accordingly, she's dressed in rather shabby clothes; ragged nightgowns and stinky blankets. But, as she slowly starts to remember (thanks to Tilly's insistence), she starts to dress a little less shabby as well.
It's her rekindled relationship with her daughter, in the end, what brings her back from her self-inflicted madness. And I think it's very touching that the last thing she manages to do before dying is asking Tilly to sew something for her.
Not something glamorous or sexy; the suit Tilly does for her is stylish but elegant and very sober. It's a very beautiful symbolic way of giving her back the dignity that the town stole from her.
Then there's Teddy, sweet Teddy; Tilly's love interest. Unfortunately, costume wise, there's actually little to say because his wardrobe (as well as his character) is very basic.
All in all, it's a very middle of the road nice/sexy guy look. But, the character itself has little else to offer besides good looks and charm. So it was a lost cause to begin with.
Last but not least, is Sargent Farrat; a cross-dressing police officer who becomes friends with Tilly. Despite the charm and spark of the character, it's practically impossible not to think of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert when he appears in a scene, particularly because he's played by Hugo Weaving as well.
Unfortunately, costume-wise, he's a bit underused, as he spends most of the movie in his police uniform, only actually cross-dressing once in the movie. It's at the very beginning, as the character gets introduced, we see him trying on a skirt and a hat over his uniform.
And yet, his character serves as another example of the movie's theme: costume reveals character. Him sticking to his uniform is a great visual representation of his character: he is forced to bend to the town's will in all aspects of his work and life much the same way that he is forced to wear that uniform. That's why it's especially telling that he chooses to resign the job wearing a "torero" suit.
By doing that, he is refusing conventionality and accepting his true self exclusively through his costume choice.
In the end, that's the beauty of The dressmaker. Despite of all its flaws as a movie, it still finds a beating heart through its thematically original approach to costume. This, in the end, it's a movie about the power of costume to define and redefine people. Costume as a shield, as a fantasy and as a way to reveal true personality.
It's a beautiful ode to designers and seamstresses around the world. An assertion of costume-making as something more than vain pandering to women. A statement about the importance of owning one's personality and style. An invitation to express orselves through costuming.
A love letter to fashion.
Read Part I here