The Dressmaker Takes Revenge to a Whole New Level

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Attention all American historical costume movie fans! Kate Winslet‘s 1950s-set The Dressmaker FINALLY opened in US theaters this past Friday. I got to see a sneak peak, but I promised a fuller review and here it is!

The Dressmaker is an adaptation of a modern novel. Winslet plays Tilly, who grew up in a small town in remote Australia. Some kind of childhood tragedy occurred, and Tilly left town. In the intervening years, she moved to Europe and studied and then worked with many famous couturiers. Now, she’s back in town with her sewing machine, determined to reconnect with her mother (the fabulous Judy Davis) and figure out said childhood tragedy. Along the way, she both reinvigorates her hometown AND gets revenge on all the bastards what did her wrong, and hooks up with a local cutie (played by Liam Hemsworth).

I found the film enjoyable, although I wasn’t totally convinced by the romantic aspect of it (and I think it would have been better without it). Nonetheless, both Winslet and Davis are hilarious and touching, and if you like either/both actresses and/or 1950s costumes, you’ll want to see this film.

One nice bit of information is that Winslet had taken sewing lessons before working on The Dressmaker so, as designer Margot Wilson said, “she had a sense of the sewing terminologies and she understands what works on her and what doesn’t” (‘The Dressmaker’ Costume Designer Margot Wilson Talks Kate Winslet And The 1950s Silhouette).

Costumes in The Dressmaker

What’s interesting about The Dressmaker, from the how-the-costumes-were-designed-angle, is that there were, unusually, TWO costume designers for the film. Margot Wilson designed Kate Winslet’s costumes, while Margo Boyce handled all the other cast members. According to Boyce, this division of labor made a lot of sense: “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. 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” (Costuming The Dressmaker).

Wilson’s task was to show how different Tilly (Winslet) was from the rest of the town (The Dressmaker’s Maker). Both designers agreed that, according to ClothesOnFilm.com, “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 [the small town] 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'” (Costuming The Dressmaker).

On the flip side, Boyce had to both portray the barren wasteland that was the small town’s fashion scene, as well as the faaaabulous couture clothes that Tilly makes for the townspeople. Boyce said, “For a while I was completely stumped; there were petrified trees, it was really dusty, with big rocks and it had this really barren alienation about it” (Fashion From the ’50s Finds Fitting Home in The Dressmaker Exhibition at Rippon Lea House). She took inspiration for the Tilly-transformed designs from the fashion photography work of Richard Avedon, stating that Avedon and his peers “took photography out of the studios and took it to the streets, so you had women hanging off the Eiffel Tower and leaning against elephants — quite extraordinary, very strong visuals. I really wanted to keep the power of what Avedon brought to the magazines and brought to the public” (Work of Dressmakers Behind The Dressmaker Goes on Show in Melbourne). In particular, “All of a sudden all these birds started flying into this landscape and I thought, oh, that’s perfect, the women are preening themselves, they’re peacocks and so a lot of it [the designs] uses elements of birds and that iconography” (Fashion From the ’50s Finds Fitting Home in The Dressmaker Exhibition at Rippon Lea House)”

Fashion photograph by Richard Avedon, 1950.

Fashion photograph by Richard Avedon, 1950.

Just as most of Winslet’s wardrobe was custom-made for the film, Boyce has said that they made many of the pieces for the supporting cast: “A lot of stuff was made, even down to the chemist with his hunchback. There was an enormous amount made, all of the big frocks we made. Look, even a lot of the day stuff we made. Even the beautiful day dresses for Marigold…so we can actually get a particular palette. Nearly all of Molly’s stuff (Judy Davis…) was made, so we could actually get that really beautiful decay. The state that she was in when Tilly found her was incredibly sad. So to be able to achieve that, we actually have to make it, and then build up colour and texture and create that sort of very depleted look” (Marion Boyce: Costuming the Cast of The Dressmaker).

At one point Una, a rival dressmaker, sets up shop in the same town, but her designs and execution are shoddy. Boyce said, “Oh the bad Una! I love her. That was her nickname from us. We called her the bad Una (Sacha Horler…). And you now, it was actually quite hard for the cutters to actually make the bad Unas – like, no you can’t finish it, no I don’t want mitered edges – and it actually hurts them to finish things badly! It’s not in their training” (Marion Boyce: Costuming the Cast of The Dressmaker). I love the thought of the costume makers getting twitchy!

Bad Una (on the right)

Bad Una (on the right)

Now let’s look at specific costumes:

The Dressmaker (2015)

Winslet’s slinky, curve-fitting red moire dress started as a roll of fabric designer Wilson bought 25 years ago in Milan: “I’ve been carrying that roll of fabric around forever… 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!” (Costuming The Dressmaker)

The Dressmaker (2015)

I don’t know if I LOVE the red gloves, but they certainly do bring this dress to BEYOND over-the-top.

The Dressmaker (2015)

“With Tilly heavily inspired by Dior, Wilson made her own tribute to the French design house in form of Tilly’s golfing outfit. The stiff structured navy dress with white embroidered sleeve cuffs and collar is pinched at the waist with a thin brown leather belt, and includes loopholes at Winslet’s hip for placement of her golf tees. ‘The ladies from the House of Dior, they all wear these white coats,’ Wilson explains, ‘So that was my little tribute to her, or to them, rather'” (The Dressmaker’s Maker).

The Dressmaker (2015)

I love anything sporty and any color-with-white (or off-white), so count me in!

The Dressmaker (2015)

The greenish-black dress on Winslet (right)…

The Dressmaker (2015)

Has speckled fabric that is SO 1950s…

The Dressmaker (2015)

Although I’d like to add a belt.

The Dressmaker (2015)

This black dress was uber-structured, says Wilson: “I didn’t want to have Kate hitching [the dress] up. We built Kate a whole lot of underwear that you never saw to reinforce that 50’s shape, that solid look” (The Dressmaker’s Maker).

The Dressmaker (2015)

This mustard-and-black swing coat is just fabulous, although I wonder how Winslet isn’t sweating up a storm… and I love the Asian-inspired shape of the hat.

The Dressmaker (2015)

It’s not ALL OTT couture, on the other hand. Winslet does wear some casual clothes for sewing, which, thank god. Because sewing in a girdle would be torture.

The Dressmaker (2015)

All casual in plaid!

The Dressmaker (2015)

The green dress on Winslet (right) began as a vintage dress. Wilson said, “(It) wasn’t a fantastic design but the fabric was beautiful… 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” (Costuming The Dressmaker)

Looking at the townspeople…

The Dressmaker (2015)

It’s actually hard to find many photos of the pre-transformation townspeople. You need to realize that they ALL look like Gertrude (left) or even shabbier and more 1930s Depression.

The Dressmaker (2015)

Under Tilly’s expert eyes and hands, however, she begins by transforming Gertrude into the belle of the ball (and also reminds us all of the power of great lipstick).

The Dressmaker (2015) The Dressmaker (2015)
The Dressmaker (2015)

Gertrude gets the best of Tilly’s work. The pleating on this cape is wonderful and definitely conjures the bird motif Boyce discussed above.

The Dressmaker (2015)

The draping on this pale gold satin number is really gorgeous.

The Dressmaker (2015)

As is the embroidery/appliques!

The Dressmaker (2015)

This is probably my favorite costume from the whole film, however. Red and white? Polka dots? Swapped colors? Gorgeous drape? YES YES YES and YES!

The Dressmaker (2015)

The costumes went on display in Australia, so you can find lots of shots of them on mannequins if you’re so inclined.

The Dressmaker (2015)

The rest of the townspeople look amazing, too, however. Notice how Tilly doesn’t just do evening glamour but also fabulously chic daywear.

The Dressmaker (2015)
The Dressmaker (2015)

Hugo Weaving is the fashion-obsessed local policeman who quickly becomes Team Tilly. He’s a little stereotypically gay, but it’s fun.

The Dressmaker (2015)

I can’t remember who wore this grey dress…

The Dressmaker (2015)

But I thought this close-up was too stunning not to include!

So, if you like Kate Winslet, like fashion, and/or like the 1950s, see The Dressmaker. You’ll be glad you did!

Have you seen The Dressmaker yet? Even better, have you seen any of the costumes on display? What did you think?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

13 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    I plan to see the film when it opens in my hometown of Baton Rouge. I find the premise very unique, special and beautiful. The clothes of the era are so timeless classic and gorgeous. With designers like Dior, Givenchy, Charles James, and Chanel to lead the way; how could they not be.

    Reply
  2. sarcasmhime

    I just saw it yesterday! The movie is definitely a lot darker than it appears in the trailers, but it was still quite enjoyable and the costumes were totally AMAZING. And Judy Davis as Tilly’s mom is awesome.

    My only gripes were a) at one point Kate’s dress gets unzipped and she wasn’t wearing a girdle underneath. I was amused at how movies and TV always seem to think nobody wore underwear throughout history, or that showing people having to remove their support-wear is too unsexy.

    b) the standard ‘glasses = ugly girl, remove glasses and now she’s pretty’ trope. So is Gertrude just walking around half-blind but fabulous now?

    Also (bit of a spoiller):

    … there’s one point where she makes costumes for a theatre group and the audience is clearly meant to be wowed by them, but I took one look at them and knew they were nothing more than imported kimono. Worn really badly, I might add. There is no way that Tilly made those. They’re 100% straight from Japan. So the impact there was kind of ruined for me. >_> I guess if you don’t know anything about kimono, they might seem impressive.

    Reply
  3. Lyn Robb

    I haven’t seen the film but have to wonder, where did these country people wear all these fabulous clothes to? I can’t imagine the town was a high-society hub…

    Reply
    • Branwen Frost

      I live about 20 mins from where it was shot… if you have clothes that amazing, you wear them to the supermarket, the post office and yes even changing a light bulb.

      Reply
  4. Lowana

    LOVE this movie. I was lucky enough to go and see the exhibition too – so great getting to see the garments up close. The dress at the end of your article was warn by Trudy. The shimmer on the fabric was actually painted on by the costume designers.
    (Minor typo at the start – it’s Marion Boyce, not Margo xx)

    Reply
  5. Karen K.

    Ohhhh now I’m dying to see this but it may never come to my town. . . . I hate having to wait for DVD releases!!

    Reply
  6. Jenny Ketcham

    Yeah, the grey dress was Trudy’s wedding dress, complete with the orange blossom crown. The clothes in the film were really fun! But, minor gripe here, did anyone else think that Tilly’s red shoes at the ball game had really modern heels?

    Reply
  7. Lyn Robb

    I just got to see this (thanks Amazon Prime!). I LOVED IT! It was a lot funnier than I was expecting and so many lovely references (Hugo and Priscilla, Strictly Ballroom matadors) and I have to say the Liam scenes were wonderfully HOT.Truly a very good movie!! Oh, and the costumes…brilliant!

    Reply
  8. Joyce

    finally got to see this. Such beautiful costumes. My mom used to have a hat very similar to the one Tilly wears in the first scene. That hat flattered any one who put it on. ANd I agree with a poster above – she would have been wearing a longline strapless bra under the unzipped dress.

    Reply

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