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)”
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!
Now let’s look at specific costumes:
Looking at the townspeople…
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?