A well-dressed person walking into a room can prompt many feelings from many present.
Some may look on in envy; of the garment, the owner, the way the garment looks on the owner, or that the owner can even afford such threads in the first place. Some may look on with contempt; that anyone would want to draw such attention to themselves, or perhaps that they can even pull-off such bold statements.
Others still could look on with admiration and adoration – for the clothes, the wearer, and the whole package put together.
But what might the person wearing the clothes feel?
THE DRESSMAKER is the homecoming of Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet). Tilly is a talented dressmaker who returns home to her backwater home of Dungatar in the Australian outback. When Tilly was a child, she was exiled as the only witness to a boy’s death…and also a suspect to his murder. Now an accomplished seamstress, she has returned in the hopes of finding a few missing pages in her own story, and gaining a better grasp on her own identity.
She is greeting by the town constable, Sgt. Farrat (Hugo Weaving) – who just so happens to be a closeted cross-dresser…meaning the two become fast friends. Tilly heads straight to her childhood home, where her mother Molly (Judy Davis) still lives. She believes proper care will allow her mother’s fog of insanity to lift, and likewise allow Tilly to get the clarity she so dearly wants.
Tilly finds an ally in Teddy McSwinney (Liam Hemsworth), a footballer who uses the distraction Tilly provides as a way for the town’s team to win a crucial game. Tilly then finds a fan in the form of Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook), a ‘Plane Jane’ shopgirl hoping for a better look that might land her a very eligible bachelor.
In exchange for information about past events, Tilly turns Gertrude into The Belle of The Ball by way of a splendid dress. Soon more of the women in town are turning to Tilly for stylish threads of their own…but do they accept her? Do they forgive her? And is she any closer to learning the truth about herself?
I’ve never been what you would call “a fashionista”. My wardrobe is primarily about comfort and function more than it is about any sort of style or statement (which of course is its own sort of statement). Despite my love for jeans-and-tee-shirts, I cannot deny what the right garment can do for a person. Fashion has a way of turning flaws into flare; making the person wearing it stand up a little straighter and walk with a bit more confidence. It can be both armour and a second skin; strength and sensuality in one finely tailored package.
Seeing a character like Tilly command the art form is a bold reminder that a knack for great style can come from anywhere. It’s not something one needs to be weened on, or taught from a young age. It can be developed, honed, and expressed from people of the humblest origins…who might not even be physically built to be prototypically “stylish”.
Tilly – and by extension, this film – understands that so many of us have it within ourselves to be the most striking person in the room. What’s needed is the look that brings it out in us, because it will then do just that – bring it out in us. Tilly doesn’t just distract at a football match because she’s wearing haute couture in the Australian outback. That’s the sort of thing that would look absurd, not just distracting. What pretty much brings all around her to a screeching halt is the way she works the garments, instead of the other way around.
“Dressing the part” can allow for a lot of opportunities. It can court professional gains, romantic encounters, and community standing. It can even present the illusion that we have out shit together, even if nothing could be further from the truth.
If THE DRESSMAKER is guilty of anything, it’s that it gives its audience too much of a good thing. There comes a point where the story could very well end – then there comes another point where the film could also end. These moments would both leave a very different taste in the audience’s mouth, but both would also leave us feeling full. However, the story of Tilly Dunnage decides to take one more turn around the track. The result is something with a bit less warmth and a bit less bite, which is a shame.
In the end, this is still a sweet watch that is warm, funny, and of course – stylish. It’s a story that allows its star to do many things and be many things. The very same way a carefully crafted wardrobe can bring out many sides of one person, this carefully crafted film gives Winslet a chance to show several sides of Tilly…and several sides of herself.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we all wish we could arrange to meet that one person who did us wrong somehow, and walk into the room dressed like we owned the place. THE DRESSMAKER is a chance to live that out vicariously…and when we look in the mirror, we can’t help but smile at what we see.