Recently my daughter and I attended the ‘Dressmaker’ Costume Exhibition at the Barwon Park Mansion in Winchelsea. The rooms of the ornate nineteenth century building were transformed to contain the glamour of 1950s haute couture.
An afternoon tea was prepared and served in what was once the servants quarters. The immensely high ceiling was elaborately adorned with beautiful draping white fabric, as were the tables with their pristine white cloths. The many cast-iron bells that rang out long ago to summon the servants remained perched above the door – silent.
We sat chatting, getting to know others around our table while eating dainty scones with jam and cream. We sipped cups of tea or coffee while waiting for the amazing women who were responsible for creating this Australian classic.
A representative from the National Trust introduced the women: Rosalie Ham the author of the acclaimed novel, Marion Boyce costumer designer and exhibition curator, and Sue Maslin the Producer. One by one they gave an account of what their role and relationship to the movie was.
Rosalie spoke of where she gleaned her inspiration for the book. Growing up in Jerilderie NSW, a small country town with no more than 800 people, everybody knew each other and their business. She remembers, as a child, sitting as still and as silent as a statue, almost invisible, holding the pin tin while her mother, a dressmaker, fashioned and created garments for the various townsfolk. It was at these times, that Rosalie heard the sins and confessions of the people, the tragedies, the triumphs and failure and the secrets of the community.
She also remembers the faces of those looking in the mirror when they first caught sight of themselves in their new garment. Their backs would straighten; their faces soften into a smile; a new found pride. They always left the house differently than when they came – transformed in some way, influenced by fashion.
Rosalie had also attended drama school and observed how people would elbow others out of the way to get a chance of rising to stardom. All of these observations; ambition, betrayal, lust, jealousy and revenge mixed with imagination contributed to the success of her book.
(Left to right – Rosalie Hams, Marion Boyce, Sue Maslin)
Marion spoke on the power of transformation through costume. She said transformation is all about changing form, shape and appearance and it is her job to find the inner peacock, inner goddess or aspiration of the women.
When designing the film, the different journeys of the characters had to be considered. Some journeys were subtle and had to be taken slowly over the duration of the film. Others were extraordinary and extreme as in Gertrude’s case. Understanding the landscape, they way they lived, their homes, cars helped piece together the characters.
When Marion first saw the location at Little River, dusty with imposing rocky outcrops and petrified trees, she wondered how on earth was she going to blend Parisian fashion into the harsh, rugged landscape. But, she did, and did it so beautifully, ultimately capturing the power of transformation.
Sue Maslin, also from Jerilderie, read Rosalie’s novel and immediately identified with it, remembering her own childhood in the town. She recognized the potential the landscape and the characters in The Dressmaker offered.
Sue, along with director and screenwriter Jocelyn Moorhouse adapted the story and costumes for the big screen. The characters were cast; the town of Dungatar was built and became the backdrop where the actors brought to life the universal truths of love and vanity, power and hierarchy, acceptance and revenge.
Fashion changes everything if you open up to its influence. Well, my daughter and I certainly opened ourselves up to the influence of fashion and made our garments to attend this event with the theme of 'The Dressmaker' in mind.
My daughter’s 1930’s style dress was made from a soft, rich, royal blue faille and my 1950’s style, red shantung dress was inspired by the show-stopping red coat that Tilly wore to the football match.
We were the only people dressed in theme, which surprised me, but we chose to embrace it and found our costumes were the starting point of every conversation. Many others wish they had done the same thing.
I shall leave with these words, be inspired, impressed and let the transformation begin . Also, enjoy a sprinkling of the beautiful fashion statements that were on show.