For veteran Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse, black comedy “The Dressmaker” was like “Unforgiven” with a sewing machine. In the movie, a Paris fashion designer (Kate Winslet) returns to her dusty, hateful outback town in the early ’50 to exact revenge with haute couture style.
For the film’s two costume designers, Margo Wilson (who focused on Winslet) and Marion Boyce (who handled the rest of the wardrobe), “The Dressmaker” was like “Cinderella” meets “Pygmalion.” At first, Winslet transforms the shopkeeper’s dowdy daughter (Sarah Snook) into a princess. Then the other wicked women pay Winslet to use her sartorial magic on them.
“She had been working for many years as a dressmaker in exclusive Parisian fashion houses, so she needed to look different from the rest of the town,” Wilson told IndieWire. “Her mentor was Madeleine Vionnet, one of the leading designers [between the Wars]. Her wardrobe was very simple, rich, royal colors with no florals or patterns. It reflected her strength. We did tributes to designers all the way through.”
Winslet begins by making a distracting spectacle during a rugby match, wearing a black satin dress similar to the iconic “Gilda” showstopper designed by Jean Louis and then a scarlet moire silk tafadar dress as a nod to Cristóbal Balenciaga.
“I had a [red] roll of fabric from Milan that I bought 25 years ago, just waiting for the proper movie and Kate provided the opportunity as another distraction,” Wilson said.
Other highlights along Winslet’s richly tailored costuming journey included a New Look-inspired mustard coat and feathered hat, a sailor-styled suit and a strapless black gown.
“Jocelyn wanted to have a bit of a gunslinging influence with the sailor suit, so I put a bullet holster on the side of the skirt, which we made into tee holders as she’s on the side of the hill, shooting the balls down to the town,” Wilson said.
Meanwhile, Boyce was influenced by photographers Richard Avedon and Irving Penn in weaving a glam ’50s snapshot for the rest of the women. But her primary focus was the Cinderella-like shopkeeper’s daughter, who’s transformed in stages.
“Each dress had its own name — ‘How to Snare a Husband,’ ‘How to How to Seal the Deal’ —in order to get her husband/prince,” said Boyce.
The Cinderella moment at a dance was a soft peppermint shaw dress. This was followed by an egg shell, silk organza cape with a black duchess wiggle dress underneath, a red spot dress with poppy hat and the wedding gown, which paid homage to Vionnet’s Grecian period.
But Hugo Weaving’s haute couture-loving policeman turns out to be the biggest surprise as a cross-dresser. “He’s always under the cover of darkness, but it was more his love of texture and cloth than cross-dressing in a way,” Boyce said. “And he liked the romance of it all. He often wore his satin ballet slippers in the police car where no one could see him. When he comes out as the Matador, he really owns the moment.”
It’s a lovely journey, which, like the others, reveals the power of costumes to change someone.