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Dressmaking as a weapon

3 Dec 2019 10:00 AM | Louise Sparrow (Administrator)

ASG member Wendy McKinnon reports on her visit to The Dressmaker Costume Exhibition

In July, I travelled to The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, Canberra, to see The Dressmaker Costume Exhibition curated by the indomitable Marion Boyce. This is an exhibition of costumes designed by two Australians, Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson, for the movie The Dressmaker. No movie in recent times has brought home the message more, that we are what we wear!


The designers enjoyed making costumes for a movie set in the 1950s. What made it more interesting, the movie is set in an Australian Outback town. The costumes had to convey a message, as well as create a character so that, when the actors climbed into those costumes, they became those characters. The storyline is about a Paris-trained dressmaker of couture garments, wronged by the townspeople, home to gain her revenge. As if that wasn’t enough, Tilly transformed the lives of downtrodden, dowdy women and made them magnificent. Using garments – their colour, design lines, silhouettes and glorious fabrics - lives were changed.

For early scenes, fabrics were aged and stained. Designs, while reflective of the times, were simple, to convey a feeling of hopelessness – these women had lost their souls. Along came the House of Tilly and their world was turned upside down. Of course, with success and acknowledgement comes jealousy. Enter the House of Una, a dressmaker brought in by a malicious Mother-of-the-Groom. Who could forget the dreadful wedding dress that was so, literally, over-inflated with voluminous skirts and tulle that, when the on-set Health & Safety officer approached the actress with his concerns over her falling during her dramatic scene, the actress responded by telling him not to worry – she would bounce! Having made her way to Tilly, she married in a beautiful Grecian inspired wedding dress!

I was at once fascinated and thrilled to learn that Kate Winslet attended a sewing course before coming to Australia so that she would fully understand sewing terminologies and cutting lines. All the same, she found it a challenge working with such an old machine as the wonderful Singer. Kate worked every day with the designer, involved in the whole process.

Also of note was how, through the use of pale and lack lustre fabrics, in keeping with Outback colours, characters were portrayed, setting the scene. As a character became stronger and more confident, this was reflected in the stronger colours they wore.

Accessories also had to be sourced and everything on set had to reflect the 1950s. The hardest part for the designers was sourcing the fabrics of that period, travelling the world in their search. We don’t stop to think how some of the more complicated, and beautiful, fabric weaves are no longer around. These were the hardest to source so they did very well in their quest!

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition and Marion’s curation told the story of how clothes maketh the man/woman; as well as maketh the movie - it was wonderful!

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