Kate Winslet has never looked more stunningly beautiful than she does in The Dressmaker , an Australian dark comedy out Sept. 23. In the film, Winslet stars as Myrtle "Tilly" Dunnage, a small town girl who hit the road after a scandal and became a high-end fashion goddess by working across Europe. But she returns to her tiny, 1950s Australian outback town for one reason: revenge on the people who tormented her during her youth. Part of her revenge is looking like a million bucks in her own creations, creating a giant eff you to the town that scorned her while everyone else shuffles along in brown, dusty clothes. But soon enough, Tilly decides to help her fellow women out by making them fabulous dresses like her own. What once was only Tilly's secret weapon becomes a shared symbol of freedom for the town's women, helping them break free from the restrictive forces holding them back.
The first woman Tilly helps with her talent, is, of course, herself. Caught up in a murder scandal since childhood, Tilly is an outcast for years, but her skills and vision eventually give her a way out. As a child, she is timid and bullied, but she grows into a strong, powerful, and confident woman — thanks in large part to her love for clothes. Travel, design, and fashion become a way for Tilly to escape the small-minded members of her judgmental town, and the splashes of colors she sports represent the spark of women's liberation taking hold of Tilly's mind and the world at large. Her small town offers little in terms of education or opportunity; by heading away to learn a trade and cultivate her talent, Tilly escapes the monotony and limitations of her former life, and the bold colors and forward-thinking fashion choices she returns wearing represent the vastness of her experiences. She's seen the world, visited other cultures, and has a sense of what the future holds outside of a town that would rather see its women as traditional housewives.
And soon, Tilly lets others — even the judgmental women of her town — develop the same confidence through clothes. For Gertrude "Trudie" Pratt, Tilly makes an utterly stunning dress that catches the eye of its wearer's crush, William. William is one of the more affluent members of the community, and he normally ignores Trudie, just a grocer's daughter. After he sees her in the dress, though, he's transfixed. Is it superficial that William only turns his head and notices Trudie after a total makeover? Perhaps, but the new look gives her confidence, and enough of a boost to start speaking up for herself. She and the other women usually dress in modest, brown-tinged clothes that fit the town's sexist ideals that women not stick out too much, tempt men, or bring attention to their sexuality. But thanks to Tilly, no longer shall that be.
For Marigold Pettyman, the transformation is even more liberating. Drugged with nerve tonic for years by her philandering husband who rapes her each night, Marigold is a timid figure, but she boldly asks Tilly to dress her for Trudie's wedding after seeing Tilly's other creations. Once she sees herself in the dress, and through a series of other revelations, Marigold is emboldened to stand up to her husband. The confidence-inducing wardrobe given to Marigold and the other women acts as a symbolic stand in for Tilly's influence on her female neighbors. They're influenced by the fact that a woman managed to leave their little town and succeed, and that she's unmarried and a bit of a "spinster," yet can attract the most eligible bachelor in town (played by Liam Hemsworth). Perhaps they also see Tilly as the future, the possibilities that are open to them should they reject the prim and proper demeanor required by the men in their lives. It might seem frivolous, that clothes could lead to such self-evolution, but for anyone who has felt trapped, degraded, or not themselves, you know that transformation can come in multitudinous ways.
And it isn't just the women that Tilly helps while she's home. Her design skills and fashion savvy are put to good use for one man, Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), who helps her with her sewing. As a man who enjoys dressing up in women's clothing, Farrat doesn't fit in to his town's mold for masculinity. His love of women's fashion leaves him a pariah when it comes to 1950s manhood, but by helping Tilly with her projects, not only does he get to engage with the tangible things that make him happy, but he has personal realizations as well. Allowing himself to interact with the fashions and fabrics that he loves helps Farrat see that he doesn't have to hide who he is, nor does he have to feel bad about not fitting in.
One by one, the townsfolk find themselves liberated by Tilly's creations. It's easy to say that they just feel better about themselves because of the attractiveness of what they're wearing, but the results make it evident that the issues at play are more than just confidence. The outfits represent bucking tradition, rejecting an oppressive idea of modesty, and being comfortable in one's own skin.
In The Dressmaker, fashion stands in for freedom, something that even in 2016 resonates strongly. Body confidence and positivity might be common topics of discussion now, but the '50s-set Dressmaker embraces them as well by featuring a variety of body types among the women who are fit for Tilly's dresses. And sadly, the film also acts as a reminder that while a new fashion look can certainly alter one's confidence, it doesn't necessarily make for a permanent change. William may love Trudie, for instance, but why didn't he love her before her fabulous makeover? And would his love fade were she to cease wearing Tilly's glorious clothes? I hope not, but it's possible, as despite wearing Tilly's gorgeous outfits, the townsfolks' skepticism and scandal-hungry ways (spoiler alert!) largely return by the end of the movie. And that, in essence, is the real message of The Dressmaker: that a makeover can build confidence, represent freedom, and even give a person the boost he or she needs to stand up for themselves, but a person's insides must change along with it in order to achieve true beauty.
Images: Broad Green Pictures