Historically, Hollywood hasn't exactly been a mecca for body positive and body confident messages. While it's easy to count on a hand or two the amount of films produced that promote body confidence, it's a rather impossible feat to count all the films that suggest that women should want and strive for a thin body, clothes that society deems appropriate, and personal style that is somehow conservative without being prudish and sexy without being too risqué. Every now and then, a film comes along looking to change this all too common narrative for the better — but too often, these films don't get the attention they deserve. Kate Winslet's new film, The Dressmaker, aims to change all that.
"I loved the writing of the whole movie and I loved the story," Winslet tells me, while sitting on a plush couch next to me at Manhattan's Crosby Hotel. The room is beautifully decorated, as most rooms in five star Manhattan hotels are, but it's difficult to focus on that as Winslet speaks — her ability to command a room is entrancing. "[My character Tilly's] clothes really are her armor. You know, she's given herself a whole personality, a whole lease of life. Confidence, everything. Her sense of self is absolutely bound up in her clothes, and not only that, but she made them. There's something really important about that, and that sense of just how crucial clothing and experimenting with clothes can be, particularly for women and for young women. I love that side of her."
It's easy to feel intimidated in Winslet's presence. She glows in an almost ethereal way, and she exudes a confidence that's nearly palpable. Any intimidation melts away, though, with her warm greeting and her gracious demeanor. This is perhaps why Winslet is the perfect person for The Dressmaker: She's unapologetically herself. Her character, Tilly — though left vulnerable and hurt by a childhood trauma involving a classmate's death and her being sent away from her mother at a young age — is the same. While the residents of her small 1950s Australian outback town initially gawk at her clothes, which she designed herself while working for Paris-based fashion houses like Dior, Givenchy, and Balenciaga, Tilly remains confident in herself, and spreads that confidence to other women in the town by encouraging them to be their best selves. In one particular instance, Tilly even creates a new wardrobe for an old elementary school classmate named Gertrude (Sarah Snook), whose confidence is at an all-time low and manages to not only make her feel good about herself, but also good enough to feel that she's worthy of love.
Though the film is, technically, a revenge film — Tilly is seeking vengeance for being wrongfully accused of murdering her classmate as well as being sent away from her home as a child because of it — plot points like the one between Tilly and Gertrude stand out the most.
"What [Tilly] does for the townsfolk, just totally changing their perception of themselves through her creations and what they wear," Winslet says. "[It] really draws out great qualities in all of those women, which they otherwise would never really have seen."
The Dressmaker's numerous messages haven't gone unnoticed. An article by Curtis M. Wong in The Huffington Post praised not only the buzz the Jocelyn Moorhouse-directed film (which is based on a novel by Rosalie Ham) is receiving, but also its inclusion of a man (Sergeant Farrat, portrayed by Hugo Weaving), who enjoys dressing in women's clothing and doesn't receive judgment from anyone, particularly Tilly, for it. Curve Magazine also commends this storyline, with author Merryn Johns writing, "It's also rare to see a cross-dressing character portrayed in a positive light: Hugo Weaving (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) gives a tender and endearing performance as the local police sergeant and fabric fetishist who assists Tilly in her quest for justice." Curve also praised the film's dedication to promoting body confidence in the same piece: "Using her trusty Singer sewing machine, Tilly literally makes over her hometown's downtrodden and prudish wallflowers with a design to converting them into acceptance."
The film promotes acceptance in other ways as well: There's even a romantic storyline between Winslet's character and one portrayed by Liam Hemsworth. Though their characters are meant to be similar ages, The Dressmaker still achieves becoming one of the most memorable instances of Hollywood turning the older actor/younger actress cliché on its head by pairing Winslet with a man who is 14 years younger. This is something, Winslet says, that she barely thought about: "I literally had no idea, which is great."
Winslet agrees that the film's body confidence messages shine through the most, and states that's what made her comfortable on set and feel more connected to Tilly.
"They were very much real people, and I feel very at home in those kinds of environments," Winslet explains. "I just was very drawn to the fact that they're all real people, knowing that my shape really lends itself to that particular period just made me feel really great about myself." Her time in Hollywood, she says, assisted her there.
"I so love being my age and I know that I feel stronger than ever or I feel more comfortable in myself than ever before," she says. "Also, I've learnt a lot about beauty, and where it comes from, and sex appeal, and sexiness. I know about where those things come from in a person and where they come from within myself."
Additionally, Winslet says that director Moorhouse — who also directed 1991's Proof — inspired her portrayal of Tilly to be the best it could be. "She's a very daring filmmaker and really loves telling a story her way, without being judged or without feeling like she has to pigeonhole it, or make it something that's conventional or works for a mass market," Winslet says. "No, she just absolutely wanted to tell that tale in her own Jocelyn way, and she really does."
Whether The Dressmaker will truly become the biggest film to subvert all of the tired clichés that suggest women will only ever be confident and happy with themselves if they're thin remains to be seen — the film is hitting U.S. theaters on Sept. 23. Either way, though, Winslet's role in the film is definitely a large step in the right direction.
Image: Universal Pictures (2)