The Dressmaker

Duffy & Snellgrove

The Dressmaker is an Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute couture. Sometime in the 1950s, Tilly Dunnage, a Paris couturier, returns to her home town of Dungatar having been expelled as a ten year old. Her intention is to visit her mad mother Molly then leave. Instead, she stays, colliding with her past and exacting revenge upon the people who pilloried her. When she does depart, she leaves behind a town ruined, and another past to flee.

Rosalie Ham’s first novel, The Dressmaker has now been made into a film starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth and Hugo Weaving.

Worldwide film première, 2015 Toronto International Film Festival 
Film rights awarded, Film Art Media (2010)
Finalist, State Library of Victoria’s Most Popular Novel (2007)
Shortlisted, The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction (2001)
Shortlisted, Book of the Year Award – Booksellers Association (2001)
Featured, CAE Book Club List
Prescribed, VCE Literature List
Bestseller, The Age Fiction List

Review

“Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker was one of those rare first novels that arrived virtually unannounced…and gathered momentum largely by word of mouth to become a bestseller and book club favourite. Ham writes delightfully rich set pieces and descriptive passages…Ham’s eye for the absurd, the comical and the poignant are highly tuned. It is a first novel to be proud of, and definitely one to savour and enjoy. ”
Diana Simmonds, The Weekend Australian

“A writer with strong visual gifts and a pleasingly sour sense of humour.”
Michelle Griffin, The Age

“A feral version of Sea Change”
Sydney Morning Herald

Readers Notes

Dressmaking, a Weapon (originally published in Sainsbury’s newsletter)

In an article recently Kate Winslet spoke of her preparation for her role as a dressmaker saying she’d, ‘always wanted to sew,’ which is pleasing because the story of The Dressmaker began at a sewing machine, and now it’s come full circle.

My mother sewed, as did most mothers in the 1950s and 60s, but my mum was particularly good, so when a ball or football club dance approached, often I’d arrive home from school to find a pattern and a few yards of folded fabric on the kitchen table. My job was to trim the pattern to size then hold the pin tin while Mum adjusted frocks for hopeful women. Customers often declared, ‘I want to look better than so-and-so,’ and Mum would raise the darts or lower the waistline or create a diaphanous insert for a spotty décolletage. I remember one woman standing with her arms out, Mum working her way around the armholes.

‘I’ll bring the shoulder down,’ Mum said. ‘Give you a sweet little cap sleeve.’

‘I like my arms bare. It’s cooler,’ she replied.

My mother reached for another pin, I looked at the arm. Her flesh was like sago pudding, and at the top of the shoulder it lifted the fabric where it burst white and moist either side of grubby bra strap. A cap sleeve would have been a perfect disguise.

My mother went down on her knees and the customer, watching her pin the hem in the mirror, said, ‘Bit shorter. I want it above my knees. Mini skirts are all the go these days.’

We looked at her knees, or rather, we looked for her knees. We identified a kind of kink, a vague fold where the leg bent, and Mum folded the hem accordingly.

The customer returned a week later and wrestled her frock over her head and tugged it into place. She inspected her reflection, saw someone young and slim looking back and said, ‘Gaw-gess.’ She paid my mother less than she deserved and we watched her leave, her bottom shifting the floral fabric like puppies under a rug. ‘Another happy customer,’ Mum said.

Most women walked away with their new frock over their arm, their chins higher, shoulders a little straighter, and we knew their sense of pleased importance would last weeks beyond the ball. As I wrote The Dressmaker, I considered my themes and remembered that line, ‘I want to look better…’. I pondered its power and how costumes could dramatise vanity. Then came ideas of jealousy and revenge. These recognizable elements in familiar characters provoked empathy from readers, and so The Dressmaker is still found on bookshelves today. And now it’s on cinema screens with the sublime Kate Winslet as the dressmaker. As Tilly, Kate creates the couture for the warm and nasty characters of Dungatar, but beneath the fabulous frocks, imperfections lie, and Tilly’s disguises exacerbate these flaws, and so there’s bigotry, ambition and competition, and thus themes of acceptance and tolerance. And there is love, but love is supported and subverted by Tilly and her Singer. Just as the machine draws all threads together it brings them unstitched.

Kate Winslet and the artists who adapted my novel to film understood exactly why the costumes were vital, and now when Kate

Winslet sits behind her sewing machine she knows what she’s doing too.

Readers Notes

The Dressmaker 

by Rosalie Ham, Duffy and Snellgrove, Sydney, 2000

READERS NOTES 

The Dressmaker is a novel engaged with the ideas of tolerance and acceptance, vanity and ambition. It’s also about a community – how it functions and its darker aspects. Dungatar nurtures hypocrisy, jealousy, lies, exclusion, gossip, hate, and in the case of Tilly Dunnage, vengeance. The Dressmaker tells a familiar story with recognizable characters yet nothing is predictable. The humour is black and the collision of tragedy and comedy generates irony, and this is where meaning sits.

Dungatar is a fictional township in rural Australia, a ‘gothic’ place populated by weird characters like the spying, roaming Beula Harridene. There is a dark and mysterious cottage atop it’s one and only hill, a ‘mad woman’ who lives as a recluse there, the burning rubbish tip beneath and the pervading dominance of events from the past. Many of Dungatars characters meet a macabre, premature yet humorous demise. Acceptance into Dungatar’s community is dictated by those who are accepted, and you can only be accepted if your morals suit Dungatar society. Yet as in most small communities where ever they are (staff rooms, urban streets, sporting clubs), ultimately people unite and are loyal. In the case of Dungatar the locals unite in their exclusion of Molly Dunnage and her daughter Tilly who are therefore at the centre of the community, their focus. There are dualities in truth or, how things appear. This motif extends to costume as language, fashion as disguise. Secrets are power and therefore, a weakness but in Dungatar, the equilibrium is overseen by Evan Pettyman, Mayor.

The story hinges on three tragedies. The first is the tragic lie surrounding the circumstances of Tilly Dunnage’s birth, the second is the death of Stewart Pettyman who symbolizes Dungatar’s hypocritical failure to accept the truth of themselves and to accept the Dunnages. The third is again to do with acceptance…the failure to accept Tilly Dunnage and her relationship with their football hero and brilliant full forward. These incidents cemented Tilly’s reputation as a cursed murderess. But the lie that Tilly is cursed is proved wrong when Teddy McSwiney defies her plea not to commit a risky act, yet does so. The outcome proves that people are responsible for their own actions…and that it is not Tilly’s fault that terrible things happen. It is the fear and failure of those around her, their preoccupation with hierarchy, bigotry, prejudice, bullying and competition.

In the end the people of Dungatar bring themselves suitably unstitched. Their vanity, the way costume and couture disguised their physical flaws yet enhanced their personality flaws and their ignorance sees them razed and broken. Only insight and introspection can save them. Tilly, however, leaves the town triumphant and restored, yet with another past to escape…

THE DRESSMAKER 

BACKGROUND 

In the 1950s rural Australia was a conservative place. The ruling Government were conservative and fashion was plain, discreet and chaste. An exotic Sunday meal consisted of roast chicken and trifle. Waitresses earned about £5/- a week including meals and a gallon of petrol cost three shillings. The Pressure Cooker had just been invented. Fast food outlets did not really exist apart from fish and chip shops and the local Milk Bar. Television was something only heard about through news on the radio and it was only introduced towards the end of the decade in September 1956, broadcasting a mere 3 hours a day. During the decade, Australia’s greatest comedian, Roy “Mo” Rene had passed away (1954), a month later the radio play by Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood hit the airways. Radio hits were I’ve got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts, Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. Until late in the decade Bill Hayley and the Comets – billed as “The Nations Rockingest Rhythm Group,’ – rocketed up the US charts with Rock Around The Clock. Kingsley Amis novel Lucky Jim introduced the new comic hero to the readers of Australia, a comic hero who detested high culture.

Divorce was a shameful thing and there were no support services for divorcees with children. Robert Menzies was the prime minister. The population as a whole looked to England as the mother country, and Queen Elizabeth II as their leader. Australia was slowly emerging from the restrictions of war. Drive-in picture theatres had just reached our shores and musicals, such as South Pacific and Kiss me Kate were making their way from America and England. But the second world war had also meant that many people’s lives and values had undergone some challenges, and the society was reluctant the accept the slow change the period was experiencing. Increasing numbers of post war immigrants were arriving. For the first time, women stood defiantly at War Memorials along with the men to mourn their brothers, fathers, sons and husbands. Our currency was still pounds, shillings and pence (Decimal currency introduced 14th February 1966) and pre-packaged food had not yet advanced beyond packet tea, custard powder or washing powder. Buying flour or sugar at a shop meant the attendant weighed and bagged it for customers and there was no such thing as self-serve or supermarkets as yet.

The Dressmaker

THEMES 

Fashion in the 1950s was subject to post World War II restrictions. Cotton print button-through frocks, gloves and hats – prim, pretty, practical and plain – were the norm. The lack of imagination and the construct of clothes that covered most of the body suited the uncreative ladies of Dungatar.

Then Tilly Dunnage arrived and introduced style, quality, variety and fashion…and the lives of the ladies of Dungatar were transformed.

Initially, through Tilly’s dressmaking and couture skills a “level playing field” is created – every one can be equally well dressed and feel wonderful for the first time. An association with art through well crafted fashion is created. Until then, Sergeant Farrat was the only person in Dungatar attempting creativity. Vanity, ambition, competition and jealousy escalate with the rising quality of lush fabrics that arrive in tea chests from Europe addressed to Tilly; Rich brocades, daring broderie anglaise, exquisite French muslin, diaphanous organzas trimmed with lace from Brussels, and bold jaquards in colours never seen before. Tilly wields her exquisite European draping and cutting skills, her advanced ideas and design ideas, and thus, her creations are adventurous – paletots, mitred edges and shifts. The physical flaws of the ladies of Dungatar are disguised and competition escalates thus undermining the fragile relationships within the town. The world outside Dungatar – a sophisticated world feared by the women of Dungatar – is amplified.

They try to match the real world by forming a social club, but all it does is emphasize their bigotry and snobbery and this in turn hastens their self destruction. Competition reached the other towns, until Tilly suggests staging a play – Macbeth, the cursed Scottish play about ambition and revenge – where people’s true skills can be laid bare in the envelope of their own narcissism and exhibitionism.

Landscape 

Dungatar is a fictional town in rural Australia, small and isolated, yet at the heart of the district because the grain silos are there and neighbouring towns transport their wheat to Dungatar to be stored and freighted.

Beneath the gaze of The Hill, where Molly and Tilly live, the rest of the town is laid out, with the houses gathered into the bend of the creek, ‘like freckles against a nose.’ Mad Molly and Tilly become the focus of the townsfolk, uniting them in hatred as they watch up at the outcasts. Like the wheat silos, The Hill dominates the landscape. Both are the backdrop to turning points in the book, and both provide a vantage point to look down upon the township of Dungatar. Paradoxically, the community is joined together by its competitiveness in the form of the football competition, and much of the group activity in the town is centred around the team, either at the pub, which is a hub for the community, or at the oval where the battles for the cup are waged, which is seen in the book ringed by cars, an eye looking up at the Hill.

In this small community, a particular perception of what is normal and acceptable evolves and is unconsciously adhered to. Change is threatening, yet within the community of Dungatar, the eccentricities and odd behaviours that have become extreme are accepted. Although everybody knows what everybody else is doing in Dungatar, they turn a blind eye to other people’s foibles (adultery, wife-bashing, embezzlement), except in the case of Tilly and her mother, ‘Mad Molly’. The town and Tilly watch each other. Dungatar itself is the focus for neighbouring towns, Winyerp and Itheca, rivals in football, and life.

Naming 

MYRTLE, Myrtaceae. Myrtus communis, Common shrub with dark shiny evergreen leaves, white scented flowers, black berries.

In Greek legend, Myrrha was a favourite priestess of Venus, who transformed her into this fragrant evergreen to preserve her from too ardent a suitor. Venus wore a myrtle wreath when Paris awarded her the Golden Apple for beauty, and this herb was planted around all temples dedicated to her. Representing Venus and love, myrtle is often woven into bridal wreaths, and the Romans displayed it lavishly at feasts, weddings and celebrations. An Arabian story tells of Irmam, banished from paradise, bringing a sprig of myrtle from the bower where he declared his love to Eve, and Shakespeare planned that Venus and Adonis should meet under myrtle shade. In 1640, the apothecary John Parkinson wrote, “we nourish Myrtles with great care for their beautiful aspect, sweet scent and rarity.”

The Complete Book of Herbs, by Lesley Bremness.

R.D. Press, Surry Hills, 2010.

© Dorling Kindersly Ltd, London.1988.

* Tilly changed her name to seek a new, painless identity and forget her past. Gertrude copied her and changed her name to Trudy, thinking it was more in keeping with her new (married) status and might perhaps erase her own past as a grocer’s daughter

Molly – based on the colloquial term, moll. Girlfriend or mistress of a gangster, thief, surfie, bikie or prostitute. Molly was none of these things, just accused of being so.

Dunnage – mats, brushwood, grating, etc stowed under or among cargo to prevent wetting and chafing; (colloq.) miscellaneous baggage. Dunnage family also make top hats in London, UK.

Bundle – Mr Bundle was named so because he dropped his – it took a fall into his cellar to make him realise he had to abstain from alcohol. Also he and Purl are closely ‘’bound together”. 9

Ruth and Prudence Dimm are called Dimm, only because they hold two potentially influentual and learned positions in Dungatar – teacher and post mistress/bank manager/telephone exchange

Mr Almanac is called Mr Almanac because he is keeper of the towns’ medical events and histories, he reads the way people live their lives and what they do to themselves

Lois Pickett picks her scabs and blackheads.

Big gentle Bobby Pickett used to be picked on at school so his sister Nancy, the strong masculine type, picked on the kids who did it

Beula Harridene – is a harriden

Septimus Crescant because he is in all ways flatly orientated – flat head, flat earther

McSwineys – reference to swine, reputedly smelly dirty farm animal but in fact clean (if pig farmers keep their pens clean). They are carefree creatures who love food and a mud baths, have large litters and are highly intelligent.

Scotty Pullet – a Pullet is a small chicken and Scotty hid behind his Watermelon firewater

Sergeant Horatio Farrat – play on the word faggot, (meaning homosexual, which he wasn’t) but also a faggot is an effect gained by fancy stitching cloth, also a bundle of sticks tied together and used for fuel for fires (especially for burning witches at the stake in medieval times)

Horatius was a hero of Roman legend who defended the bridge over the Tiger against the Etruscans

Dungatar – from the word dung, colloqial for excrement

Winyerp – threat to win

Ithica – Ithaca, Greek island where soldiers built the Trojan Horse to use to infiltrate and conquer Troy during the Trojan War

Characterisation 

Dungatar hosts a set of familiar archetypal characters – a barmaid, gossip, sexual deviant, crippled old lady, ‘mad woman’ – whose idiosyncrasies are accentuated in the isolation of a rural landscape. The people of Dungatar are parochial, and in their isolation, boundaries of normal behaviour are altered, but accepted (eg, the flat-earther, Septimus). Hypocrisy, bigotry, prejudice, vanity and malice are amplified, as is their loyalty to their own. They hose their footpaths and polish their windows to hide a murky undertone and live with the threat of the asylum in Winyerp – if you are too different or threaten the towns ‘normalcy’ (eg Barney), the Doctor from Winyerp and his friend councillor Pettyman will see to it that you go to the asylum. Otherwise, you can join the McSwineys and Molly on the fringe.

When Tilly returns to Dungatar 20 years after her expulsion as a child, the worst aspects of the people of Dungatar surface. Molly and Tilly act as outcasts, (“everyone needs someone to hate”), yet are the focus of the community, the one thing that unites the townspeople, and brings out their loyalty to each other. They stick together against the two women on The Hill.

Sergeant Farrat is mediator, fence-sitter and peace keeper, included yet apart from the town in his role of law keeper. This suits him, as it provides him with the privacy he needs to pursue his own interests behind closed doors.

The people of the town – Prudence and Ruth Dimm, and Nancy, Bobby and Lois Pickett, Reginald, Faith and Hamish O’Brien, Beula, Purl and Fred etc – represent hypocrisy, bigotry, envy, lust and jealousy which diminishes their ability to stand on their own. They follow fears and trends and do not think for themselves. They both look up to and follow Elsbeth Beaumont, yet at the same time criticise her for her snobbery. They are reluctant to let go of things from the past (eg steam trains) and embrace change. They strive to win – football, the drama eisteddfod, striving to confirm their imagined self importance. People keep silent about Purl’s ‘past’ even thought they resent that she has ‘kept her figure’ when most others have not: to expose other peoples sins is to risk those people exposing your own.

Apart from the McSwineys (the town’s recyclers and hard workers), the only citizen of Dungatar who demonstrates kindness and empathy is the character Bobby Pickett, who loves animals. At the start of the story the footballers mention Bobby has lost his Jack Russell – ‘died in the line of duty (snake bite) – so his sister Nancy has one sent by train, and at the end, during one clash in reversals, Bobby becomes concerned, inquiring, ‘where’s Spot?’

Elsbeth and William, the upper class rural folk, are suffering the indignity of bad management and a fall from their elevated position as wool and grain growers. Australia no longer rides “on the sheep’s back,” and primary producers are no longer the backbone of the economy. The Beaumonts are snobs and sadly try to maintain ‘appearances.’ William represents a certain kind of decency but is weak, oppressed by the ambition of his mother and wife. He never gets his new tractor, but he never fights for it, choosing to conspire with Mona in punishing his mother by bringing the residents of Dungatar home to her when their town is razed. Mona, outwardly a slightly hen-pecked idiot, rose above the towns people emerging stronger when she found a true and equally needy friend in Lesley. Pretension and snobbery lie at the heart of Lesley’s acceptance into the Beaumont fold as equine expert and driver, but his claims to past talents and noteworthiness are only ever recognised as false by Mona.

Gertrude sees a ‘better’ future for herself in William, so seduces him (via the wardrobe Tilly creates), manipulating him to marry her. Power and ambition play havoc with her inherent ambition and Gertrude becomes a casualty of herself.

The McSwineys are a true family, Mum, Dad and innumerable kids, all close, all united in their love and protection of Barney. They are named after generations of Kings, Queens, Prince and Princesses, and are useful, dignified people, the good souls that life doesn’t treat fairly. Tilly finds solace with Barney and Teddy.

Councillor Pettyman is a corrupt predator and sexual deviant living behind an image of good Councillor, pillar of Dungatar society. Aptly, it crumbles. His wife, Marigold is a neurotic, nervy woman who obsessively cleans the house and employs emotional blackmail to get her own way, at the same time ignoring the nature of her relationship with her philandering husband. Fate (and guidance from Tilly) eventually sees Marigold ruin Evan then Marigold gets to indulge her madness in the sanatorium with Beula.

Together, the entire town become victims of their own greed, vanity, and Tilly’s expert prompting of fate. They are left homeless and bankrupt in all ways, as was Tilly. They must seek refuge in the home of the town snob, Elsbeth Beaumont.

Revenge Tragedy – everything is in place for tragic events to occur. A small almost forgotten town floating in a sea of golden wheat, flat, except for The Hill where a mad woman lives. Bizarre and nasty characters inhabit Dungatar, small minded, petty people. The decent, hard working battlers – the McSwineys and the Dunnages – are few and live as fringe dwellers. The local policeman, Sergeant Farrat, gently treads a middle line as he has secrets that must not be used as ammunition against him. A corrupt and cruel Councillor who happens to be a sexual deviant as well, heads the community. The townsfolk all muddle along in the insular and isolated town until Tilly returns, uniting them even more, throwing them closer in fearful, paranoid isolation. Their loyalty to each other sees them emerge as a team representing hate and jealousy. It is these qualities, combined with ambition and vanity that causes the funny and macabre events the prompt the town to fall victim to themselves. Tilly is given her just revenge.

Like Macbeth, vanity, ambition, corruption, fear and malice bring those who practice it undone, and Like Lady Macbeth, Gertrude Beaumont, who contrived to marry into wealth and an upper class, goes mad.

Discussion points – 

– the ongoing feud between Septimus and Hamish, yet Septimus never mentions Hamish’s wife’s affair with the local butcher, who “pays” the locals for their silence via donations of sausages for football fund raisers

– the relationship between Nancy and Ruth that is completely ignored.

– what is acceptable? What do people have to be and do to be considered “one of us.”

– – Teddy’s death. Who caused it – Tilly? The townspeople? Why?

– – gossip and how it can ruin people’s lives if you let it bother you.

– – secrets, which ones are kept -The identity of Tilly’s father, Ruth and Nancy’s relationship, Sergeant Farrat’s cross dressing, Purl’s ‘past’ and which secrets are shared – Molly Dunnages out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Tilly’s overseas mail.

– Manipulation – Gertrude’s manipulation of William, Elsbeth’s attempt to oppress Mona

– cruelty, morals

– watching – the town watching UP to the women on The Hill, who look DOWN on the town

– how in extreme locations, ‘normalcy’ is peculiar to the common denominator. The socially acceptable universal boundaries of what is acceptable are skewed, stretched and shrunk depending on the situation or people involved

– how the town lacks compassion, (for Irma Almanac, Molly, Barney) and reasons why this could be? (fear?)

TIMELINE, Tilly 

1915- Tilly born

1925 – expelled from Dungatar, aged ten

1925-1932 – Reformatory/school in Melbourne

1932 or 1933 – Tilly worked in clothing factory, saved money

1933 or 34 – Tilly 19 or 20, to London, saved money in dull, cold, London

Then to Spain – light, warm, outdoors, discovers Balenciaga

1937 – Spanish Civil Way, Balenciaga and Tilly to Paris. Tilly gets a job with Madame Vionnet as ‘assistant’, perhaps seamstress?

1939 Mme Vionnet (about 60 years old) closes her shop (WWll, 1939-45), recommends Tilly to Balenciaga

1950, Tilly to Dungatar

1951 Balenciaga launches his ‘sack dress’

The Dressmaker

Take an isolated, rural community, cast it with stock characters –local gossip, Shire President who is a sexual deviant, cross-dressing policeman, nosy shopkeepers and bitchy snob, promiscuous barmaid 17

and adulterer butcher, nasty teacher, failed prodigal son, scheming grocers daughter, football hero, scandalous mad old woman and beautiful, talented outcast. Add, secrets, lies, bigotry, vanity, competition, tragedy, love, hate and loads of fabulous Haute Couture, then throw in the rampant egos of the Social Club Theatrical Society rehearsing Macbeth for the district Drama Eisteddfod, and what you get is a microcosm of life.

Rosalie Ham’s rural upbringing provided the basis for The Dressmaker, her first novel, and Rosalie’s travels to Europe and South America confirmed that small community all over the world share similarities. The only difference is that some were worse than others and different words are used to speak the same language.

The Dressmaker is a revenge comedy set in a small town called Dungatar in the wheat belt or rural Australia in 1950 and offers a skewed spin on hypocrisy and bigotry, ideas of tolerance, acceptance, love, hate and Haute Couture.

Rosalie talks to schools about the parallels in The Dressmaker to real life, the cursed Scottish play, the cursed lead protagonist and the consequences of the ‘mistake’ her mother made. Was it her fault? Was she treated fairly and if not, why not? Who’s fault was it?

If the local had accepted Mad Molly and Tilly, if they had recognised their own hypocrisy, would they still have a football hero and would they have had to endure a corrupt, evil shire president for thirty years?

Why did they turn a blind eye to Sergeant Farrat’s penchant for frocks and Reginald bloods affair with Faith O’Brian, yet ostracize Tilly?

The only tall building on the landscape are the backdrops for all that it bad in Dungatar, why?

In insisting on wearing beautiful clothes did the women of Dungatar think they could hide all their flaws?

Was Trudy type-cast in Macbeth? Why?

What was the significance of leaving the entire town in a razed landscape dressed in Baroque costumes?

Is there anyone good in Dungatar? Who are they and why?

Did Tilly seek revenge or redemption? Is revenge a good thing and did the Dungatar inhabitants deserve their end?

The Dressmaker has been described as ‘Perversely funny’ and ‘warm and nasty.’ It is an engaging read telling the story of Tilly Dunnage who returns to Dungatar after twenty years away to confront her past, resolve her guilt and visit her mad mother, Molly. The Dressmaker was short listed for the NSW Premiers Literary Christina Stead prize for fiction (2001), Vision Australia’s Braille Book of the Year award and Australian Booksellers Association Book of the Year (2000), has sold 19

well and has been optioned for a feature film. Through her travels to book clubs, book shops and literary events, Tilly Dunnage’s followers – in excess of 20,000 of them – have assured Rosalie they can’t wait to see in wide screen colour, Mad Molly and Tilly Dunnage act out events described in The Dressmaker. In the end, the nasty, petty tiny-minded people of Dungatar stage the cursed Scottish play and in doing so, bring themselves unstitched through their vanity, intolerance, competitive nature and misguided loyalty to each other.

The Dressmaker adds to a genre of Australian fiction that might be roughly described as regional novels. With the eponymous dressmaker there is a strong and carefully drawn out central narrative, and like several novels in this genre it is set in the past, in this case carefully undefined but almost certainly the early fifties.

It is a background similar to Rosalie Ham’s own. In an interview she says of herself, ‘I grew up in a small country town just like any other country town – there were the usual types: the town gossip, the sexual deviant, the secret cross maker, the snob – and there is a smattering of hypocrisy and bigotry, as in any community, but there is also great loyalty and camaraderie. In this case, the dramatization of the story sees that unity flipped and turned against the unaccepted people in the community.’ The sense the novel conveys is of a deep familiarity with the locale and the cross-section of townspeople that it introduces to us. The writing is beautifully impassive, unjudging, low-key but with a quietly bizarre humour that runs through it. In one sense, it is surprising that 14 film producers vied for the rights to film it, since I would think its apparently sprawling narrative would defy anyone except perhaps Robert Altman to produce a coherent movie out of it; in the course of the novel we meet and to some extent get to know over forty of the town’s citizens.

Then Sue Maslin, also from Rosalie’s home town, made the film in 2015. It was released in 2016 and made over $20 million at the Australian box office and continues to do well in many countries. It is a story where comedy and tragedy collide to create irony, and this is what makes the story unforgettable.

The basic situation of The Dressmaker is one of the most familiar ones in all Western narrative – the return of a stranger from out of the past to his/her early environment. Jocelyn Morrhouse, who adapted the film to screen (and directed, called it ‘Un forgiven with a sewing machine”) The protagonist returns to the town from which she came and which she was forced to leave in disgrace, the reason for which only slowly emerges. Having constructed a new identity for herself (symbolised in her change of name from Myrtle to Tilly) she is forced to confront the hostility of many of the townspeople but most importantly to confront herself and her past, and attempt to exorcise the guilt she feels. Just as she is on the point of doing so tragedy strikes again and Myrtle/Tilly is once again condemned to isolation – except perhaps that there is a certain sense of freedom at the end which goes against the conventions of the genre. In the demise of the love interest in the story, the ‘curse’ Till fells she is tied to is released. She understands that people make their own decision, and accidents happen. She is not responsible for other peoples tragedies….and is liberated. 21

The central motif of the novel is announced in the title. It opens with a rather startling epigraph that says, ‘The sense of being well-dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquillity which religion is powerless to bestow’ and each of the novel’s four sections is headed by the name and definition of a particular material – gingham, shantung, felt and brocade. In fact, The Dressmaker has a lot to do with clothes. It examined costume as language, costume as disguise and clothing to exacerbate vanity and other personality flaws like competition, ambition and betrayal. (Karen Kissane in an interview mentioned previously says the novel that it ‘is a kind of Lord of the Flies in frocks’) though in some cases Ham shows the townspeople quite sympathetically.

Footnotes 

(1) Rosalie Ham, The Dressmaker. Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney, 2000.

(2) These references to the author’s own comments are taken from Rosalie Ham’s replies, sent by email on 19 December, 2001, to a list of questions I asked her. They are reproduced by the generous permission of the author. Of course it is necessary for the reader to understand that once the work of art enters the public domain, the author becomes only one more critical/interpretive voice. Nevertheless, it is a uniquely valuable one.

(3) Karen Kissane, “An accidental author”, The Age, 27 March 2001.

(4) Ibid. 

(5) Ibid. 

(6) Diana Simmonds, “Perversely Attractive”, Weekend Australian, October 21-22, 2000.