The Dressmaker (2000) by Rosalie Ham
Warning: this review contains slight spoilers
By far my favourite read of 2016 was The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham which is, at its simplest, an Australian Gothic novel. I read it in large chunks over a long weekend, becoming fully immersed in the dusty town of Dungatar, its gossiping inhabitants, and the story of Tilly, the cursed seamstress who destroys them.
Tilly Dunnage returns to the tiny rural town of Dungatar to take care of her mad, neglected mother, excluded from the town years before for being an unmarried mother. The suspicious, gossiping locals are soon aflame with self-righteous anger; Tilly was sent away from the town as a child after being suspected of killing the shire councillor’s son. Her arrival reignites the dark mystery that the town had buried, and as she nurses her mother back to health she reacquaints herself with the quirky, nasty characters who terrorised her childhood and who stayed and stagnated in Dungatar.
But Tilly is not without her own resources. In the twenty-something years since she left she became a highly trained seamstress, working for designers in the fashion houses of Europe. She slowly wins over the locals with her talent for creating breathtaking couture, and is herself gradually won over by Teddy McSwiney, a fellow Dungatar outcast whose family is tolerated for their role as garbage collectors. They fall in love, despite Tilly’s reluctance, and just as they are on the verge of embracing a future together tragedy strikes, and Tilly’s belief in her own personal curse is reaffirmed.
Throughout the novel the secret lives of the townsfolk of Dungatar are also revealed, and it is soon clear that Tilly and her mother are scapegoats for the town’s fear of judgment for their own lives. In rural Australia in the stifling nineteen-fifties, the townspeople’s adultery, homosexuality, domestic violence, cross-dressing and mental illness kept them in fear for their own acceptance among themselves. Towards the end of the novel each of their personal lives unravels in its own darkly spectacular way, and it is their various undoings that truly make The Dressmaker a gothic novel.
On the surface this is a story of a woman returning to a place that hates her, and of her perseverance and talent in the face of gossip, judgment, exile and even death. Under the surface, however, it is the story of women being scapegoated in a society that will only tolerate them for their material worth; in this case, creating beautiful fashion. At first Tilly panders to the people of Dungatar, working hard to create beautiful couture that they only value for the way it changes others’ perceptions of them; the art and talent that goes into her creations is entirely lost on them. But, when another person in the town dies and Tilly is again blamed for it, she shakes off her compliance and strides into the realm of wild women and witches.
Witches are a recurring theme in The Dressmaker. Tilly’s mother is often called a witch, living alone in a hut on the hill above the town. Her status as an unmarried mother also marks her as promiscuous, another unforgivable quality associated with wild women and witches. Tilly considers herself cursed, unable to find happiness, bringing discord, destruction and death to those around her in the manner of a fairy tale witch. She even quotes the witches of Hamlet to some of the townspeople, reciting the spell they cast to drive Hamlet mad. And it is only when she embraces her perceived witch-self that Tilly comes into her own, leaving behind the curse that she felt ruled her life and casting chaos over the town of Dungatar. In the end she takes the unaccepted road, embracing her exclusion, living wildly and unapologetically, and destroying the rubbish that stood in the way of her happiness her whole life.
The Dressmaker a straightforward story with a cast of fascinating characters written in simple prose. If you have only seen the film I urge you to read the book. The peripheral characters in the town of Dungatar are barely introduced in the film; their stories are laid out in bare, gritty detail in the book, and their motivations throughout the story are much clearer. Having said that, I also think that the film is a brilliant depiction of the work, just, as with all books-turned-into-films, approaching the story from a different angle and with different motivations for its audience.