Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

A review by Nalini Haynes

Tilly Dunnage, the dressmaker, returns to a small Australian town in the 1950s to look after her mother, colloquially known as ‘Mad Molly’.

The locals despise Molly, who was mistress to respected Councilman Pettyman. Their loathing of Tilly is far worse because of her involvement, as a ten year old, in the death of Pettyman’s son. Without a hearing, the sergeant of the police, Sergeant Farrat, sent Tilly to Melbourne where a mysterious benefactor paid her expenses, helping her grow into an accomplished dressmaker who travelled the world.

While Tilly cares for her mother, including spring cleaning their little house on the hill near the rubbish tip, the locals continue their daily lives — their vicious gossip and callous treatment of one another — with malicious gossip about Tilly adding spice to their mundane lives.

Teddy McSwiney, the town hero for his success on the football field in spite of his despised family, pursues Tilly. Although the town loves and adores him, this does not extend to his family nor his love interest.

Once Tilly finishes spring cleaning, she starts creating Parisian fashions for the women of the town, transforming their exteriors and raising their ambitions.

The Dressmaker is broken into three acts: arrival and cleaning, dressmaking and how that impacts social interactions, then the final act of which I shall not speak in case you haven’t seen the movie.

Rosalie Ham perfectly captures the essence of a rural Australian town, timeless in its nature. Ham’s observations of people everywhere are astute: small-minded people living mundane lives seek celebrity and gossip instead of enriching themselves.

The cause of events in the final act are ambiguous; at a book club the panel seemed to think Tilly is the perpetrator but I believe she is merely a catalyst. Also, her final act may have been intended to be far more limited in its consequences but ‘karma is a bitch’.

Discussion at this book club was interesting; one panelist said she only usually reads novels with one point of view character and significant interiority; however, I believe it is unjust to criticize a novel for not being a young adult (YA) novel when it’s clearly intended for a more mature audience.

Likewise, I disagree with criticisms of Tilly not teaching the townspeople a lesson and the townspeople not changing. I agree with Yen who said that, as women, it is not our role to teach the unteachable: if we cast our pearls before swine, they will turn and rend us. Tilly comes, she does her best to live her life and care for others. Sustaining herself, she takes action. What other people do after that is their responsibility.

There are differences between the book and the movie. Although the book is better — the usual rule when changing medium — the movie is a brilliant adaptation of the book, maintaining the story and the intent of the book. Kate Winslet as Tilly and Hugo Weaving as Sergeant Farrat are fabulous as are the rest of the cast. However, the book goes into more detail, showing more of the townspeople’s lives, revealing more, thus making the consequences of their actions even more just.

My only criticism of The Dressmaker — this is personal not literary criticism — is the fashion porn flies over my head. I may be able to pronounce ‘haute couture’ (unlike some panelists!) but I have no idea about fashion and less understanding of the significance that I feel is embedded in the clothing. For me, a fashion-Philistine, the focus on clothing slowed the story.

The Dressmaker is a delicious story exposing the worst side of communities in the microcosm of a small Australian town in the 1950s. Ham wields black humor like a knife. Published in 2000 and made into a movie in 2015, The Dressmaker is a classic story.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
ISBN: 9780992334468
ISBN-10: 0992334462
Format: ebook (paper format has 296 pages)
Publisher: Duffy and Snellgrove

The Dressmaker