Margot Wilson shares how she got her start as a costume designer, the difference between designing period or contemporary costumes, and designing Kate Winslet’s wardrobe in The Dressmaker.
Following on from our previous story with Marion Boyce (who costumed the supporting cast of Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker), here now is our full interview with the film’s other Australian costume designer Margot Wilson, who was engaged exclusively to costume Kate Winslet’s character Tilly Dunnage.
Congratulations on the film! It’s a glorious feast to behold. To watch all that Fifties fashion in this rural country town is magnificent.
(Laughs) It is, isn’t it?
It must be a costume designer’s dream to work on a film like this, with all those wonderful things happening in fashion at that time.
It is. I mean, I love all periods but that was a really beautiful period, and setting all that amongst that landscape is pretty spectacular.
Tilly’s travelling coat at the start of the film is spectacular with the New Look silhouette.
We wanted to introduce the beginning of the 50s there – the New Look and the nipped in waist. That was the beginning of change from post-war. It was the beginning of a new look for the women of the 1950s, early 1950s, coming out of the war and all the drab lines and drab fabrics. It was an exciting time for fashion.
Was everything created specifically for Kate’s character, Tilly? Or were there some original pieces?
Most of the costumes we made for the film. A lot of the original pieces are just tiny – we’ve grown. And that’s because we’ve got better food and we exercise more, so we’re a different shape now. A lot of the original pieces you can’t use on a lot of people, only because they’re just too small.
(For instance) we found a vintage frock which wasn’t a fantastic design but the fabric was beautiful. It was that green and black fleck one, she’s got a collar with a black tie coming down the front (pictured on Kate Winslet, above). That was an old vintage dress which I said to Kate, ‘Just try it on let me see what it looks like on you’. We found it in Sydney from The Vintage Shop… We ended up unpicking it and I redesigned it, and as I was unpicking it, it came across to me that there were many different coloured cottons and layers of darting – which leads me to believe the dress had quite a few different owners… I like that dress because it’s sort of got a history; it had a history before it came to me, and we revitalized it.
Working on these types of films, you must have a very good arsenal of places to go for good vintage!
You do. Unfortunately it’s all disappearing. That’s the same with fabric. You can’t get the fabric you used to be able to get. I’ve been in the industry for 33 years and I’ve seen a slow depletion over the years. Shops are disappearing, fabric shops, they don’t do the same weaves anymore from the manufacturers. It’s sad. The fabrics in the 50s were just magnificent, and the 40s and the 30s. You can’t access the same quality today. You can still get beautiful fabrics but the weaves aren’t as complicated and as interesting as they used to be.
For example the scene where Tilly wears the red dress to the football match…
I know what you’re going to say! Jocelyn Moorhouse mentioned it when I interviewed her. She said you made the dress from a piece of fabric you bought years ago?
I bought that over 25 years ago in Milan, and I’ve been carrying that roll of fabric around forever. Every time I do a film I think ‘oh, I might be able to use it here’ (laughs). And finally, finally, I found a place for it!
I love that you were carrying it around everywhere. How did you end up in Milan at that time, was that because you were working there?
I got a scholarship to study design in Paris for six months, and while I was over there, I ventured down to Milan.
Where did you study?
It was actually at the Paris American Academy, (near) the Sorbonne.
Oh my goodness, what a dream…
Yeah it was. It was such a wonderful time because we got to go to Dior and Kenzo, we had dinner at Maxime’s… it was in the mid-80s so it was a wonderful time. We got to see and watch all those wonderful cutters and stitchers at Dior, those ladies – I don’t know if you’ve seen that Dior documentary? – those wonderful, highly skilled women that wear those white coats. Such incredibly fantastic craftsmanship.
There were 44 students and they were picked from all over the world. I was sharing a place with a girl from Brazil, and she couldn’t speak any English and I couldn’t speak any Portuguese. It was hilarious. We were young and once you did it, everyone went off touring.
What was your fashion background before that?
I started off in the fashion industry and I’d always wanted to get into film but never knew how.
I did four years full time at East Sydney Tafe (now Ultimo). I learned to cut and sew, tailoring, millinery, designing, all of that. And when I finished that I did another year, teachers college, doing part-time teaching and incorporating freelance designing for the fashion industry, just for small houses and that. Then I entered that competition and went to Paris.
And when I was over there I was going to a lot of theatre and watching a lot of films, and I just thought, this is what I’d really love to do. So when I came back from Paris I thought, I’ve got to get into the film industry.
I started hunting around over here (in Australia) and it took me a year and half to get a job. I sent out 150 resumes and only got four replies to say ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ (laughs).
You’ve worked on some amazing Australian films since then.
Yeah god, Australian films, they’re so wonderful. They’re always such wonderful projects to work on. We’ve got so many fantastic actors here and they’re always a pleasure to work on. I love that collaboration. What I find really interesting, is I love working with other people and you’re listening to their ideas, it might spark an idea off you. That whole process of filmmaking is truly magic.
One of the films you worked on was Bran Nue Dae.
And I’m working with (director) Rachel Perkins now on Jasper Jones too. Rachel is truly a wonderful person. She’s a fantastic director. Bran Nue Dae was brilliant, that was so much fun because we were working with the dancers from Bangarra Dance Theatre company too.
And so colourful!
It was, wasn’t it? And it was nice to do something like that because I think just before that, I was doing The Road (with Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron) a post-Apocalypse film. So it was nice to get a bit of colour in my life.
Just before The Dressmaker you worked on another Australian film that’s been getting a lot of attention, a contemporary film, The Daughter (below).
Yes. That was a beautiful story. Brilliant cast. It was so wonderful they all came together for Simon (theatre director turned filmmaker Simon Stone) with it being his debut film. I worked with Simon actually on Jindabyne, when he was a young actor, I think he was 19. But The Daughter was a beautiful story and a great location.
That was all contemporary costuming, which is just as tricky as doing period, but people always think… I mean, there is a difference between fashion and developing characters for film. It’s not the same. Often a lot of fabrics and shapes won’t work on film. So you do tend to make stuff on contemporary films as well. And I think people are under the (impression) that you just go and buy something (for contemporary costuming). It’s funny, people outside the industry always say to me, Well, what do you do? And it’s like, they think you just go and buy stuff from shops. And it’s not like that at all.
You have to help the actor develop the character, you’re there to support the actor as far as the visuals go and you need to have that visual that matches the character. So whatever the spoken word is, whatever they’re saying, you can’t have the costume going against who this person may be.
Working closely with the actor as you say, you must have had a good relationship with Kate Winslet because I think you’d worked together before?
Yes I worked with her on Triple 9, John Hillcoat’s film which comes out in February I think.
It was practically back-to-back, then. I think she’d just given birth around then too?
Yeah that was funny because I’d worked with her earlier in the year and then came on board to do her on The Dressmaker. She’d already had the baby on both projects. She was still breastfeeding when I worked with her on Triple 9, we had to put, you know, um, put pads in there so it wouldn’t leak.
I’ve had two children, I know exactly what you’re talking about…
On The Dressmaker, (her son) was about 10 months there, he was a gorgeous little fella. She was pretty flat out.
She must have been excited for The Dressmaker costumes too. Glamorous, but able to suit her figure. She has a very beautiful figure for those clothes.
Her figure suits the era. Kate celebrates her figure, and when you like how you look, and your own figure type, you always wear clothes better anyhow. And she had the perfect shape for that.
It also suited Kate’s figure type to keep it more structured and simple and that gave a good leeway for the other people in the town. There was more space to go for them as well.
When I interviewed director Jocelyn Moorhouse, she said one of the first things she did to start researching the fashion of the time was to subscribe to the Vogue archives online. She says they are amazing. Where did you start your research?
The Fifties has always been a great period for me, so I sort of knew quite a bit about the Fifties already. But you know, you go to books and look online, and I was talking to Kate because she was playing the role of the “dressmaker”, and I wanted to see where she was at, as far as how she saw Tilly.
And she was telling me she’d actually taken on sewing lessons prior to the film, which was fantastic. So she was able to, I mean she recognized turns and (she could) interact when I was talking to cutters and all that sort of stuff. That helped her. She said she’s not normally a method actor but in this case, it helped her enormously to be able to be part of all that.
And in those early conversations with Kate, what did you two decide would be your approach to Tilly’s personal style?
Well, we definitely wanted to have Tilly different from the rest of the town. She’d experienced a wider world than the people back in Dungatar. So we were quite firm that Tilly should not wear anything too flouncy or anything like that. We wanted to keep her simple and structured and, you know, effortless really… Keeping in mind too, Tilly is a couture dressmaker, that’s how she’s portrayed, not necessarily a French designer. So it had to sort of, while making her look fantastic and spectacular, (it couldn’t take) her into the genre of being portrayed as a designer.
It’s really a sign of the times, isn’t it, that even though you designed Kate’s wardrobe to be simple and structured, today a look like that seems so high fashion.
(Laughs). That’s the interesting thing about fashion – the passing of time – it just all goes around in a circle really.