Marion Boyce: Costuming the cast of The Dressmaker

Costume designer Marion Boyce (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) shares the inspiration behind her amazing couture creations in The Dressmaker and the spectacular art of costume design.

If you follow the amazing costume blog Clothes on Film you might have seen the article I contributed this week titled “Costuming The Dressmaker“. It included excerpts from my interviews with the film’s two costume designers, Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson, plus the director Jocelyn Moorhouse.

Costuming The Dressmaker

Try as I might, it simply wasn’t possible to fit in everything they all shared with me in the one article! So I’m going to post both the designer transcripts in full. First up is my interview with Marion Boyce in its entirety, as she talks about costuming the supporting cast of The Dressmaker (everyone bar lead actress Kate Winslet) and her love for ensemble dressing.

First of all, congratulations not just on The Dressmaker, which is absolutely amazing, but also on the success of another one of your projects, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

Thank you, that’s been a lot of fun.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries costume design Marion Boyce
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

The show’s costume exhibition has just started touring the country.

It’s left Melbourne and (it’s now) open in South Australia. (I had to go) and set it up in South Australia. Every show, depending on the house, it’s actually kind of reworked in some ways. So it’s left Melbourne and it’s going Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane.

You’re also doing your publicity duties for The Dressmaker, it’s a very busy time for you!

It is (laughs). It has been, it has been, it’s curious. It’s a very different end of the job, I suppose.

When I interviewed Jocelyn Moorhouse, she said that after she had seen Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, she knew that you were the woman she needed to get on this project. She said to producer Sue Maslin, ‘I need her! I need this woman! The amazing things she does in a short time on a budget, I need this woman’.

(Laughs). That’s always our worst enemy really (time and budget). It’s great because this is the beginning of the Fifties, the renaissance of couture, so it’s still ensemble dressing. Which I really truly adore. I love putting everything together from the shoes to the hat. It’s a really great journey for me.

Another bird outfit in The Dressmaker
Costume design by Marion Boyce for The Dressmaker

It’s really a lost art isn’t it? That whole approach to dressing. We seem to have lost a lot of that today.

Totally. We’ve become very casual. We don’t often have occasion dressing, we leave work and we go out for dinner. And the last bastions of “dressing” are when we go to weddings, and the races (laughs). That’s all we do. We shop in a very different manner.

I think in this film, the women’s relationship with fashion in the film, it’s really that magic of someone being able to create something just for you, that magically disguises the bad and flaunts the good. That magic to transform you, like a fairy godmother, almost.

Well, Tilly was quite remarkable because she knew the people from that town but had been able to step away. She could actually see their inner workings in a way, so she knew what they aspired to, or what their aspirations were, or their inner goddess. And so that’s what she appealed to, was their vanity. And it was lovely finding really strong images for the women of Dungatar.

Gertrude (Sarah Snook) costume design Marion Boyce; Tilly (Kate Winslet) costume design by Margot Wilson
Gertrude pre-makeover in The Dressmaker: costume design by Marion Boyce. Kate Winslet’s costumes designed by Margot Wilson.

That’s a really good point, that Tilly could see their inner motivations and designed around that. Because if we look at Sarah Snook’s character Gertrude, and the creations that Tilly does for her, they’re very different to what she does for other people. Gertrude wants to catch the eligible bachelor, and be the society woman. What were some of the inspirations for her costumes? Gertrude’s outfits were a standout for me.

She had a terrific journey, it was actually quite a long journey. She started out very much as a Plain Jane of the town. Very 1940s, with a very bleak palette, very washed out bleak palette. Then her whole journey was ‘How to Catch A Husband’, which was the dance frock. Then it became ‘How To Seal The Deal’. I often will think of dresses as what they actually are (laughs). The Fairytale Dress At the Ball, and then there was the Wow Va Va Voom dress on the veranda. They all played a part. Then she was a peacock – that big white cape in town…

Gertrude (Sarah Snook) in black gown and cape in The Dressmaker (costume by Marion Boyce)
A scene from The Dressmaker: Sarah Snook plays Gertrude (costume design by Marion Boyce)

That dress is phenomenal, the black one? It looks like something from Old Hollywood.

(Laughs.) It’s quite interesting when you start doing the research for the pieces. A lot of it, especially in country towns like the town they lived in, their only images of the world came from glossy magazines or the cinema. So that was their only point of reference. And at the time, there was extraordinary stuff coming out of Paris, and the new incredibly exciting way in which Richard Avedon and Irving Penn started photographing clothes with this extraordinary amount of energy and character to them. They were sort of in a way little snapshots, the film, and I always tried, the costume sort of in a way it’s like an awakening and that powerful hit that Penn and Avedon created in their pictures.

It looked as though those costumes affected the staging and acting too? For example, when Sarah wears the big white cape, she does a little flutter down the street that shows it off in full flight. Or when Rebecca Gibney is standing up on the sign, her floaty train is shown flapping in the wind. The costumes are given full range in that scene.

Well that was all birds preening, that scene. Jocelyn found this most extraordinary landscape which was quite inspiring, with these beautiful petrified deadwood trees, and these beautiful birds of prey sitting in these trees. I remember looking at photographs of this location and being quite blown way by the power of it. They were all birds sort of swanning around the street, so all of those outfits went back to…  the silhouette of Sarah’s cape was plumage of a bird, and then Prudence, there was feather musks and feather headpieces, and Rebecca was like flying.

Rebecca Gibney in The Dressmaker (costume design by Marion Boyce)
Rebecca Gibney in The Dressmaker (costume design by Marion Boyce)

It’s so clever. Every outfit is so detailed, almost as if you had a particular woman or celebrity in mind from the period.

When you’re doing a period piece, I think it’s really important to find the tenants, or find the silhouette, of the period and then go to work. And in some ways you need to step away from the pictures, step away from the images, and then design for the characters in the film. So it doesn’t become a remake of something.

The film is quite sad and warm and funny and evil… all sorts of things rolled into one. But the whole thing is totally driven by character, and all times you’re working within the boundaries of the character, and their journey. I’m glad that came across.

Molly (Judy Davis) in The Dressmaker (costume design by Marion Boyce)
Molly (Judy Davis) in The Dressmaker (costume design by Marion Boyce)

In terms of costuming the entire cast (except Tilly), I read you had in the vicinity of 350 costumes to put together.

There was a lot, there was a lot (laughs). I know when we were boxing stuff up one of my standbys went, ‘Oh wow, that’s over 350 costumes’. At the time you don’t (think about it). A lot of stuff was made, even down to the chemist with his hunchback. There was an enormous amount made, all of the big frocks we made. Look, even a lot of the day stuff we made. Even the beautiful day dresses for Marigold (Alison Whyte, below) so we can actually get a particular palette. Nearly all of Molly’s stuff (Judy Davis, above) was made, so we could actually get that really beautiful decay. The state that she was in when Tilly found her was incredibly sad. So to be able to achieve that, we actually have to make it, and then build up colour and texture and create that sort of very depleted look.

And sourcing clothes?

We sourced an enormous amount of stuff for extras, and I’d never actually found before, but I found this fantastic – I’m not great with technology – but I found these amazing websites that actually sell really beautiful high-end vintage. They were an extraordinary source for the hats. The hats from the 1950s are still in good enough repair to be able to use them, or actually use them as a base and embellish them. So that was a fantastic source actually, some of the international vintage websites. And some of the frocks came from there as well.

Marigold's dress at the wedding in The Dressmaker (costume design by Marion Boyce)
Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne) and Marigold Pettyman (Alison Whyte) in The Dressmaker; costume design by Marion Boyce.

On screen, I know from Jocelyn saying it’s a tight budget and timing, but it looks so lavish, it looks like a very expensive little production.

We had eight weeks pre-production before we started filming, so it was very tight. But I have a fantastic team, technically they’re brilliant. I work with them a lot. And we have a very good working relationship and really… sometimes we just make sounds. That sounds quite weird! But they know where I’m going, the communication is really terrific, which makes life quite delightful.

I’m assuming because of the scope, and the time and budget, that’s how the decision to use two costume designers came about, to break up that load. It’s a unique kind of collaboration.

Well you know, it’s a massive film. Clothes wise, it’s a massive film. And so when you’ve got someone who’s actually got 30 odd outfits themselves (like Tilly), and then the rest of the cast, it’s actually you can’t give enough space and time.

I’d never worked with Margot before, she’s got a terrific body of work. It was actually quite a good way to do things.

Gertrude in the red and cream polka dot dress in The Dressmaker (costume design by Marion Boyce)
Gertrude and Una in a scene from The Dressmaker (costumes designed by Marion Boyce).

Especially when you look within the film – there’s the town pre-Tilly’s transformation, the women post- Tilly’s transformation, the disgusting ensembles from rival dressmaker Una….

Oh the bad Una! I love her. That was her nickname from us. We called her the bad Una (Sacha Horler, above right). And you now, it was actually quite hard for the cutters to actually make the bad Unas – like, no you can’t finish it, no I don’t want mitered edges – and it actually hurts them to finish things badly! It’s not in their training.

Then there’s the concert costumes at the end of the film…. there really were so many little things to think about here.

Oh yeah. I had to go through every single character and do their story arc, and work out when they became Tilly-fied and when they became Una-fied, and what their journey was actually going to be. So that was a big part of it, getting the road map of the whole film in your head.

The Dressmaker costume design by Marion Boyce
Costumes designed by Marion Boyce for The Dressmaker.

One funny side arc is Hugo Weaving’s character, Sergeant Farrat, and his obsession with couture. I thought that was hilarious.

He’s just terrific. He really knows how to run with something. I find Hugo’s performance quite inspiring.

We have seen Hugo Weaving play a character with an appreciation for clothes before – well, with costumes, in Priscilla – but this is something completely different!

(Laughs.) But you can actually feel his… some of my best times in life is finding a really beautiful piece of fabric. A beautiful cloth or a beautiful trim. And you can be quite moved by it in a way, you can actually be quite affected by it. And he gets it, his character gets it. Sometimes I can look at something and be like ‘Oh my god’. You hold it in your hands and the weight and texture of it is really, it’s just beautiful. It was really lovely, he so gets the beauty and the power of cloth. His character does.

I really can’t think of another example of an Australian film with such… where the actual story allows for such emphasis on fashion and costume design. People are starting to understand the value that costume design can add to film here, I think.

Totally. If costume design is done badly, it actually destroys the story in some ways. The clothes are actually meant to help the actor be part of the character. So if the actor feels off kilter because of the clothing, and it’s not right, the audience picks up on that. It is actually part of the performance, in a way, they use that as part of their performance. It is quite essential for actors to make them feel completely at home in the character, that it all comes together.

Rebecca Gibney's mother of the bride dress in The Dressmaker (costume design by Marion Boyce)
Costumes designed by Marion Boyce for The Dressmaker.

But I feel as though, as an art form, it’s having a moment. People are really starting to appreciate it.

I think there’s a few different things going on at the moment. My personal view is that costumes, especially period things, are having a bit of a renaissance at the moment because we’ve become so incredibly generic.

Everything’s the same out there in chain stores. Everything no matter where you go in the world, everything’s the same. And people are starting to look for something different and something with personality that they can make their own. And I think it’s part of that, where people are actually searching for something different.

Lastly before you go, I hear there’s a film version of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries in the works! What can you tell us about that?

Look, I believe one’s being written (laughs) but that’s as far as I know! I don’t know any storylines or anything.

The Dressmaker is in cinemas across Australia now.


100 women in film down underMarion Boyce is one of our featured 100 Women In Film Down Under. Follow us HERE to see who we meet next!

the author

Marie C

Feature writer by trade, movie maniac by night, Marie-Christine grew up watching films from the projection booth at the local drive-in and now she's lucky enough to write about them.

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