In Rosalie Ham’s first novel, The Dressmaker, revenge never looked so good in its felt skirt, surrounded by a sewing machine and haberdashery. This charming historical fiction story is set in the Australian outback of the 1950s. The sweltering fictional town of Dungatar with its yellow hills is the embodiment of its inhabitants. Imperfect people form the majority of the town. Gossip, prejudice and hatred govern their provincial life.
After years of studying fashion design and dressmaking in the trendy cities of Milan, Paris and London, Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage comes home to see her mother, called “Mad Molly” by the residents of Dungatar. Ever since Tilly moved to Europe to carve a better life for herself, Molly has seldom gone out of her house on The Hill. She stays in bed, and if she isn’t reposing, she’s hiding somewhere within the four walls of her decrepit dwelling. Tilly returns not only to reunite with her despised mother but also to rectify the wrongs of the past. Being an illegitimate child made life hellish for her as a young girl, but with her diligence and headstrongness she is determined to teach the hypocritical men and women of her town a lesson, in style. The characters’ personalities and ulterior motives provoke you to sympathise with Tilly and Molly Dunnage. But not everyone in Dungatar shuns the mother and daughter. Tilly meets and eventually falls in love with Teddy McSwiney, a popular, athletic young man who is unprejudiced towards her and just as loving. The comical and gentle Sergeant Farrat is also supportive of Tilly and Molly. Thus both men curb the stigma of illegitimacy that plagues Dungatar.
Furthermore, I admire the classy way Ham weaves fashion into her narrative with great detail. The chapters in the novel are grouped in parts, each beginning with a short introduction to a type of material used in needlework. You get a whirlwind tour of 1950s clothing styles and an insight into the physically taxing yet personally rewarding life of a dressmaker.
I highly commend Ham’s characterisation, setting, themes and intricate detail. This exquisite novel is sure to become an Australian classic, along with its recent film adaptation (directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse) featuring award-winning actress Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving and Liam Hemsworth. In sum, the book makes for a pleasant summer read for ladies and for anyone with a penchant for haute couture and social dynamics.