This blog was updated on 23/10/2020.
2. Historical Context
3. Part 1: Plot
4. Part 1: Quotes and Analysis
5. Themes, Motifs, and Key Ideas
6. Character Analysis
8. Sample Essay Topics
9. Essay Topic Breakdown
The Dressmaker is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Set in Dungatar, a barren wasteland of traditionalism and superstition, isolated amidst the rapidly modernising post-World War II Australia, acclaimed author Rosalie Ham’s gothic novel, The Dressmaker, provides a fascinating window into 1950s Australia. I find it to be one of the most intriguing texts of our time - managing to weave together a historical narrative with humour, wit, and modern-day social concerns regarding patriarchy, class, and the effects of isolation.
The Dressmaker is one of those texts which reinforces why studying English can be so great when you give it a proper chance. This subject isn’t just about studying books and writing essays, it’s also about learning new insight you’ll carry with you throughout your life. Specifically, The Dressmaker offers real insight into some of the most pressing issues that have been around for centuries - how communities respond to crisis, why certain groups are marginalised, and how we should respond to tyranny and intolerance. Ham’s novel is layered with meaning, character development, and a moving plot which really helps us reflect on who we are as people. Not every book can do that - and, seemingly, on a surface level, you wouldn’t expect a novel about fashion and betrayal to do it either. But somehow, it just does, and it’s what makes The Dressmaker one of my favourite books of all time.
Before we move on to looking at The Dressmaker’s plot and delving deep into analysis, it’s really important to understand the main historical context which underpins the novel. By ‘historical context’, all we mean here is the factual background which tells us why Rosalie Ham wrote her novel, and why she chose the particular setting of Dungatar. After all, Dungatar is a fictionalised community, but its references to post-World War II Australia are very real. The main message I want you to take from this section is that understanding 1950s Australia is essential to understanding Dungatar.
Australian Geography and the Great Depression
Before we delve into talking about this historical theme, I’d like to first acknowledge that Australia was colonised against the wishes of its First Nations peoples, and also recognise that sovereignty was never ceded. This discussion broadly reflects the experiences of colonised Australia because that is the frame which Rosalie Ham provides. However, at Lisa’s Study Guides, we acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which this study guide was written, edited, and published, and pay our respects to elders past, present, and emerging.
Ham’s fictional setting of Dungatar is a perfect example, as it is placed in the Australian Outback. The ‘Outback’ doesn’t exactly have any borders, so which regions of Australia count as part of the 'outback' will be slightly different from person to person. A general rule to help us understand the Outback is that it is way out in the centre of the country, far away from urban Australia. Its main industry is pastoralism, which refers to the grazing of cattle, sheep, and other species such as goats. This is a tough lifestyle, and as such small towns and a lot of room for livestock is preferable. These communities are often isolated, and don’t really communicate with the outside world unless it’s about trading their livestock into the cities. Isolation tends to create its own culture, practices, and social standards. For Dungatar, we see massive economic divides and strict expectations around the role of men and women. For instance, the McSwineys live in absolute poverty, yet Councilman Evan and his family are relatively wealthy. Most of the women in the town either care for children or stay at home, reflecting the outdated idea that it is the role of the man to work, and the role of the woman to be a homemaker. As much as we can look at these ideas and realise how flawed they are, for Dungatar it is a way of life to which they’ve stuck for decades. Changing this way of life would be dangerous for them because it means they have to completely reconsider the way they live.
Part 1: Plot
- Myrtle Dunnage arrives in Dungatar after many years, seeking to care for her mother Molly Dunnage.
- Myrtle, who now wishes to be known as Tilly, reconnects with Sergeant Farrat, Dungatar’s eccentric local policeman who is doing his evening lap in the town. He takes Tilly through the town and up ‘The Hill’, which is where Molly lives.
- While Tilly is caring for Molly, mental and physical illness causes her to believe that Tilly is an outsider who wishes to poison her. Tilly perseveres in order to shower, feed, and clothe the woman, as well as clear out the house.
- The perspective changes to Sergeant Farrat, who is patrolling the town centre a day later. He sees a returned William Beaumont sitting in a car. Moving into Muriel and Alvin Pratt’s General Store, Farrat claims to be buying fabric for his house. Their daughter Gertrude, who is reading a fashion magazine, realises that the material he is buying fits with the latest skirt designs across Australia.
- After learning about Mr Almanac’s pharmacy, the footballers move into Purl and Fred Bundle’s pub.
- The readers are introduced to the McSwiney family, who with Edward and Mae as the father and mother, have 11 children. They’re said to live in the tip at the edge of town.
- The following weekend Tilly and Molly leave The Hill to attend the football match played in Dungatar between the two neighbouring towns, Itheca and Winyerp. Lois Pickett and Beula Harridene give her an immediately negative reaction, taking offence when Molly questions whether their cakes are poisoned.
- After getting medicine from Mr. Almanac and his assistant Nancy, Tilly and Molly run into Irma, his sickly wife. Her arthritis makes mobility difficult, and as such she is found sitting on the bank of the river, where she asks Tilly not to let the town know that she had been cooking meals for Molly in Tilly’s absence.
- Nancy and Sister Ruth Dimm are shown to be having a secret relationship in the back of the phone exchange building before the perspective moves back to Buela Harridene, who demands that Sergeant Farrat investigate the McSwiney children for supposedly pelting her roof with stones.
- Tilly sits on the riverbank, remembering her memories and trauma in Dungatar, with the crucial event being when Stewart Pettyman attempted to headbutt Tilly, but she moved out of the way, causing him to ram into a wall, snap his neck and die.
- Marigold and Evan Pettyman are introduced to the audience, with Marigold being a nervous individual who is put to sleep by Evan with pills every night and sexually assaulted.
- Following Dungatar’s victory in the grand finale, which sends frivolity and celebration throughout the town, a package arrives for Tilly. Ruth reads through all its contents after picking its lock whilst Tilly reluctantly meets with Teddy, who continues to visit her.
- Tilly and Molly visit the Almanacs for dinner, wherein Tilly’s medicine causes Irma’s pain to disappear. Although Mr Almanac is unpleasant – stating that Tilly can never be forgiven for Pettyman’s death – the night moves on, Tilly returns home and is visited by Teddy yet again.
Part 1: Quotes and Analysis
“She used to have a lot of falls, which left her with a black eye or a cut lip.”
Here, Ham subtly hints that Irma Almanac’s injuries were not solely due to ‘falls’, as it is also said that once her husband grew old the ‘falls’ progressively ceased. Abuse of women is common in Dungatar, and it is almost expected that women will be subservient to men and do as they demand.
“His new unchecked gingham skirt hung starched and pressed on the wardrobe doorknob behind him.”
Sergeant Farrat subverts social expectations placed upon 1950s men by adoring feminine fashion. However, the fact that he is forced to hide his passion reveals how, in conservative towns such as Dungatar, individuals are forced to suppress their true selves in order to fit in with the broader population. There is no room for individuality or creative expression, as this is seen as a challenge to Dungatar’s social order and the clear separation between the roles of men and women.
“What’s the point of having a law enforcer if he enforces the law according to himself, not the legal law?”
Buela Harridene pretends to care about the enforcement of the law, but her true concern is bending the law to her own will to make those who step outside of their socially defined roles suffer. She is at odds with Sergeant Farrat as he seeks to control the townspeople’s worst instincts, yet people like Buela ensure that vengeance, rumour, and suspicion are still the defining features of Dungatar.
“Well let me tell you if he’s got any queer ideas we’ll all suffer.”
Although this specifically refers to William Beaumont, it alludes to the broader picture that the people of Dungatar believe that any outside ideas fundamentally threaten everything about the way they live. Even before Beaumont has opened his mouth, he is already a threat since he may have witnessed another way of living disconnected from Dungatar’s conservatism.
If you'd like to see the all Chapter plots, their analysis, along with important quotes, then have a look at our The Dressmaker Study Guide.
Themes, Motifs, and Key Ideas
Isolation and Modernisation
One of the central conflicts in The Dressmaker is between the isolated town of Dungatar, and the rapidly modernising surroundings of post-depression 1950s Australia, as we established in Historical Context. Ham uses this dichotomy (meaning when two opposing factors are placed right next to each other) to question whether isolated communities like Dungatar really have a role in the modern world.
Our clearest indication that Dungatar is not only traditionalistic, but absolutely reviles change and outside influence, is right at the start of the novel, when a train conductor laments that there’s “naught that’s poetic about damn [progress].” Here, we see the overriding contention of Rosalie Ham’s novel - that because a community like Dungatar has been isolated for so long, it has become absolutely committed to maintaining its traditionalism at all costs. There are more symbolic reflections of how stagnant the town has become, such as the fact that Evan Pettyman, the town’s elected Councillor, has been in the role for multiple decades without fail - or that the same teacher who ostracised Tilly as a child, Prudence Dimm, is still in charge of the town’s school.
The Dressmaker speaks extensively about social class. By class, what I mean is the economic and social divisions which determine where people sit in society. For instance, we could say that the British Royals are ‘upper class’, whilst people living paycheque to paycheque and struggling to get by are ‘lower class’.
It's also important to introduce the notion of a classist society. A classist society is one where all social relations are built on these aforementioned economic and social divides - in other words, everything you do in life, and everything you are able to do, is built on where you sit in the class structure.
For The Dressmaker, the question then becomes - "how does class relate to Dungatar?" Well, Dungatar is one of the most classist societies around, where societal worth is explicitly based on one’s position in the class structure.
Femininity, Fashion, and Patriarchy
By now, you’ve probably realised that The Dressmaker’s title is significant. Fashion and ‘dressmaking’ are absolutely essential to understanding the life of Tilly Dunnage, and how she interacts with the people of Dungatar. We’ll go into this further, but Ham specifically delves into the power of fashion as a form of expression which empowers people and their femininity, yet she also examines how, in a community like Dungatar, fashion nonetheless ends up being entirely destructive.
Dungatar and Femininity
The idea of femininity describes, on a basic level, the ability of a woman to express herself independent of any man. Others would describe femininity in more definitive terms, but it’s really in the eyes of the beholder. What’s explicitly clear, however, is that, in order to suppress femininity, women in Dungatar are repressed and kept under the control of men. Marigold Pettyman is raped by her husband, Evan Pettyman every night, while the “ladies of Dungatar…turn their backs” when they see the Councillor coming - knowing his crimes, but being too afraid to challenge him. Above all else, Dungatar exists within a patriarchal framework, which is one where men hold structural power and authority, and that power relies on keeping women silent and subservient. In such a society, the role of women in Dungatar is vacuous (meaning that they don’t have any real purpose) - they frill about, spread rumours, and otherwise have no set roles other than to be obedient to their husband.
Fashion as Empowerment
Within this context, Rosalie Ham explores the power of fashion to empower femininity, and, even if it’s in a limited sense, give the patriarchy its first real challenge. Gertrude is a perfect example, as Tilly’s dressmaking sees her eventually transform at her wedding, even though she is initially described as a “good mule” by Sergeant Farrat; symbolically being stripped of her humanity and beauty by being compared to an animal. However, Gertrude becomes the spectacle of the town at her wedding, wearing a “fine silk taffeta gown” and presenting an elegant, empowered image. The townspeople even note that Tilly is an “absolute wizard with fabric and scissors”, and, with the use of the word ‘wizard’, it becomes evident that the women of Dungatar are absolutely unaccustomed to having any form of expression or individuality - a patriarchal standard which Tilly challenges through her work.
Think also about Sergeant Farrat. Even if he isn’t a woman, he nonetheless is able to embrace his feminine side through fashion. Indeed his “gingham skirt” and secretive love of female fashion is utilised by Ham to demonstrate that, even in a patriarchal settlement like Dungatar, fashion is immensely empowering and important.
Fashion and Destruction
However, as always, Ham elucidates that there too exists a dark side to fashion in a town like Dungatar. Ultimately, the women of Dungatar, in their elegant dresses, end up looking like a “group of European aristocrats’ wives who had somehow lost their way”. What this quote tells us is that, despite a temporary possibility for empowerment, the women of Dungatar did not fundamentally change their identities. As “aristocrats’ wives”, they are still tied to a patriarchal system in which, even if they were better dressed, nothing was ultimately done to overcome their tradition for rumour, suspicion, and ostracising outcasts. Indeed, this becomes most evident at the Social Ball, where, despite wearing Tilly’s dresses, her name is “scrubb[ed] out” from the seating list - symbolically expressing a desire for Tilly’s modernising, urban, outside influence to be removed from Dungatar, even as they simultaneously wear her dresses!
Tilly, or Myrtle Dunnage, is the protagonist of The Dressmaker, and an acclaimed dressmaker trained in Paris. Analysing Tilly requires an understanding that she believes she is cursed: starting with being exiled from Dungatar after the accidental death of Stewart Pettyman, and then finding her “seven month old” baby Pablo “in his cot...dead”, as well as witnessing the deaths of Teddy and Molly. In her own words, she is “falser than vows made in wine”, and does not personally believe she can be trusted. This pessimistic perspective on life inspires Tilly to adopt an incredibly individualistic understanding of the world; believing that the only way for her to survive is embracing her individual worth and rejecting toxic communities. Indeed, although Tilly initially arrived in Dungatar to care for her mother - a selfless act - the town spiralling into vengeance only confirmed Tilly’s pessimism. Her modern dressmaking ultimately could not change a fundamentally corrupt community predicated on “nothing ever really chang[ing]”, and therefore the maintenance of a culture of rumour and suspicion. Indeed, in “raz[ing Dungatar] to the ground”, Rosalie Ham reminds us that Tilly is an unapologetically individually-focused person, and will not tolerate anyone, or anything, which seeks to make her conform to the status quo and repress her individuality.
Molly Dunnage is Tilly’s mother, a bedridden, elderly woman whose sickness drives Tilly back into Dungatar. Molly is commonly known as ‘Mad Molly’ by the townspeople, but what this hides is the fact that Molly was not born mentally insane. Rather, after being “tormented” by Evan Pettyman into having his illegitimate child and seeing Tilly exiled from Dungatar, the malicious actions of the community drive her into insanity. Even in her incapacitated and crazed state, Molly holds such love for Tilly that she attempts to stop her engaging with the community, and thus the symbolism of Molly “dismant[ling] her sewing machine entirely” was that, due to her experiences, she did not believe that the people of Dungatar would ever accept Tilly, either as a dressmaker or a person. Molly’s death is ultimately a pivotal event, and awakens Tilly to the fact that only “revenge [could be] our cause”, and thus that Dungatar is fundamentally irredeemable.
Teddy McSwiney is the eldest son of the McSwiney family, Dungatar’s poorest residents. Teddy is a unique case, as although he’s a McSwiney, he is noted for being incredibly well-liked in the town - even going so far as to be described by Purl as the town’s “priceless full forward” in Dungatar’s AFL team. Nonetheless, as we discussed under the Social Class theme, Dungatar remains an unashamedly classist society, and as such, despite Teddy being valued in his usefulness as a footy player and the “nice girls lov[ing] him”, he “was a McSwiney” - discounted from the town’s dating scene or any true level of social worth. Teddy becomes essential to the plot when he and Tilly spark a budding romance. Whereas the majority of Dungatar rejects Tilly or refuses to stand against the crowd, Teddy actively seeks to remind Tilly of her worth - saying that he “doesn’t believe in curses”. However, his death after suffocating in a “sorghum mill” reiterates a sad reality in Dungatar; it is always the most vulnerable townspeople who pay the price for classist discrimination, ostracisation, and suspicion.
Sergeant Farrat is one of The Dressmaker’s most interesting characters. On the surface, he’s nothing but a police officer who manages Dungatar. However, Farrat’s position is far more complex than meets the eye - as a police officer, he is entrusted with enforcing the “legal law”, yet must also contain the influence of malicious individuals such as Buela Harradine who would otherwise use the enforcement of that law to spread slander about individuals like the McSwineys, who she considers “bludgers” and “thieves”. Despite Dungatar’s complications, Farrat considers the townspeople “his flock”, and this religious, Christ-like imagery here tells us how he is essentially their protector. Farrat is, in essence, entrusted with preventing the townspeople from destroying themselves (by now, we all know how easily the townspeople slide into hatred and division!). Here’s the interesting thing though - at the same time Sergeant Farrat is protecting Dungatar, he is also personally repressed by its conservative standards. Rosalie Ham establishes Farrat as a man with a love for vibrant, expressive, female fashion, and from his “gingham skirts” which he sews in private to his time spent with Tilly while she sews, Ham demonstrates to us that Dungatar’s conservatism affects everyone. Even though he tries to defend Tilly as the townspeople descend on her after Teddy’s death, Tilly destroys his house along with Dungatar anyway - signalling that, no matter how hard Sergeant Farrat tried to reconcile his position as protector of Dungatar and his own person, the town could not be saved.
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The Dressmaker is written in the Gothic style, which means it combines romance with death and horror, particularly horror of the emotional kind. The Dressmaker is divided into four sections, each named after a type of fabric Tilly uses in her work. You can use these in your essays to show how important dressmaking and fashion is to the plot’s progression, especially considering each section starts with fabric. The four types are:
A fabric made from cotton or yarn, with a checkered shape. Gingham is often used as a ‘test fabric’ in designing fashion or for making tablecloths. This gives it a rustic, imperfect feel signifying Tilly’s return to her hometown and complicated past. The name is thought to originate from a Malay word meaning ‘separate’, mirroring Tilly’s feelings of isolation from the rest of Dungatar. In this section of the novel, Sergeant Farrat also buys gingham fabric to secretly make into a skirt, symbolising how the town is still rife with secrets and a disparity between the public and private personas of its inhabitants.
A fabric used for bridal gowns. Gertrude is married in this section and her dress, which Tilly makes, is the first instance where the town witnesses her work. Shantung originates from China, matching this notion of exoticism and foreignness which seeing the dress spreads among the townspeople.
A fabric noted for its ability to be used for a wide variety of purposes. This is the section in which the ball occurs and a variety of Tilly’s dresses are unveiled for the town to see.
A richly decorative fabric made with threads of gold and silver. Brocade is used primarily for upholstery, drapery, and costumes. This is a reference to the costumes of Dungatar’s play, the climax of the novel which occurs in this section.
Sample Essay Topics
1. “They looked like a group of European aristocrats’ wives who had somehow lost their way.” Fashion is both liberating and oppressive. Discuss.
2. How does Rosalie Ham represent the power of love throughout The Dressmaker?
3. Gender repression is rife in The Dressmaker. To what extent do you agree?
4. “Damn progress, there’s naught that’s poetic about diesel or electric. Who needs speed?” What is Ham’s essential message about progress in The Dressmaker?
Now it's your turn! Give these essay topics a go. For more sample essay topics, head over to our The Dressmaker Study Guide to practice writing essays using the analysis you've learnt in this blog!
Essay Topic Breakdown
Whenever you get a new essay topic, you can use LSG’s THINK and EXECUTE strategy, a technique to help you write better VCE essays. This essay topic breakdown will focus on the THINK part of the strategy. If you’re unfamiliar with this strategy, then check it out in How To Write A Killer Text Response.
Within the THINK strategy, we have 3 steps, or ABC. These ABC components are:
Step 1: Analyse
Step 2: Brainstorm
Step 3: Create a Plan
Theme-Based Prompt: Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker condemns fundamentally oppressive communities. Discuss.
Step 1: Analyse
We’ve got a theme-based prompt here, which really calls for your essay to be explicitly focused on the theme at hand. That means that we shouldn’t stray from the idea of ‘oppressive communities’. Keep it as the centre of your essay and look at how events relate to this idea - we’ll break it down more in Step 2 so you can properly explore it.
Because there’s a ‘Discuss’ qualifier added to the end of the prompt, a clear and concise contention is really important. What you’re being asked to do is, again, stick with the topic frame. That means that going for the usual “two agree, one disagree” structure is decent, but I wouldn’t suggest it as the most efficient way to go. Instead, what you’ll see that I do with this essay is ‘discuss’ how the topic is present throughout all three of our arguments.
Step 2: Brainstorm
Let’s start by breaking down the key words of the topic.
We have the idea of an ‘oppressive community’, which refers to communities that are built on marginalising certain individuals so the majority can maintain power. This is quite a clear reference to Dungatar, but expect that most essay questions for The Dressmaker won’t directly reference Tilly or the town, even if they’re quite clearly talking about them. Something for which you should look out – don’t let the wording phase you!
The addition of the word ‘fundamentally’ doesn’t change that much, but what it does tell us is that the essay is asking us to agree that Dungatar is oppressive to its core. In other words, its ‘fundamentals’ are based on oppression. I would not recommend trying to disagree with this basic premise, as it means you’re going against the topic in a ‘Discuss’ prompt which, as we discussed above, isn’t the best option in my view.
Step 3: Create a Plan
One of the most logical ways to approach this topic is a chronological structure. By that, what I mean is following the text in the order events occur; before Tilly’s arrival, during Tilly’s time in Dungatar, and the consequences that arise after they make her an outcast once again.
This way, you can stay on topic and look at how Dungatar is oppressive even before Tilly shows up again, how that ramps up as she establishes her dressmaking business, and what Ham’s final message is on rejecting oppressive communities and embracing individual worth.
If you find this essay breakdown helpful, then you might want to check out our The Dressmaker Study Guide where we cover 5 A+ sample essays with EVERY essay annotated and broken down on HOW and WHY these essays achieved A+ so you reach your English goals! Let's get started.