by Erin Schallmoser.
CW: sexual assault
After reading Leonie Rowland’s story “The Dressmaker,” one might be left thinking of a myriad of things: the liminal spaces that especially women-identifying people are forced to occupy, the inaccurate saviors we make of ordinary men who just happen to show up at the right place and time, and the role of the victim—and is anyone ever really “playing” it, or are we pushed into it?
The narrator of “The Dressmaker” isn’t asking for trouble or looking for love or trying to find her next wild adventure. Yet somehow, she gets a twisted alchemized version of all three as a result of speaking to a man who steps into the elevator she’s using, as a result of going along with this man’s plan for her, like any good, nice woman should. She’s looking for some help navigating the museum, and maybe in some way looking for some help navigating her own life, but her curiosity and overwhelm translate to the man as a victim lying in wait.
A line from the first paragraph, “I was trying to make sense of it all—the artwork, the architecture, my own inadequacy,” drops the reader quickly and deeply into the narrator’s headspace. The sudden shift from universal to specific helps us understand how big the narrator’s inadequacy feels to her—it’s on par with the artwork and the architecture of the museum. We see her being primed to be a victim, not through any fault of her own, but because that is the reality we are living in, unfortunately. Our suspicions are confirmed when the man, who the narrator immediately believes, “will show me the impressionists,” enters the elevator. A man, showing up as a solution to a problem that maybe doesn’t even need to be solved, is a situation that many women will find familiar. The narrator says to the man, about the museum, “‘It’s like a labyrinth.’” It’s clear from the resulting actions that the man interprets this statement as “I’m helpless, please help me,” but what if he’s wrong? What if the narrator is just hoping to be heard, hoping for a little empathy, hoping to have her feelings in this moment validated? The man doesn’t offer any of that. He offers a solution—a solution that keeps the narrator quite literally tied to him.
How is a victim made? Is a victim made, or is it just imagined? These are questions that come to mind as we continue through the story. As the man and the narrator view the museum together, it’s evident that the narrator sees herself as different from other women who have been trapped in the past, and she sees no problem accepting an additional favor from the man, stating, “I thanked him, thinking that most of the women were asleep, unaware of themselves, shining for someone else.” But I will be different, you can imagine the narrator whispering fiercely to herself. Where is that belief coming from? Is it her ego? Is that so terrible? Shouldn’t all women have the right, the ability, to believe “that won’t happen to me”? Shouldn’t that hope for a different, better future be available to everyone? I will caution a yes, and again look to the grey areas and liminal spaces that this story highlights so succinctly.
The narrator believes in an alternate ending for herself up until the very end. While using the tool of the man’s control over her to tie back her hair, she “had no doubt that I would find my way,” and returning to the museum after hours, interprets the glow of the emergency exit sign as moonlight, and not a warning. Finally, she admits to something—not her guilt, for she has done nothing wrong—but there is a sense of admission when she states, “It is possible to be led in both directions: one moment you’re part of the aesthetic movement and the next you are naked in a cubicle.” From there, the story resolves in a series of thrilling and revealing sentences that offer the reader a satisfying gateway into horror—just creepy enough to send shivers down your spine, but hopefully not enough to have you losing any sleep come evening.
Ultimately, it is that line, that line that begins, “It is possible to be led in both directions,” that sticks with me and continues to break my heart. The narrator says so much with that line: this wasn’t my plan, I didn’t know it would end this way, I thought I would be different, I thought he would be different. It is the women that she had been feeling sorry for earlier that day that offer her a piece of the puzzle that she is just beginning to solve, but it is also the women that contribute to her feeling of cognitive dissonance. One can see the future for her, a future where she is led to ask the worst question you could ask when something bad happens to you: Did I ask for this? The answer, of course, is a resounding no, but knowing that doesn’t serve as a cure-all. Contrary to popular belief, the truth, while helpful, won’t always set you free. “The Dressmaker” offers us more than truth. It offers us a chance to see ourselves more clearly—not just in the narrator, but in the man as well, and also the women, who at the end of the story we see are “wide awake, frenzied…covering themselves haphazardly with books and violins.” I can see parts of myself in each of those characters, and therein lies the beauty and strength of this story.