True 'Haute Couture': Designing Personal Character;

The Fabric of Our Humanity

By Neely Kennedy

The often conflicting emotions of ambition and ethics lie at the center of Kate Alcott’s period novel The Dressmaker. Finding herself with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work for famed designer Lady Duff Gordon, aspiring seamstress Tess Collins learns that blind ambition sometimes comes at great consequence. Lady Duff seems to have it all; a devoted husband, a world-renowned career, and an endless stream of public admiration. However, her choice of action the night of the fateful sinking of the Titanic exemplifies the dark side of her selfish aspirations. Will Tess follow in her mentor’s footsteps or will she forge a new and uncertain path in the unfamiliar world of New York City?

Below are three examples of the choices Tess must make between ambition and ethics:

Love and Ethics—Tess must decide between the financially advantageous love of Jack and the risky love of her heart Jim.

“What an extraordinary thing to have a man like that love her. It made her feel valued in a way she had never known, as if she danced inside a fairy tale. She had dreamed about him, and had then found herself gently enfolded into his version of the world. But perhaps the same had been true of the second Mrs. Bremerton. And the first.“

“She could allow herself to think of Jim too. To remember the energy and excitement of life bursting from him, surrounding her, making her laugh and dream and think-that’s what he represented. Not security, just hope.”

Business and Ethics—Lady Duff Gordon offers Tess the security of her success and celebrity. When faced with the truth of the night of the sinking, Tess must decide between her loyalty to the designer and her inner voice.

“Lucile’s nature wouldn’t change. It would always be to praise and criticize and goad and condemn, ensnaring everyone into a constant dance of trying to please, running harder, doing anything to please Madame. Not only could she see the web; she could feel it, and she’d not let its sticky pleasures catch her again.”

“I’ve told you to look for opportunity, Dear Tess. Keep Your Head up, not down. Don’t settle for safety. Push forward – you are not foolish to try.”

Journal about a time in your own life when you faced a moral dilemma. Write about the three most important factors that influenced your decision, and how that decision ultimately reflected your moral fabric. Are you proud of your decision? How would you do things differently if you had it to do over, if at all?


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