[Spoilers ahead for True History of the Kelly Gang]

One of the most well-known, true facts about notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly is that he was eventually captured by police during a shootout where he was wearing bulletproof armour. Justin Kurzel’s latest film, True History of the Kelly Gang (based on Peter Carey’s 2000 novel of the same name), adds an extra layer of fictional intrigue to the occasion, depicting Kelly and his crew wearing long, lacy women’s dresses while enacting their criminal deeds.

A surprising and perhaps comedic choice on first look, the use of female clothing in this intensely masculine story is a fascinating way of communicating the relationships between these characters and their culture. Take the script at its word, and the reason for the Kellys’ cross-dressing is merely a tradition passed down to them through the generations, used as an intimidation tactic to challenge authority. But dig a little deeper, and the Kelly gang gowns become a much more complicated motif throughout the film – one that challenges not just authority, but sexuality and gender roles too, and that ultimately defines the power dynamics between Ned and those around him.

Before Kelly starts wearing dresses, his attitude towards them early on in the film is less than positive. The first mention of a ‘frock’ comes from Charlie Hunnam’s stomach-churningly cruel Sergeant O’Neil. A dangerous, looming presence over the Kelly family, O’Neil bears a vendetta against Ned’s father, and conducts repeated visits to their house to extort sexual acts from his mother.

He tells Ned about seeing his ex-convict father riding his horse through the woods in a flowing red dress, intensifying his implications of homosexuality when he says, ‘off to be serviced by his husband, I suppose.’ This is O’Neil’s attempt to undermine Ned (played in his younger years by the remarkable Orlando Schwerdt), and to humiliate him. It works; Ned and his sister find their father’s dress and set it alight. It becomes a symbol of embarrassment and a rejection of his heritage. The same rejection happens again later, when Ned is older and sees his brother doing that which O’Neil had mocked his father for so many years previously.

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Courtesy of: Film4

This initial disgust at a man in woman’s clothing speaks to Ned’s internalised homophobia, made even more interesting by the hints of queer coding sprinkled throughout the film. Most notable is Ned’s closeness with Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), expressed through physical rough-and-tumble, and long lingering looks that feel as though they should end in a kiss. And, when faced with the prospect of a sexual interaction with Mary (Thomasin McKenzie), Ned appears nervous and uncomfortable, like he’s unsure how to feel when confronted with her womanhood.

It’s only after Ned learns what the blackened faces and frilly dresses stand for in his family’s cultural legacy that he becomes open to the idea of donning one himself. As imagined by Peter Carey in his novel, the Kellys are part of an Irish faction called the ‘Sons of Sieve’; men who blacken their skin and wear a uniform of women’s dresses when committing crimes and standing up to their oppressors, as a way of undercutting their authority and throwing them off guard. According to Ned’s brother Dan (Earl Cave), it’s purely about confusing the enemy – ‘nothing scares a man like crazy’ – but the way this clothing choice subverts gender and sexuality is inescapable.

This period – the late 1800s – was when the image of Australian masculinity was gathering strength. The harsh brutality of the bush landscape makes for primal expectations of men, and the clashes between indigenous Australians, new colonials landing there and the lawmakers attempting to control them is the perfect canvas for the rise of the alpha male. That the Kelly Gang follow the ‘Sons of Sieve’ tradition of wearing dresses serves not only to confuse their opposition but gives off the impression that they are unhinged through the ultimate act of male disempowerment: wearing pretty clothes.

Ireland and Wales do have a history of cross-dressing which sheds some light on this, as explored in-depth in this research paper by Heather Smyth. She notes how back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, secret groups and societies formed amongst peasants as a way of protesting against land use, and some of the rituals of these protests involved costumes much like those seen in True History of the Kelly Gang. Whilst it isn’t a depiction of these specific groups that we see in the film, this slice of Irish history clearly provides a huge amount of cultural context for Carey’s novel, and Kurzel’s adaptation.

Whilst the Kelly Gang’s uniform appears to be inherited from Ned’s father, his mother Ellen (Essie Davis) is also a huge influence in Ned’s life, and surely key to the symbolism of the dresses as power in the film. As soon as Ned’s father dies, Ellen puts pressure on her young son to not just become a man, but the man of the house.

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Courtesy of: Film4

It is she who ultimately sentences him to an early death with her actions in his childhood, selling him to Harry Power (Russell Crowe) to assist with his crimes, and setting in motion the baptism of blood that exposes him to so much violence down the line. It is she that challenges his attempts to go straight after getting out of prison, that fans the flames of the beast inside him. It is she that he dies trying to save – something that Ellen tells Mary is the measure of being a good mother. The dresses are never directly linked to Ellen in the film, but are nonetheless a clear symbol of Ned’s Oedipal complex, and obsession with garnering his mother’s love and approval.

Ellen’s power over her son is unmatched, but the exchange of girlish gowns is used as an expression of dominance – both sexual and physical – between multiple characters throughout True History of the Kelly Gang, especially Nicholas Hoult’s unbearable Constable Fitzpatrick.

When Ned first meets him, Fitzpatrick acts like a friend. Having seen Ned’s physical prowess before when watching him win a boxing match, he takes the upper hand in their first conversation despite being almost completely naked. He asks Ned if he has ever fucked anyone whilst wearing a dress, talks of the pleasure of it, says it’s like ‘breaking the rules’. In talking to the inexperienced Ned so brazenly, he is using the normally emasculating act of cross-dressing as a way of signalling that his manhood cannot be impacted by such a thing.

Fitzpatrick goes on to become Ned’s nemesis, a brilliant villain in Nicholas Hoult’s spate of scene-stealing supporting roles recently. He shows interest in Ned’s sister, going into the belly of the beast by entering the Kelly family home and offering her a long, white, bridal-style dress as a gift, before asking her to sit on his lap and give him a kiss on the cheek as a thank you. The message is clear: he considers her a piece of property, one that is his now, to do with what he likes. In just a couple of scenes, the dress motif has gone from one of male sexual dominance to that of female subservience.

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Courtesy of: Film4

Just as fascinating as the men donning dresses in True History of the Kelly Gang, so too is their meaning when worn by women. After Ned sees his brother in full frock attire, he returns the dress to Mrs Robinson’s, a nearby house filled with vulnerable women and men looking for a warm body. He ends up alone with Mary, a quiet Celtic girl who is already a mother to one baby and will end up carrying Ned’s child too. She undresses before putting on the blue frilly gown. Ned observes her, visibly nervous and unsure, before telling her she looks lovely. Mary says it’s just the dress. He tells her that it isn’t. More so than even the idea of the dress being used to express power differently between genders, here is the literal same piece of fabric moving from acting as a statement of strength and protest on a man, to a piece of adornment and a precursor to sex on a woman. What is functional and empowering for the male becomes something for the female to be stripped of, to show all that women were truly valued for back then – their bodies.

Dresses ultimately become another piece of armour for Ned Kelly and his gang. Each recruit receives their own; a piece of uniform worn in an effort to disrupt the rules of gender, the gang set off on their crusade with the hope of also disrupting the social hierarchy that they find themselves in the murky depths of. Left without the privilege of any real way of protecting themselves, women have used clothing as armour throughout history – as a form of self-expression, of disguise, of hiding from the male gaze or using it to one’s advantage. In the end, it rarely works. The dress is ripped off, the armour broken, and another woman’s power is stolen from her.

In Ned’s case, when he finally steps into his own power is when he gives in to that of the dress. His does not bear fanciful frills or pastel colours; it is all black, with long mesh sleeves and gothic embroidery. His masculinity and femininity combine to propel him to his most ruthless, most deranged, but also his most vulnerable. Ned is defeated in a blaze of glory, ready for a war but dressed for a funeral. As it turns out, no matter how much power the dress imbues within him, the funeral is ultimately his own.