My final defeat, which made me cry real tears, came at the end of [Pandora's Box], when [G.W. Pabst] went through my trunks to select a dress to be 'aged' for Lulu's murder as a streetwalker in the arms of Jack the Ripper. With his instinctive understanding of my tastes, he decided on the blouse and skirt of my very favorite suit. I was anguished. "Why can't you buy some cheap little dress to be ruined? Why does it have to be my dress?" To these questions I got no answer till the next morning, when my once lovely clothes were returned to me in the studio dressing room. They were torn and foul with grease stains. Not some indifferent rags from the wardrobe department but my own suit, which only last Sunday I had worn to lunch at the Adlon Hotel! Josifine hooked up my skirt, I slipped the blouse over my head, and I went on the set feeling as hopelessly defiled as my clothes. Working in that outfit, I didn't care what happened to me...
I did not realize until I saw Pandora's Box in 1956 how marvelously Mr. Pabst's perfect costume sense symbolized Lulu's character and her destruction. There is not a single spot of blood on the pure-white bridal stain in which she kills her husband. Making love to her wearing the clean white peignoir, Alva asks, "Do you love me, Lulu?" "I? Never a soul!" It is in the worn and filthy garments of the streetwalker that she feels passion for the first time--come to life so that she may die.
--Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood
The Siren was recently designated a fashion blogger by a European site called Wikio, an honor that left her equal parts amused, flattered and puzzled. Aside from her annual rant about the costume awards at the Oscars, a tribute to Mary Astor's makeup and a brief series of posts about perfume, the Siren can't recall saying much about fashion here at her Web outpost, although certainly clothing and makeup rank high on her list of semi-private obsessions. Yet there she is, right next to the black-belt shoppers of Fashionista and seven notches below the cool gaze of the Sartorialist, who would probably stop the Siren in the street right around the same time Dorothy Lamour showed up in hell with a platter of Mai Tais.
Still, the unexpected accolade made the Siren start thinking about costumes in film. The period stuff does get most of the attention, but sometimes deservedly so, as with Walter Plunkett's incredible designs for Gone with the Wind. Those dresses are so brilliantly in tune with Scarlett's character and the events of the movie that you would swear they all must be in the book. The drapery dress is, but just about none of the others are. William Pratt points out that if Plunkett had followed Margaret Mitchell's descriptions to the letter, Scarlett would have spent 9/10ths of the movie wearing green, the author's favorite color. The "scarlet woman" dress that Rhett throws at Scarlett before Ashley's birthday party, for example, was entirely Plunkett's doing. And the Siren has always wanted a better look at the cloudlike indigo gown Scarlett wears in a brief scene of her New Orleans honeymoon. Look closely and you'll see it's adorned with nine stuffed birds--a witty commentary on the once-starving Scarlett stuffing herself with the finest in Louisiana cuisine.
Other great moments in period costume would have to include Marie Antoinette; Jezebel (that red dress was actually bronze, the better to photograph in black-and-white); The Adventures of Robin Hood (Olivia de Havilland spends most of the movie with her hair completely covered, so when she shows up in her bedroom with her hair down in braids, it's a potent sign of sexual yearning); and Queen Christina (the moment when Garbo turns so the firelight outlines her form under a man's shirt is one of the most sensual in all of 1930s cinema).
But the Siren is always drawn to contemporary costumes, particularly those for women. Louise Brooks's essay on Pabst contains what is still the best explanation of costume and performance that the Siren has ever read. Robert Avrech recently posted about designer Helen Rose, and in comments we discussed how an actor's clothing influences a performance. Confronted with that, plus her new job description, the Siren's palms began to itch and she got that yen, the one that says, "It's time to make a highly idiosyncratic list of things I like so that everyone can argue with me, politely."
As Yojimboen has pointed out, the ins and outs of costume credits in old movies can be worse than Kremlinology. Some of these were undoubtedly purchased off the rack, but as Annie or Daria could tell you, there's an art to selecting the right clothes, too. The Siren is mostly sticking with the screen credit, but if someone knows the real scoop on who did what, by all means tell us in comments and I'll update.
So, ten great moments in women's costume design. Let's hope this makes whoever clicks over from Wikio more happy and less confused.
1. Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (Orry-Kelly)
I’ll be wearing my white lace gown tonight. I’d like you to wear your black and white foulard.
--Gladys Cooper as Mrs. Henry Windle Vale
Cooper has a lot of bitchy moments in Now, Voyager, such as, just to pick one out of a hat, throwing herself down a staircase to ensure her daughter stays chained up as a nursemaid.
But the Siren thinks even trying to order the newly fashionable Charlotte back into this offense to the human eyesight is as evil as it gets. Have you ever seen anything to equal this horror? The hem that hits just the right spot to get that redwood-forest effect every woman wants for her legs. The neckline that rests at her throat only because the climb to the earlobes got too exhausting. The lace at the collar, probably thrown there by Gladys in one of her temper fits. The way the dress droops away from the body, yet clings enough to say, "There is a whole world of lumpy oatmeal under here and brother, you want no part of it." It's a goddamn triumph of costuming. Kim Morgan recently said every woman should have Claude Rains as her psychiatrist, and ain't that the truth--but Dr. Jaquith's one mistake is waiting to talk to Charlotte before they leave together for his cozy sanitorium. The second she entered wearing that monstrosity, he should have said, "Right, we're outta here."
2. Jean Seberg in Breathless (N/A)
Michel: How old are you?
Patricia: A hundred.
Michel: You don't look it.
Throw a rock down any street in America and you will hit a woman wearing tight pants and a t-shirt. And not one of them, no matter how beautiful, will look one infinitesimal fraction as dangerous as Jean Seberg does in Breathless. Seberg wears this getup because it's her job to wear it, but when Godard's camera catches her calling "New York Herald Tribune," you see a warning sign that Belmondo does not. It's more than her beauty. It's the way she walks, not just casual in her clothes, but careless. Another down-market outfit, another wasteful American in Paris, ready to toss things aside for who knows what reason.
3. Audrey Hepburn's suit in Sabrina (screen credit, Edith Head; actual design, Hubert de Givenchy.)
You needn't pick me up at the airport. I'll just take the Long Island Rail Road and you can meet me at the train...If you should have any difficulty recognizing your daughter, I shall be the most sophisticated woman at the Glen Cove station.Over at Glenn's place there is a discussion under way about the old saw that Jaws and/or Star Wars "killed the movies." The Siren remarked that the movies were neither dead, nor dying, nor even feeling a bit faint. Here she adds that this kind of chic, however, is deader than vaudeville. Just imagine showing up at the fetid underground bunker that is modern-day Penn Station wearing that suit. You'd get fewer stares wearing a sandwich board. The suit isn't the movie's most famous costume; that's the Sabrina dress, a version of which the Siren has in her own vintage-clothing collection. But this moment, as Wilder's camera gloats over Hepburn from the top of her hat to the little dog at her feet, is one of the most thrilling in the history of film fashion. Sabrina, the lovelorn chaffeur's daughter, has learned poise and confidence, the essential elements of style. Even the least observant visitor to Paris sees that a fashionable Frenchwoman wears chic clothing because she IS self-assured, not because she WANTS to be. This, this is what Paris and a genius designer can do for you!
4. Jean Harlow in China Seas (Adrian)
During my earliest days at Metro, I was put into movies with Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow, and I was always taking their men away from them. Temporarily. It was ludicrous. There would be Jean, all alabaster skin and cleft chin, savory as a ripe peach, and I'd be saying disdainfully (and usually with an English accent, I played a lot of Lady Mary roles) to Gable or Bob Montgomery, "How can you spend time with her? She's rahther vulgar, isn't she?"
--Rosalind Russell, Life Is a Banquet
The Siren would love to tell you this little number is a turning point in China Seas, Tay Garnett's lovable strumpet-on-the-high-seas melodrama from 1935. It isn't, although Harlow wears it in a drinking scene with thoroughgoing louse Wallace Beery, and the jeweled straps do suggest a trap. The neckline is almost modest--right up near the collarbone--as long as you ignore Harlow's obvious lack of underwear and those strips of fabric making an oh-so-scalable ladder down the pure-white arms. Russell was right; it is unlikely Gable would even realize there were other women on the ship.
5. Mary Astor & Ruth Chatterton in Dodsworth (Omar Kiam)
Edith: My dear...don't.
The British gave us the cruel expression "mutton dressed as lamb," but it's Americans who gave us its best illustration, in Dodsworth. Poor Ruth Chatterton. Her character may turn out to be a harpy, but here the Siren aches for her. That hairpiece, ridiculous on anyone who's out of the schoolroom, hellishly combined with the ill-judged white fabric and the simpering black-velvet bow at the too-low neckline. And, to complete the picture of humiliation, there's Mary Astor, a piece of carved ivory in a perfectly draped evening gown, necklace nestled in a neckline that's even lower than Chatterton's--yet somehow not the slightest bit vulgar. The scene is one of the most poignant in the movie, as Dan Callahan writes so well here, but the costumes take the contrast even further.
6. Barbara Stanwyck in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Robert Kalloch & Edward Stevenson)
General Yen: I'm going to convert a missionary.
From the second she dons a spectacular Chinese robe, every aspect of Stanwyck's movement changes. Her arms float away from her body, she takes longer strides around the room, she suddenly seems conscious of having breasts and hips under the fabric. And you sense, too, that the lack of underpinnings makes her feel just that much more vulnerable to the General, even though she is technically as covered up as she was in her missionary garb.
7. Kay Francis in Mandalay (Orry-Kelly)
They call her Spot White. It should be Spot Cash.
Like Harlow's China Seas dress, this one wins for sheer wow factor. Kay Francis, betrayed by the man she loves, winds up as the top earner in a Burmese whorehouse, and shows she won't let the bastard get her down by strutting down a staircase wearing this. She makes that piece of liquid silver seem worth a crash course in male perfidy.
8. Myrna Loy in The Thin Man (Dolly Tree, wardrobe)
Nick: Have you a nice evening gown?
Nora: What's that got to do with it?
Nick: Have you got a nice evening gown?
Nora: Yes, I've got a lulu. Why?
Nick: I'm going to give a party and invite all the suspects.
Nora: The suspects? They won't come.
Nick: Yes, they will.
The Siren can't remember whether the above-referenced "lulu" is the famous one in the above picture, or the halter-necked black gown Loy wears in the last scenes of the movie. No matter; every good husband who asks a question like that should be rewarded by the sight of his wife wearing something like this, even if nobody ever does show. Maybe especially if no one shows.
9. Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Helen Rose, costume and wardrobe department)
Maggie: You've got a nice smell about you. Is your bath water cool?
Maggie: I know somethin' that would make you feel cool and fresh. Alcohol rub. Cologne.
Brick: No thanks. We'd smell alike. Like a couple of cats in the heat.
In New York City this past week it has been, as Auntie Mame would say, "hot as a crotch." So of course the Siren had to give a nod to Elizabeth Taylor, who set the standard for riding out a heat wave without air conditioning by donning a slip and trying to seduce Paul Newman. The Siren once had the pleasure of relating Cat on a Hot Tin Roof's censorship history to a confused Argentine male who had just watched it and could not get over, indeed seemed personally offended by, Newman's failure to respond to Taylor's come-on: "It was the strangest thing I have ever seen. There's Elizabeth Taylor! and she's wearing that slip! Thank god you explained this..."
10. Kasey Rogers in Strangers on a Train (Leah Rhodes, wardrobe)
Senator Morton: Poor unfortunate girl.
Barbara Morton: She was a tramp.
Senator Morton: She was a human being. Let me remind you that even the most unworthy of us has a right to life and the pursuit of happiness.
Barbara Morton: From what I hear she pursued it in all directions.
Alfred Hitchcock's attention to what his actresses wore gets a lot of press, usually for Rear Window and Vertigo. Here's one that deserves more discussion. Every time the Siren sees this magnificent movie, she's struck again by the brilliance of Miriam's look, how it represents a summit of Hitchcock's oft-stated preference for buttoned-up women. We've already been told about this mantrap who's cuckolding handsome Farley Granger, and we're expecting maybe Linda Darnell. Instead we get a four-eyed tootsie wearing a simple print dress with cap sleeves and a daintily pointed collar, not nearly as tight, body-conscious or as low-cut as you could go in 1951. Miriam probably wore it because it was vaguely pretty and would be easy to clean if she got popcorn butter on it. And the glasses--the Siren can't be the only one mesmerized by Miriam's eyeglasses. Mind you, the glasses are vital to the plot, but Kasey Rogers wields them the way Dietrich wielded a cigarette. This is an everyday black widow we're dealing with, says that costume, the sort of woman who would show up to a backyard pool party in a full-coverage one-piece and a sarong and, given five minutes' opportunity, would still wind up behind the rhododendrons pulling the swimming trunks off the hostess' husband.
There's an awful of lot of sex in this post, isn't there? There are advantages to this whole fashion-blogger gig...