Pillow Talk_Doris Day_red hat top © 2012 Lord Christopher Laverty. All rights reserved.

Doris Day in Pillow Talk: Couture Allure

The perfection of a rose-tinted past, Doris Day’s costumes in Pillow Talk (1959) are some of the most exquisite ever worn on screen. They personify her immaculate character and symbolise the remnants of a dying era; opulence, optimism and the changing face of urbanised fashion.

Costume designer for Pillow Talk was Bill Thomas, although, as became standard with Doris Day pictures, he was not directly responsible for creating her outfits. That job fell to celebrated costume/fashion designer Jean Louis, earning him a ‘Gowns By’ credit on the film. Louis was known for his stylish and often deceptively simple garments, including most famously Rita Hayworth’s strapless black sheath in Gilda (1946). He even created Marilyn Monroe’s sheer ‘President’s dress’, immortalised at John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday celebration in 1962.

Whether or not Jean Louis was working from specification for Pillow Talk we do not know. Bill Thomas would have collaborated closely with set/art directors Richard H. Riedel, Russell A. Gausman and Ruby R. Levitt in terms of coordinating colour and fabric, so Louis would likely have been involved there too. Costume design, even with a separate gowns by credit, is still a collaborative process between several creative minds.

The first garment Doris Day wears as unattached and apparently happy interior designer Jan Morrow is shot provocatively by director Michael Gordon in a lengthy close-up:

Ice blue lace topped chemise, knee length with nude stockings (seam free, sometimes called ‘nudies’).

Then, skipping from her bedroom to the apartment kitchen, Jan slips on her morning attire:

Ice blue peignoir finishing just below the knee, Edwardian neckline with drawstring, short puff sleeves; matching open toe slippers with low heel.

Commonly worn throughout the 1950s and 60’s, a matching peignoir set is generally considered an indulgence today. This particular set is made of chiffon or possibly Nylon, as the fifties saw an exploration of what were then considered to be luxury wash and go fabrics. White lace adds a measure of sensual suggestiveness but Jan is obviously content with her single life. That said, it does not take long for songwriter Brad Allen (Rock Hudson) to get under her skin on their ‘party line’.

Driven to distraction by Brad serenading his conquests over the telephone, Jan departs for her job in a sumptuous rig-out:

Black lightly quilted swing coat falling just below the knee, mandarin collar, large plastic buttons, exposed seam above the bust line; black fur hat (based on Russian Ushanka without ear flaps); large fur muff/handwarmer.

This is just about short enough in the hem to be classed as a swing coat, and certainly achieves the desired to and fro movement. The raised bust seam results in a more traditional – as in pre-sixties Christian Dior – A-line silhouette. Yves Saint Laurent (for Dior) refined this shape in 1958 as the ‘trapeze line’, essentially a slimmer, more defined version. However Jan’s coat most resembles the couture output of Cristóbal Balenciaga, namely his attempt to free what he considered to be the constricted female form from Dior uniformity. Of course, even for a successful interior designer in New York, Jan is somewhat overdressed. Yet this only amplifies Pillow Talk’s heightened reality. It is a world full of beautiful things.

Removing her swing coat to issue a complaint about Brad at the telephone company, Jan has supposedly broken the long established colour ‘rule’ of combining blue and black:

Two-piece skirt suit in French blue herringbone twill, single breasted, short bolero style jacket, wide rever collar, two black buttons closure, set-in three quarter length sleeves; lightly pegged skirt to just below the knee with self-tie fringed scarf at natural waist; true blue long sleeved top with round neck; black high heel shoes with round toes; black elbow length gloves.

French fashion still reigned at the end of the fifties, though that would change dramatically a decade later. In Pillow Talk, Doris Day parades three of the most popular styles of the time, all Parisian influenced: fit and flare, sheath (or wiggle) dress and narrow cut suit with three quarter length sleeves. Thanks to a growing ready to wear market in the U.S., these chic and simple looks were becoming increasingly popular. The narrow cut suit was not forgiving, however, and took Day’s dancer poise to carry off.

Emerald green silk loungewear; embossed bodice, thigh length frogged jacket with mandarin collar, three quarter length turn-back sleeves, ice blue lining and side slits; matching narrow leg trousers and low slippers.

Seen briefly as she discusses the party line problem with her hung-over housekeeper Alma (Thelma Ritter), this lounging outfit, based on a traditional Chinese martial arts uniform (for those that chose to wear one), is another instance of the East Asian stand-up collar in Jan’s wardrobe. Jan is hardly a woman of the world, but would consider herself well read and cultured. She would like others to think the same so promotes a cosmopolitan vibe with her clothes.

Sandy beige sheath dress with slot collar above round neckline, three quarter length sleeves with tailored slit cuffs, attached wide-band belt with buckle worn at natural waist (raised just above at the front), pegged skirt; diamond and gold star shape brooch; beige double breasted unstructured coat in wool bouclé with large peter pan collar, fabric button closure, bright red lining, side splits and horizontal rear seam; red felt lampshade hat (to match coat lining); large red and beige accessory tote.

This is Jan’s most decadent ensemble so far as she is romanced by jilted millionaire Jonathan Forbes (Tony Randall).The mind boggles at just how long such an outfit could have remained in Jan’s rotation; the dress, coat, bag and hat combination are so meticulously matched they could hardly be seen again in the same company, certainly not Jan’s affluent social circle. The way Doris Day wears hats in most of her films is unusual; they tend to be positioned quite far back on her head. This particular hat might be referred to as ‘bucket’ style, although such a definition really only applies to coverings that shield the eyes with their brim. Her minimal lampshade reassembles a 1920s cloche but with a flat crown and, as stated, worn higher on the head.

Jan’s sheath dress is an important fifties silhouette that would continue into the ‘swinging sixties’ (see the first few seasons of television series Mad Men, costumed by Janie Bryant). As supremely elegant as this coordinated ensemble looks it is impossible not to also infer a sexual subtext. Jan is so rigidly ordered, always buttoned up (literally and metaphorically) that she has become stifled by tasteful monotony.

Back home again, Jan embraces full-on cosiness by changing into the fluffiest of feminine nightwear:

Pink fleece dressing gown with hot pink trim, full length, cuffed and revers.

Day spends only seconds in this very gender specific pink dressing gown or night-robe, though is worth mentioning to highlight how perfectly the colour suits her tanned skin. However it is understandable why she does not sport the colour more often in Pillow Talk. Coupled with Jan’s squeaky clean, or at least temporarily celibate persona, it would soften her implied independence to the point of cutesy. Effectively, it would undermine her.

In the next scene, approaching a pivotal one when Jan and ‘Rex Stetson’ meet for the first time, Jan’s showstopping outfit is perhaps her best remembered in the film (it was even replicated for a Doris Day Barbie doll):

Off white silk sheath dress, ankle length, gathered to left shoulder and accessorised with silver, jade and diamond brooch, bateau neckline, fitted bodice panel beneath bust with self tie and plunge back; white elbow length gloves; white mink shrug with single clip fastening and matching clutch.

Jan is spotless white at this point. Having fended off the attentions of Harvard man-boy Tony Walters (Nick Adams), she is still kind enough not to leave him sprawled in a drunken heap (although he is the son of her wealthy client). Jan is so virginal that Brad’s upcoming deceit feels even more unforgivable. Moreover the colour white functions as an ideal marker in this busy fifties night spot, helping Day stand out among a deluge of colourful gowns. Really though, this is all about Jan’s purity. Her purity is what attracts Brad in the first place. It could even be surmised that part of the reason for his caddish behaviour is that he desires to sully her.

Doris Day absolutely wears this stunning dress; importantly it does not wear her. It does cause her to wiggle as she walks, which was undoubtedly the desired effect. The addition of a fur shrug is a practical touch in the context but also adds a contemporary edge. Perhaps with a reduction in skirt length and a slightly wider neckline, this outfit could easily be fashionable today.

After being swept off her feet by handsome and oh-so chivalrous Rex Stetson, Jan retires to bed with one thing on her mind:

Pink silk or rayon nightgown with long sleeves, vertical ribbed detail across shoulders, high Edwardian neckline and matching frilly cuffs.

Intrinsically matronly, but at this stage of the narrative after the initial, almost shockingly sensuous image of Jan smoothing her stockings in a chemise, to sexualise her any further would be too blatant for the era. As they converse in layered exchanges on the telephone, Rex is likewise covered up in silk pajamas beneath a mid-length dressing gown.

Interesting too that director Michael Gordon employs split screen to place Rex ‘on top’ of Jan, which is obviously a metaphor. There is also a fly buzzing around her yellow bed sheets, but presumably this is not symbolic.

Forest green silk and satin evening dress, fit and flare with spaghetti straps and curving pleats across the bust; emerald green trapeze line coat finishing just below the knee, with three quarter length sleeves and puritan collar, lined throughout in white; matching elbow length gloves and clutch.

Jan’s evening attire on her first date with Rex; the test to see if he really is the gentleman he makes out to be. This ensemble is just impossible luxury. Jan’s voluminous coat strikingly echoes Dior’s post-war flamboyance in both fabric and fit. The overall shape is closer to Saint Laurent’s trapeze cut, denoting what we now refer to as A-line.

Watching Doris Day in full swing, elegant and refined, character and actress a seamless match, transports the viewer back to an age when dressing up required the co-ordination of every tiny detail, including all accessories, jewellery and make-up. Odd considering the circumstances, Jan is missing a hat. Her colour choice is quietly telling; as Brad’s scam gets into high gear, she has transformed from pure white to gullible green.

During the subsequent montage, a sort of tour of New York with superimposed catwalk, Jan wears three outfits: long white fur coat and golden yellow dress with attached scarf; silver stain coat with puritan collar; brown round neck fur coat. These are Jan’s day, evening and party guises; neither is on-screen for long, though one returns toward the end of the film.

Following a provocative scene whereby both leads play split-screen footsy in separate baths, Jan is suddenly all covered up:

Yellow fleece dressing gown, trimmed in yellow satin, high empire fit with tie front, zip closure, attached half-cape and three quarter length sleeves.

More overtly feminine night-wear for Jan, although not intended as remotely alluring. This is comfort food for the skin. The colour announces Jan’s exuberant mood as she enters the next phase of her relationship with Rex, and one that Brad likely did not count on – she falls in love.

Green sheath dress, fitted round neck jersey bodice with top-stitched seams forming an apron-like front, bust darts and long sleeves, just below the knee pencil skirt falling from natural waistline with rear slit; matching swing coat with three quarter length sleeves, brown mink fur collar and large hip pockets; dark green shaggy Mongolian fur hat; dark brown high heel shoes with pointed toes; long light blue gloves.

The skirt and coat may have been constructed from young Karakul fur but this is difficult to confirm. Various tones of green along with the fabric weight and stark contrast between snug and billowing ensure this is one of the most fascinating costumes Doris Day wears in Pillow Talk. Again, there are shades of Dior whose influence on American style, especially ready to wear, would remain well into the sixties. Also contextually, so much green hammers home that Jan has much to learn about trust. No-one in this story is straight with her, yet at present she remains blissfully unaware. However, for Brad his Rex Stetson gambit is on the verge of collapsing.

Burgundy velvet bell coat with flounce, puritan collar and three quarter length sleeves, matching fabric buttons, lined throughout in white satin; burgundy velvet evening dress, sleeveless, fitted bodice and scoop neck.

Velvet was a popular choice for evening wear in the fifties, even more so at the end of the decade as the austerity grip really loosened. A huge bell coat (sometimes referred to as a ‘smother’ or ‘duster’) with strappy dress to match is a chic statement. The coat’s drop waist is discreet acknowledgement that trends were on the cusp of a monumental change; this era of severe and unchallenged feminine elegance would never come around again.

At this juncture the flm confounds modern audiences with its now infamous ‘gay scene’, wherein by an incredible perversion of fate, Rock Hudson plays a straight man pretending to be homosexual. Being homosexual himself, although not openly so, instils this scene with broad humour and at the same time tremendous sadness. Thankfully no additional allusion was implied with Hudson’s costume – no colourful flourish or ascot. In this respect identity is established more by actions than appearance; Rex ‘appears’ to be straight so therefore he must be. Humour is derived from the contrast between his appearance and actions, not the correlation.

Needless to say the story flips again at scene end with Rex now firmly in control, even convincing Jan to spend the weekend alone with him at a rural retreat. Bear in mind they only kissed for the first time five minutes ago.

Beige knitted wool dress with long set-in ribbed sleeves and ribbed roll neck, knee length skirt with back slit, attached narrow belt gathering material into natural waist; light brown and cream check unstructured coat with funnel neck, wide fur hood, fur collar and cuffs; beige leather gloves; tan high heel shoes with pointed toe.

This is Jan’s going away dress, which apart from its raised hem is hardly suggestive of anything let alone a ‘dirty weekend’. Brief mention must be made of the outerwear Rex is wearing, a luxurious and uncharacteristically loud Loden style garment in mottled grey tweed. The shorter length makes this coat ideal for driving a convertible, plus the jazzy finish is more worthy of the supposedly creative Brad Allen.

Jan’s dress is understated though eye-catching and certainly the most forward thinking item Jean Louis created for Doris Day in Pillow Talk. It is strongly reminiscent of Yves Saint Laurent‘s output during the mid-late sixties. The futuristic evocation of ribbing effect and rollneck, along with clean monochrome finish make this dress almost proto-Mod.

Repetition of yet another real fur topped coat sends this look back somewhat, but obviously functions within the narrative as a way for Jan to keep warm in an open top car.

Bright red unstructured coat, mid-length, three quarter sleeves and large plastic matching button closure; red suit with pencil skirt finishing just below the knee; tall leopardskin cloche hat with flat crown and lightly upturned brim; leopardskin handwarmer; tan high heel shoes.

Fleeting yet easily remembered, this outfit reflects just how ‘on fire’ Jan is after rumbling Brad’s scheme. She is back in a hat, one of her most distinctive in fact; a cloche variant worn far back on the head. Of course, typical for Day and how this style was generally worn in the fifties. One point to note: Jan wears both leather gloves and a handwarmer here, which even for autumn/winter New York seems a tad excessive.

Black velvet skirt suit trimmed in royal blue, edge to edge jacket lined in red, with high revers, long sleeves and soft natural shoulder; white long sleeve blouse, cuffed, with round neck and bow tie; narrow below the knee skirt; crushed black velvet beret with matching embellishment; star brooch on waistband of skirt.

From angry red to serious black, this ensemble is all business for Jan. Though she did know not about visiting Brad’s apartment beforehand, it is a happy coincidence that thick black velvet with high neck blouse sends out just the right signals. Wearing the beret at a jaunty angle does offset any whiff of austereness, as does the blue trim on her jacket. Nonetheless, this is all about Jan throwing herself back into what she does best – work.

During the brief shopping montage, when Jan has fun buying enough thrift store tat to make Brad’s apartment resemble a hippie love den, she is glimpsed wearing a black Breton hat and the same black swing coat from the start of the story, only this time unbuttoned to reveal a red sheath dress. Fleetingly a red and brown tweed coat with black fur collar is also seen, plus the familiar red felt lampshade hat and double breasted coat, and finally a golden yellow dress with attached scarf and flap pockets (debuted during the courting montage). This is the only time in Pillow Talk when Doris Day reuses her costumes, demonstrating that Jan actually did live in these clothes; this was her wardrobe.

Baby blue ribbed roll-neck sweater and matching narrow pants.

Following the reveal of Brad’s ‘exotic’ new abode, he re-exerts masculinity but literally kicking in the door to Jan’s apartment and lifting her out of bed, electric blanket and all. Understandable given that he carries Jan through New York in nothing but her pyjamas, this nightwear could not be in any way revealing. Not to mention the implication of an unmarried man storming into the bedroom of an unmarried woman when she is anything less than fully clothed. Even so this costume is faintly ridiculous, although covering every erotic curve of Jan’s body certainly eliminates that Brad might force himself on her – she is as safe as any woman adducted from her own bed ever could be. All he has to do now is propose.

Pillow Talk has dated disgracefully in regards to gender definitions and sexual equality, but after several views this becomes increasingly easy to overlook. The breezy byplay between Doris Day and Rock Hudson combined with brighter than life production design and fabulous costumes, shifts the film from potentially offensive to unavoidably charming. Dressing like Jan Morrow in perfect couture might be an expensive lifestyle choice now, but 98 minutes of colourfully rose-tinted nostalgia costs far less.

Pillow Talk was released on Blu-ray on 7th May.

Note: screencaps taken from DVD version. Colours on Blu-ray are far more vivid.

© 2012 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.

  • barefoot duchess

    Fashionably gorgeous! thanks for sharing that!

  • Dominic

    Incredible post! Can you do one of Audrey Hepburn in Two For the Road?

  • James

    Thanks for the in-depth analysis if Doris Day’s fabulous fashions in Pillow Talk -I truly believe she is up there with Audrey Hepburn in reel high fashion grace – very chic.

  • http://www.thehatmuseum.org Norma Shephard

    This is a lovely post. Thanks for the memories! The hat and muff set appear to be genuine leopard, and the hat you describe as a cloche might be more fittingly referred to as a flowerpot hat, one of the iconic styles of the period.

    • http://clothesonfilm.com Chris Laverty

      I ummed and arred with the word ‘print’ but I think you might be correct. The crown on a flowerpot hat is more conical.

  • CateS

    I suspect that her hats took into consideration the lighting requirements of filming.. shadows on the faces, etc. I’ll bet she was pretty darn warm in those outfits under those lights!! Thanks for the information!!

    • http://clothesonfilm.com Chris Laverty

      Can you imagine?! This really is the ultimate coat movie. Directors do typically hate using hats because of framing, continuity and, as you said, shadows.

  • Kenneth

    How splendid is this post. One of my favorite movies. My mom dressed like this in the late fifties. In fact she had a white bunny fur pillbox hat and matching muff from Saks 5th Ave. at this time. She did wear white leather gloves with the muff….and added a costume jewelry red/green poinsettia pin to the muff in December! Thanks for the memories of a bygone elegant, feminine portrait of fashion.