HBO’s five part adaptation of Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet debuted 25th June on Sky Atlantic. A prevalent theme in the first episode is how domestic costume, specifically the housedress, can be read as a signal for sexual availability.
Mildred Pierce (Winslet) is abandoned by her husband at the start of the story and left to bring up her two daughters alone during America’s Great Depression. At present there is little cause for Mildred to choose anything other than rudimentary housedresses. As costumed by Ann Roth, Winslet wears three such dresses in total. One is calf length in brown floral crepe, belted with long slashed sleeves and high round neckline. It is reused several times. Perhaps in the strictest definition of the term this is not a housedress, yet the episode is keen on exploiting it as Mildred’s ‘go to’ piece. Correctly accessorised, the dress could suffice for almost any occasion.
When we first meet Mildred she is baking in a dark blue housedress with white polka dots worn beneath a gingham check pinafore. As presentable as Mildred may appear to our eyes, she would never have dreamed of leaving the house in this ensemble. Despite limited means this was still a period of formality. Even Mildred’s neighbour, Lucy Gessler (Melissa Leo), dons an upturned brim cloche before strolling across her garden to snoop.
Lucy refers to Mildred as a ‘grass widow’ (divorced or separated woman), though not in a derogatory sense. She sees this as an opportunity for Mildred to find a new man; one to ‘keep’ her, essentially in return for sex. Sex disguised as love. Mildred is not so sure, but does arrange a dinner date with her absent husband’s disheveled former business partner, Wally Burgan (James LeGros). On Lucy’s advice she forgoes his offer of an expensive restaurant and instead cooks Wally a meal in her own home.
Mildred makes a point of wearing the same flowery brown dress that Wally had seen her in earlier. After clearing away his dinner she excuses herself to change, presumably into something more evening appropriate. But the allure of Mildred’s housedress has already taken hold. He follows her into the bedroom and they have sex. To Wally, his own sense of restored masculinity is an aphrodisiac. The flimsy cotton of Mildred’s dress, fitted yet displaying no flesh, means her sexuality is emphasised because it remains concealed. In Wally’s mind, Mildred is just a lonely housewife desperate to fulfil sexual longing.
Notably, Mildred also wears her brown dress for two meetings at the employment agency. We get the impression her wardrobe is scant and what she does own has a thousand uses. Accompanied by a knitted cloche and then floppy brim hat and matching gloves, she looks resolute but homely. This outfit rings alarm bells for the woman handling her case. Clearly used to seeing grass widows traipse through her doors with grand expectations, she dismisses Mildred as a homemaker trained for nothing.
Anxious, Mildred attends an interview for the role of housekeeper at a suburban estate. The disparity between herself and the silk and lace world of the mistress is too much to bear. Yet, walking out on this interview leads indirectly to another job – a cafe waitress. Something dismissed by polite society as lowly ‘uniform work’.
The symbol of domesticity is never far away; even Mildred’s waitress uniform is trimmed in gingham. Gingham and similarly patterned ‘graph paper check’ became popular during the 1930s and 40’s as relaxed American style came to dominate fashion. The housedress was now staple armour of the busy suburbanite. Almost a badge of honour, it signified hard graft during the first decade of the 20th century when this was acceptable, even desirable. The era of the idle rich was over – for good. It is just a shame that no-one ever tells Mildred’s pretentious daughter, Veda.
© 2011 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.