Director Peter Jackson’s big budget King Kong (2005) remake is set in 1933 (same as the original). This is slap bang in the middle of America’s Great depression, tasking costume designer Terry Ryan with creating looks that replicate the obvious poverty of the time plus the go-for-broke ensembles adopted by many people for glamorous night time events and parties.
Ryan costumed King Kong heroine Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) in two distinct categories: New York attire and film within a film outfits, i.e. those worn on board the ship to Skull Island and while on the island itself.
Ann’s New York look is largely in keeping with the era; although with an absence of pencil thin eyebrows and bobbed hair (Watts wore three curly wigs instead) Ann is deliberately soft to heighten her helplessness. This is something Orson Wells alike movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black) immediately seizes upon and exploits.
The tall fur-wrapped cloche hat Ann wears during her early scenes with Denham is the film’s most visible reference to the 1930s. Still fashionable after the Roaring Twenties, the cloche denotes her character as an ‘out of towner’ anxious to fit in. However this particular hat would likely be too luxurious for anyone on Ann’s means to afford.
Arguably the two most significant outfits Naomi Watts wears are during her interactions with the ape himself (although a long beaded evening dress Denham films her in on board the ship is perhaps the most beautiful). First, a shortie pink slip when Ann is snatched mid-costume change and sacrificed to Kong; second, a twinkly white evening gown worn for the finale back in New York.
Pale pink silk slip with lace trim. Cream silk dressing gown with tie belt and flared three quarter length sleeves.
This slip is slightly shorter than typical for the thirties and certainly more fitted in the bust. Along with her billowing dressing gown, the latter feature was probably a modesty requirement for Watts’ continued jumping, diving and running around the island.
Ann’s empowerment as a character stems from disintegration. The more filthy and ripped the 28 identical slips worn by Watts become, the closer Ann gets to escaping Kong. In other words the further Ann distances herself from the traditionally flimsy veneer of feminine vulnerability, the better chance she has of staying alive.
This follows the ‘sex as punishment’ concept frequently employed for teen slasher movies; a hangover from seminal 1978 horror Halloween, where the only teenage cast member to survive is the one who does not have sex.
Here in King Kong, Ann too is dependent on shedding her eroticism to survive; except when the dressing gown mysteriously vanishes from her body upon falling into the safety of hero Jack Driscoll’s (Adrien Brody) arms. Apparently now it is okay for her to be suggestive again. Really though, did Ann ever need to be dressed in a thin pink slip to appear suitably vulnerable to and (depending on your reading) attractive to a 25 ft ape?
Peter Jackson’s decision to keep the original film’s 1930s backdrop for his contemporary update is answer enough: he wanted Ann to be an old fashioned, sexually defined heroine. This would have played far less convincingly in a modern setting.
© 2009 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.