After her flimsy pink slip on Skull Island, this is the second most significant outfit Naomi Watts wears as Ann Darrow in King Kong (2005).
As simple as evening wear gets (though strictly in the context of the film it is stage wear), Ann’s white gown is authentically period accurate; 1930s was the couture decade to introduce evening dresses in their now familiar form.
That a plain cut-on-the-bias dress such as Ann’s could be worn at any formal party function today without raising so much as a martini glass demonstrates the far-reaching influence of thirties designers; major names such as Gilbert Adrian and Edward Molyneux; those who prioritised simplicity and form above all else.
Under guidance from director Peter Jackson, costume designer Terry Ryan brought the film’s night-time New York climax to life with as much glitz and glamour as possible. Most accessories were sourced in Jackson’s home country of New Zealand, including 330 pairs of ladies shoes made by Kiwi footwear company Kumfs.
Suitable old fabrics for costumes were tough to find. Natural fibres befitting the era were used wherever possible, e.g. cotton, linen and silk. Apparently rayon, which was widely used as a cheaper alternative to silk in the thirties, was most difficult to come by in good condition.
Naomi Watts’ deceptively complex evening gown was created from an original design by Ryan himself:
Ankle length evening dress in white silk velvet, bias cut with twin shoulder straps joined by rhinestone clips, reverse cowl neckline, circle skirt with uneven hem. Silver studs and sequin appliqué to sides of bodice; silver sequin appliqué to straps, v-neck and top portion of the skirt.
Silver leather T-strap shoes with high heels.
A less fussy and flapperish outfit than Fay Wray’s dress in the original King Kong (1933), and yet the overall look is similar: delicate, pristine, virginal silk wafting softly in the night air. It was not Ann’s femininity that tamed the beast, it was her fragility. Though in the framework of the remake it could be argued that they are one and the same thing.
The dress was cut on the bias not just to reflect the period (a halterneck would have made it even more accurate), but also to swirl romantically in front of a wind machine.
Ryan confirmed, “You like clothes to work in their environment”. A revealing insight as it might be assumed costumes are designed to work in their environment first and foremost. Such a consideration can surely be the only reason why clothes in some big budget films appear to be so obviously inaccurate? Vivien Leigh’s contemporary dresses in Gone with the Wind (1939) for example.
Watts is dressed in a gown far too opulent for the mid-level theatre production her character is seen dancing in – this is the Great Depression after all. Yet, as Terry Ryan concedes, an outfit needs to be about environment just as much as setting; symbolism as much as realism.
Perched on top of the Empire State Building in pure perfect white, Ann is not just in place to tame the beast. As a mortally wounded Kong loosens his grip and plunges 1000 ft to the street below, she is there to guide him; she is his angel.
Read an astonishingly detailed study of this dress design at Alley Cat Scratch Costume.
© 2009 – 2013, Chris Laverty.