Ann Roth’s Emmy nominated costume design for Mildred Pierce has received considerable press, mainly for Kate Winslet’s richly tailored suits and Evan Rachel Wood’s glamorous Katharine Hepburn-esque lounge ensembles. Yet the show’s outwardly dowdy housedresses and waitress uniforms are just as interesting. Further to our earlier essay on the former, we shall analyse the displaced sex appeal of the latter.
The sex appeal of the uniform, in this case Mildred’s plain white cotton waitress uniform, buttons at the front, trimmed in brown gingham with a simple rever collar, is entirely one-sided. Lecherous customers grope Mildred as if they have somehow earned the right. These men are aroused by Mildred’s uniform, not because it draws any specific attention to her form, but because it is the ultimate symbol of servitude. This of course is what makes uniforms so popular in (consensual) sex play; the role of master and servant, dominant and submissive.
“You might feel differently if I wasn’t wearing a uniform” retorts Mildred after being fondled by another customer. She realises that in service, clothes are purposeful to the wearer yet hugely enticing to those being waited upon. Mildred also knows that away from the uniform she is just another waitress. There is no shame in this, after all in early 1930s Los Angeles during the Great Depression she was lucky to have work at all, but it does not change the fact that Mildred is on the bottom rung of the power ladder, something she strives to change very soon.
Mildred comprehends that a uniform is function above form. A tool for work and nothing more, but her condescending eleven year old daughter Veda (Morgan Turner) is repulsed by the very suggestion of work full stop. In episode 2, Veda forces Letty (Marin Ireland), who Mildred can now afford to assist around the home, into wearing the uniform she has found in her mother’s closet. Veda knows who it belongs too, despite her feigned ignorance, but chooses to purposely humiliate Letty by treating her like a slave. Without the uniform Letty is just ‘help’. With the uniform she represents the commonality of the lower classes and that one facet they all have in common: they have to work.
In many respects Veda would have been far more comfortable growing up as one of the ‘Bright Young Things’ of the mid-1920s, dressed in a fringed flapper frock with bobbed hair and a sequin cloche. During this time of perceived economic boom in the U.S., it was actually considered fashionable not to work. Contrast this with the thirties onwards, when working became known as a noble and respectable pursuit, particularly for men as providers to the family. Furthermore in modern society working for both sexes is seen as a moral right.
For a show filled with racy content, one of the sexiest scenes occurs as a simple act of changing clothes when Mildred slips on her waitress uniform and cap for the final time. We see her exposed briefly in a nude brassiere and slip before carefully buttoning up the uniform and attending to customers. It is no accident after this sudden almost nakedness that during the next scene she meets her future lover, loafing lothario, Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) in his soft polo shirt and burnt orange sports jacket. Having already quit her job, Mildred departs early to temporarily elope with Monty to Santa Barbara.
Later in episode 3, Veda lashes out at Mildred, claiming Monty told her, “A gingham apron is the greatest provocation ever invented by women for the torture of man”. As will eventually pertain to Veda, sex for Monty is about class; sex with those he perceives to be in servitude is a power trip. Symbolism of the uniform, even just the frilly apron and housedress worn by Mildred on the opening night of her restaurant, is such that it becomes a costume. Not what ‘real’ people wear; only those who work do and, as such, are beneath him. “I have been looking at you in that costume all night and took great difficulty from biting it” Monty snarls. They then have sex, typically with Monty in the dominant, commanding role.
The flipside of the uniform is not explored in Mildred Pierce, in that it tends to be more readily associated with masculinity; the concept of the male ‘rescuer’ or more generically ‘hero’. Seen recently with Ryan Gosling in Drive (2011), his own unconventional hero garb subverting the traditional fireman, policeman, even caped crusader uniform. This dominant heterosexual fabrication is just as rudimentarily defined as the 1930s female in her maid or waitress uniform. It does not reflect socio-political or cultural change, yet still remains consistent as a storytelling device. Uniform for women: feminine and submissive, uniform for men: masculine and dominant.
Notably the waitress uniforms Mildred has made for her own staff are more like day dresses, gently fitted with short puff sleeves, a Peter Pan collar and near concealed buttons. Nonetheless an overriding factor remains – those in servitude, principally Mildred in episodes two and three, are primed as sex objects. The appeal of the uniform is first and foremost a fantasy; the moment you remove it, everything suddenly becomes very real.
You can watch Kate Winslet in Mildred Pierce at LOVEFiLM.com.
© 2011 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.