The green suit worn by Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels in The Birds (1963) has become increasingly symbolic in recent years as we delve ever deeper into the semiotics of film. In this case it is hardly surprising as Hedren only wears three costumes in total; the suit is so visible we cannot fail to draw meaning from its presence. But what was director Alfred Hitchcock trying to say with it, and more importantly, why?
If you visited the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition (now closed in London but moved to Australia and the U.S.), seeing The Birds’ suit would likely have stuck in your mind. It was given prominent placing in room 2, an impressively constructed installation with video recollections from Hedren herself. Yet in real life the suit itself is very basic in style, darker and, dare we say, blander than in the movie. It craves context to bring it to life.
Tippi Hedren as scheming socialite Melanie Daniels. This first costume gives us fair warning of the darkness to come and the mysteriousness of her personality.
Melanie holding the caged lovebirds. This is the first time we see the green suit and apart from a briefly glimpsed nightdress, is Hedren’s only other costume in the film.
Hedren wears the green suit during The Birds’ second sequence, after Melanie’s initial encounter with Mitch (Rod Taylor), and having purchased two lovebirds for his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). From this point on it is worn for the rest of movie, with a fox fur coat added and removed and one brief change into a matronly nightgown. Hitchcock apparently chose green because he felt it had a cool quality that set Melanie apart from the residents of Bodega Bay. While this is certainly true it also syncs Melanie with nature yet at the same time infusing her with a poisonous air. In his earlier film Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock used green lighting to imply the plot’s murky ambiguity. However when Judy Barton (Kim Novak) wears a green jersey dress it is actually to imply her down-to-earth quality, the very opposite of Melanie Daniels in The Birds. Like all colour interpretation, meaning is dependent on perspective.
Hitchcock’s very own Edna Mode, Edith Head, created the green suit. It’s based on her own design for Grace Kelly as Lisa Fremont in Rear Window (1954) – a celadon green I-line suit worn with white halterneck blouse. The Rear Window fabric is completely different, shantung silk instead of wool, and the ensemble is comprised of a two piece jacket and skirt instead of a dress and jacket. The similarities come from Head’s insistence on simplicity; like The Birds’ suit it ages so well because there is little to date it. Hedren’s suit is shorter and boxier than Kelly’s, superficially ‘Chanel like’, though in fact most resembles couturier Digby Morton’s early work (circa 1950s), except in a less luxuriant fabric:
Green sleeveless wool crepe sheath dress, knee-length, nipped in at the waist with high round neckline, small rear vent, matching big buckle belt and darted front – the dress fastens to the rear with zip and single button; matching hip-length edge-to-edge jacket with wide lapel collars, two patch pockets and three-quarter length raglan sleeves with turnback cuffs; knee-length mink fur coat, medium width collar; brown snakeskin frame handbag with gold clasp; gold beaded necklace; gold hook stud earrings; chunky gold ring; gold bracelet watch; dark grey pointed toe high heel leather shoes; grey suede gloves; ecru silk scarf.
Melanie’s fur coat finishes her outfit. Without it she still looks chic, but this is pure minimalist Head – terrified of her work becoming dated so keeps all lines as clean and functional as possible. The dress and jacket are moss-like on screen (Blu-ray transfer) but seeing them both at the V&A exhibition, despite the subdued lighting, the fabric is more asparagus green. In Head’s initial sketches the ensemble was light green and the dress a tubular skirt and separate top, leaning further toward her suit from Rear Window.
The violent conflict with the birds reflects the unspoken conflict between the three women: Melanie (Mitch’s new flame), Annie (Mitch’s old flame, pictured) and Lydia (Mitch’s mother).
Six separate copies of the green suit were made, most broken down for the final bird attack in the attic.
There is a straightforward yet valid parallel to draw from Melanie’s green suit and the caged lovebirds. She is first seen in this suit holding the birds, their colour, while not identical, is indicative enough to suggest a correlation. Melanie is simpatico with all birds; she is reckless and enjoys tricks. The birds are aligned with Melanie so this how they act during the entire film. It’s not a warning, it’s not judgement; it’s just that Melanie likes to play pranks and so do they. It’s a joke. The death and destruction the birds cause are simply consequences that Melanie will have to face. In the end the birds let Melanie leave because the joke is over. Wasn’t it funny? No, not really, but the birds enjoyed it. They don’t consider consequences of their actions any more than she does.
For her introduction in the story, Melanie is cool and smug in a charcoal grey wool blend (possibly mohair) suit with stand collar, a mysterious woman who enjoys attention. Because of this she is punished – in context and by Hitchcock himself – for daring to acknowledge her beauty. Later she is rendered chaste in a nightgown made for housewives and spinsters. The green suit is Melanie’s repressed sexuality, blossoming yet constricted like the caged lovebirds. This facade, as with the suit itself, is destroyed by the end of the film. Who knows what the future has in store for Melanie? Not a life with Mitch that’s for sure. The narrative conflict (thus interest), is between the three women: Melanie, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) and Lydia (Jessica Tandy). The only thing we can safely say for certain is that Melanie will never, ever play another prank again.
You can watch Tippi Hedren in The Birds at LOVEFiLM.com.
© 2013, Christopher Laverty.