This is the most conspicuous outfit Grace Kelly as Frances Stevens wears in To Catch a Thief (1954), principally because there is little narrative justification for it being so elaborate.
Her 18th century lamé gown, for example, is deliberately ostentatious. It is costume designer Edith Head’s show stopping finale, intended to throw all attention onto Frances as part of her and John Robie’s (Cary Grant) elaborate ruse. This exotic beach wear, however, is jarringly visible for no other reason than because Frances enjoys attention; far from ingratiating her to Robie, or us, she is presented as self-admiring and rather childish.
Note how Frances pauses for a moment on entering the hotel lobby, that absurd wide brimmed hat balancing unsteadily on her head. The gaze from passers by, generally older women in twinsets and summer frocks is both admiring and mocking. Speechless Robie (Grant oddly choosing to fasten both buttons on his blazer) is noticeably embarrassed. Nonetheless, as is so often the case, silly is also spectacular. Frances is a grand spectacle, even if she does know it:
Black beach or ‘resort’ wear: black Capri pants rolled up; black halterneck beach top with round neckline; black edged drawstring tie skirt in ecru silk or white linen, calf length and left open at front; white straw, wide turndown brim hat with crown removed; black turban (likely velvet); high wedge sole sandals; large white beach bag.
While this is a fun look and certainly daring for Head, it was obviously demanding for Grace Kelly to actually wear. She walks stiff, like an anxious student at finishing school. For once it was not footwear that caused the problem, but that oversized, crownless hat. Grace is wearing a flesh coloured skullcap, commonly favoured by dancers, to keep the hat from slipping off her turban. The overall affect is somewhat clumsy and awkward, though does contribute to the uneasy beats between Frances and Robie. Plus director Alfred Hitchcock had a close working relationship with Head, approving every costume for Frances individually. Evidently he must have been content with the result; he was not a man known for settling.
The outfit resembles early 1900s cycling wear, even if in the context of the story it is clearly intended as beach attire. The slim leg trousers look like pedal pushers though are actually very fifties’ capri pants turned up slightly. Cut to the beach itself and Frances has changed into a plain halterneck swimsuit, where she soon has a catty confrontation with Danielle Foussard (Brigitte Auber).
Compared to cheeky Danielle, who is wearing a hipper, more playful variation on the halter neck, a floral trimmed bathing costume with fitted cups and gold bangle, Frances is staid in all black – definite contrast to earlier in the hotel lobby. This is a different audience now, however; a free-spirited opposite, younger and apparently even more audacious than Frances.
This would all change in the proceeding scene when Frances turns the tables on shameless youth by taking control of the situation and deftly wrapping Robie around her little finger; Frances’ most ‘Grace’ outfit yet is to come…
You can watch Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief at LOVEFiLM.com.
© 2011 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.