The final outfit for analysis from To Catch a Thief (1954, directed by Alfred Hitchcock) encompasses and challenges the absolute femininity of Grace Kelly, here playing wilful blueblood Frances Stevens. After suffering an embarrassing verbal defeat by mademoiselle Danielle Foussard (Brigitte Auber), in simply donning a coral pink top and pleated skirt with driving gloves, Frances is back in control.
This particular ensemble, or rather the skirt, was a request by Grace to the film’s costume designer Edith Head. Keen at this point in the story to restore what she saw as a more ‘womanly’ inference to Frances, trousers, or even Capri pants, were not considered enough. Yet this is not a moment of vanity, or indeed self awareness for Grace, but an important clue as to how Frances overcomes insecurity – by fully embracing who she is. Femininity is not sex; it is the embodiment of certain characteristics dependent on society’s definition of the term, which of course can be conditional to period and the individual concerned.
Although this costume is characterised, some might argue encumbered, by such overt femininity, it actually places Frances in a position of power throughout her picnic with John Robie (Cary Grant). During the beats, Frances deduces (if she has not already at the start of their date) that Robie is back to his old tricks as a cat burglar. This assumption is achieved principally by placing him off guard and thus confused and vulnerable. Frances’ harebrained driving seemingly puts them both in danger. Robie, no doubt used to the thrill of the chase in his former line of work is tested by someone he would typically be accustomed to dominating, i.e. a woman.
Grace Kelly’s coral outfit is similar to that of her general off-screen attire, contrary to her younger years (she was twenty six at the time of filming) wearing lightly tailored Christian Dior suits; its gentle colour palette is perhaps most associable with her today:
Sleeveless, round neck sweater in coral pink crepe with all over white decorative swirls and ‘shrimps’ pattern, two front darts beneath the bust line; matching skirt, calf length with knife pleats; coral silk scarf and matching slingback shoes, medium heel with closed round toe; white stringback leather driving gloves; nude silk stockings.
This costume is not an indulgence for Grace, after all she did only insist on wearing a skirt for this part of the story. It is an outfit precisely in tune with her character. The skirt is not as ‘New Look’ as other ensembles in the film, but still representative of the late 1940s post-war vogue for exaggerated femininity. That it appears somewhat dated for a young woman in 1954 is credit to Edith Head. Very recent period costume design is surely the most troublesome to recreate (see also Anthea Sylbert’s work in Rosemary’s Baby).
Perhaps this is not Grace’s most complimentary costume either, the heavy pleating unavoidably accentuating her posterior. Nonetheless it does help formulate a teasing sexual dialogue between her and Robie. Note too that Frances does not remove her driving gloves until the picnic. Frances is contradictory in many ways – reserved yet flirty, good-humoured yet tenacious; quite openly accusing Robie of being the Rivera’s prowler at large, much to his (feigned?) astonishment. Moreover there is still the possibility, however vague, that Frances may even be the ‘The Cat’ herself.
While obviously a moot point for those who know the film well, this suggestion does reinforce the notion that costume can hide as well as reveal character. We believe we already know Frances when we meet her; the dazzling, slightly snobbish debutante in an ice blue chiffon dress. However, by the end of To Catch a Thief our opinion of her changes, as do the expectations of those close to her. One cunning deception with Robie later, the real jewel thief is apprehended and Frances has successfully negated that outmoded view of femininity, to, much like a child, be seen and not heard. Frances has proven to be far more than the contents of her wardrobe.
You can watch Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief at LOVEFiLM.com.
© 2011 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.