As spoilt yet charming Frances Stevens, Grace Kelly wears a total of ten separate costumes in Alfred Hitchcock’s lavish romantic caper To Catch a Thief (1954).
All outfits were designed by easily the most famous costume designer who ever lived, Edith Head. Typical for Head, Frances’ outfits are a mix of steady, daring and occasionally bizarre, including a pale yellow one-piece swimsuit with ‘cats eye’ sunglasses, an unflattering blue tunic trouser suit and wild 18th century gold lamé gown with piled up sausage curls wig.
For our coverage, three of the more interesting ensembles have been chosen, each reflecting a facet of Frances’ personality and in some way informing the narrative. Number one is an ice blue chiffon gown worn for her first face-to-face encounter with apparently retired cat burglar John ‘The Cat’ Robie, played by then fifty year old and judiciously tanned Cary Grant.
This floaty, conspicuous dress is an appreciable nod to Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’, launched onto the fashion stage in 1947. Despite Edith Head’s well documented wariness of trends, she evidently needed to project the period in which To Catch a Thief is set, around 1947-49. Moreover there was the New Look copyright issue, especially prevalent in the U.S. whereby Dior’s distinctive gowns had been ‘reworked’ for the American market by boutiques and department stores. Legislation was introduced in 1952 protecting a collection for one season, though it was generally too convoluted to enforce. In any case, Dior licensed a prêt-à-porter line to Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus the following year.
Head’s blue débutante dress is her own suggestion of the New Look (for it is merely that). The colour in particular is incapable of blending into the background and serves to define rich girl Frances in a single shot:
Floor length ice blue chiffon evening dress. Fitted bodice into the waist with spaghetti straps, gathered from knot above left bust and left rear waist; natural blue block stripe below bust knot, draped into waist and running full length of the gathered skirt, also from left waist into skirt and above rear wrapover to knot on left waist then into skirt; worn with matching blue clutch bag, white open toe sandals and blue chiffon scarf.
To clarify what New Look typifies in terms of style… it was a fashion movement that began following Christian Dior’s first collection. The term was supposedly coined by Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow. Broadly defined, it is an out-and-out rejection of World War II austerity; a distaste for anything resembling a uniform, i.e. shapeless and functional. New Look was a return to the gaiety of La Belle Époque (1890-1914); the embracing of full busts and high waists above voluminous skirts. Most of Dior’s creations were padded with bustiers and corsets. Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, also hugely popular at the time, embraced the luxury of New Look though was more concerned with working from the body than controlling it like Dior. Balenciaga never used padding.
This dress is not directly inspired by Dior or Balenciaga; it is a likeness by Edith Head to show Frances as wealthy and fashionable, although detached and overly concerned with display. Think that the dress is OTT? Consider that some of Dior’s gowns possessed five layers of tulle and nylon net and it suddenly becomes merely believably ornate.
Apart from her lamé gown for the costume ball finale, this is Frances’ most visible dress in the film. No jewellery is worn, there is no need; enough meaning can be ascribed with the style and colour. During this period such a vibrant blue for evening would have been unusual, even more so for a single woman in her late twenties/early thirties. This chilly ensemble immediately removes all trace of inner warmth from Frances and then the rest of the film is spent gradually restoring it while infusing her character with a dry and quite naughty sense of humour.
During their first meeting, dashing Robie cuts through this glacier easily enough, even receiving an unexpected goodnight kiss. Yet Frances, and by proxy Grace Kelly, has now been established as the principal object of fascination for characters and audience. Prioritising her as so central to the narrative (directly involving her with Robie), even hints that Frances could possibly be ‘The Cat’, an idea that is subtly reinforced by several costume choices further into the film.
More To Catch a Thief articles to follow at Clothes on Film.
© 2011 – 2013, Chris Laverty.