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Basic Instinct: Sharon Stone, Devil in a White Dress

Basic Instinct is a movie that even its director Paul Verhoeven has described as “nonsense”, yet one cannot argue with the impact of the white dress Sharon Stone wears for the interrogation scene. Plus there is far more going on here than an absence of underwear.

When this erotic thriller was released in 1992 it was notorious long before projectors whirred to life. Picketed on set by gay and lesbian groups in San Francisco for what they considered to be a stereotypical and offensive view of homosexuality, the film was lucky to have gotten made at all. Of course this was before the furore over that close up, not to mention the ‘Did they? Didn’t they?’ sex scene hysteria. Even Michael Douglas’ v-neck nightclub attire came under scrutiny (minus shirt so Ms. Stone could slip her hand up Douglas’ back), while her dress. Watch the movie now and you will wonder what all the fuss was about.

Basic Instinct is a daft, though well constructed, entertaining noir. Douglas plays Nick Curran, recovering alcoholic SF police detective with a murky past; Sharon Stone is Catherine Tramell, the blonde bombshell chief suspect in his murder investigation. She may or may not be bumping folk off with an ice pick; he definitely wants to crawl into bed to ask her. It is ‘Highly Charged’ as the excitable trailer announced at the time.

Costume design by Ellen Mirojnick is contemporary and fashionable. Although she was not concerned that styles would date, quite the contrary in fact. “I thought the costumes and the look of the film were extremely classic” insists Mirojnick talking exclusively to Clothes on Film. “The contemporary feel of the film is even more contemporary today. It is a timeless piece”.

These contemporaneous sartorial choices help carve the movie into two groups of protagonists: cops in cheerless shirts and Bogart raincoats, and the rich; daytime playthings wearing couture suits and soft fabrics.

Wealthy heiress and novelist Catherine Tramell is the most interesting character in the story because she is pulled in so many different directions. She is a contradiction yet also a stereotype. Her look is not archetypal of the femme fatale. Catherine wears pale not vampish colours and plain knitwear with few accessories. However her look is constructed on the basis of destabilising those around her. Openly bi-sexual (though this film is arguably intended for the male heterosexual viewer), she is a seductress, challenging anyone to resist her allure.

Our first meeting with Catherine occurs at her beach house. She is lounging watching the sea in a fluffy taupe shawl neck cardigan. Hardly the standard reveal for a femme fatale. Her form is hidden as opposed to showcased in warm rather than flimsy body-hugging fabrics.

She is naturally foul mouthed, however, far more so than a throwback dame from the 1940s, although this could be viewed as a sign of changing times more than anything else. Her brash personality forces men to exert their own masculinity in order to compensate. She likes this; it gives her control. Nick Curran takes the bait straight off.

After their first meeting, Catherine’s Hermes silk scarf is referenced by officers at the police station. This is a focal point for the plot as it distinguishes the murderer, plus further alludes to the social divide between the cops and their suspect. Catherine chooses to reveal a new silk scarf to Curran as she undresses in full view of her window. She teases him enough to keep playing the game.

Most symbolic of Catherine, that unstoppable sex appeal she can ‘switch on’ as a construct of her personality, is her white dress. Shortly before Catherine changes for the infamous integration we see her in another, more overtly sexual outfit of shorts and sloppy jumper that reveals her prancing legs and midriff.

Yet it is the white dress that exposes her true character. Catherine is so intelligent she can hide in plain sight. The ‘twist’ in this tale is only really apparent because we underestimate her deviance. Beautiful and smart? There must be a catch. We spend the rest of the movie searching for it:

Short sleeveless dress in winter white wool crepe with matching double face silk, featuring high-cut armholes and roll neck; white shawl neck wrap-over coat; diamond stud earrings; beige stilettos with tall wooden heel.

Ellen Mirojnick sketched and designed this ensemble from scratch. It was then cut and made by Mary Ellen Fields of Bill Hargate Costume, Los Angeles. Mirojnick created Sharon Stone’s interpretation of Catherine as purposely ambiguous, “We are always questioning did she or didn’t she do it. I was interested in creating imagery that was best suited for her character. Catherine was deliberately the icy blonde, similar to a Hitchcockian character” she affirms.

The way the interrogation scene is set, with blue back lighting and Catherine alone in front of an exclusively male audience, is as though she is a stripper on stage. Catherine is performing for the police. She teases men with her body; their questions are like dollar bills to her. The more they throw the more she gives them, removing her coat to expose the contours of her chest and eventually uncrossing and re-crossing her legs with a flash of naked crotch.

This scene is repeated with Nick in the hot seat, essentially mirroring what happened with Catherine. He is now chief suspect in another murder and reciting almost identical answers. Nick is dressed the smartest we have ever seen him in an Italian hi-twist woven taupe, grey and brown worsted suit with necktie. All the character’s shirts were end-on-end cotton, custom tailored by Anto of Beverly Hills. As the film continues, Nick gradually becomes more and more unkempt in line with the gradual unravelling and eventual collapse of his world.

Paul Verhoeven admits that Vertigo (1958) is his favourite Alfred Hitchcock movie; watching it on several occasions before making Basic Instinct. Sharon Stone’s scraped back blonde hair is not a million miles from Kim Novak, plus by Mirojnick’s admission; “Hitchcockian” was definitely an influence in costume, although Vertigo specifically was “never discussed”. Verhoeven views his earlier work De vierde man (1983) as a kind of occult prequel to Basic Instinct. Here a similarly blonde female executioner dons red; she is hot in a way that Catherine is ice cold.

Psychiatrist Dr. Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is written mainly as a red herring, though she also helps exemplify Nick’s shifts in personality. “Jeanne’s costumes were there to be just as much a disguise as Sharon’s” Mirojnick explains, “Her palette was to compliment her dark colouring and to blend organically with her work environment. Every costume I designed for Jeanne needed a sexual ease, not stereo-typically ‘sexy’. For example, Nick Curran slides his hand up Beth’s leg and the fabric of her skirt easily rides up. It is sexy, but it isn’t overtly obvious“.

Following the interrogation, Nick is so frustrated at his inability to manipulate Catherine that he takes his intense sexual frustration out on Beth by nearly raping her. Beth is the antithesis of Catherine, wearing dark greens and browns, sloping shoulder jackets and round frame reading glasses. The red lipstick, however, bestows that siren quality that Catherine denies.

Yet for all the control in her appearance, Beth’s behaviour is unstable and obsessive. She snaps at her co-worker in a bar and lunges at Nick when he suggests their physical relationship meant nothing. Unlike Catherine, Beth is a slave to her emotions. It is so conceivable that she is the killer, even when the film’s final moment reveals the truth for sure; a flicker of doubt still exists in our mind.

With Nick, his attraction to both these women is based on opposites. Beth is submissive whereas Catherine dominates. His constant challenge is to ‘break’ Catherine; halt the cycle of rebuttal then conquer her by having sex. Catherine puts obstacles in his path, most obvious of which is her bisexuality. She makes Nick think he is competing with her female lover Roxy (Leilani Sarelle).

For the most part Roxy is more mannishly attired compared to the two female leads. She wears slim leg black jeans and trousers with Cuban heel boots, vests and a biker leather jacket. If there is a parallel between Roxy’s lesbianism (she is not bi) and masculinity, then Mirojnick maintains “That was not the intention. The character of Roxy was written with a certain tone. It was a choice that Paul Verhoeven and I arrived at”.

In response to her clothes and sexual persuasion, Nick jibes Roxy by calling her ‘Rocky’. To him she is abnormal and unnatural. Roxy is a barrier in his mission to dominate Catherine; his quest is the ultimate heterosexual male fantasy – to make an attractive gay woman straight.

For her part, Catherine dangles this relationship in front of Nick like forbidden fruit. Roxy generally favours darker colours while Catherine wears white and beige. They even have contrasting black and white Lotus roadsters. This becomes a narrative set up when Nick pursues whom he believes is Catherine in a car chase. After a fatal accident it is revealed that Roxy was behind the wheel instead. This gives Nick an opportunity to play the masculine hero, holding Catherine in his arms as she purrs “Make love to me”. Masculinity restored.

Lest we forget too, with that townhouse, beach house and hers/hers sports cars, Catherine is very rich. Her up-to-the-minute attire reflects this point, two prominent examples being sandy coloured Jodhpur-esque trousers with three quarter sleeve top and knee high leather boots and a sparkly gold backless cocktail dress worn for the nightclub scene – the style chosen so Douglas could easily grope Stone’s buttocks. Oftentimes the same big buckle leather belt is used and re-used.

We never see Catherine in the sleeveless white dress or coat again. Following their first sexual encounter she strolls along the beach beside Nick wrapped in a blanket with fringing. Again the colour scheme is monochrome and white. “I like the choice of white” states Mirojnick. “It is in opposition to black. There is always tension in opposition. I like to use white in an unexpected ways.”

Catherine’s look is consistent, almost uniform. That white dress would likely have a regular place in her rotation, probably when she is next called in for integration after another desperate sap has been murdered. By the end of the story Catherine is a killer on sabbatical, but you do have to wonder just how long ‘Shooter’ Nick would have lasted…

With thanks to Ellen Mirojnick.

© 2011 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.


  • Shannon

    I loved many different items of clothing in this movie…
    If I could have anything now it would be “Roxy’s” black leather biker jacket, “Katherine’s” sequin backless dress from the nightclub scene, her thigh high boots, & that wide studded belt.
    I remember noticing “Katherine” wore a lot of white & beige. I would think she would wear bolder colors like red and black but it makes perfect sense that she’s hiding behind the white “pure” colors. A wolf in sheep’s clothing!!!!
    I also loved “Katherine’s” clothes and those killer strappy heels in “Basic Instinct 2!” Wow!!!!!
    Love this blog!!!!!!

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