In 1958 Paramount released Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s disturbing tale of death and obsession, love and loneliness. Receiving only average reviews on its release, Vertigo is now hailed as a cinematic masterpiece. Hitchcock’s direction, Bernard Hermann’s score and Robert Burks’ cinematography are particularly praised. Less often celebrated, argues art critic Iris Veysey, is Edith Head’s costume design.
Head’s work, particularly in dressing Kim Novak, helped to ground characters and signpost the narrative in a complex and convoluted plot. Dressing Novak in the dual role of Madeleine/Judy, Head’s designs successfully define two distinct characters, one polished and sophisticated, the other brassy and cheap.
Madeleine is introduced as a wealthy shipping heiress and wife of Gavin Elster. Accordingly, her clothes have the sheen of luxury. From a silk evening gown to a fur stole, her costumes suggest moneyed elegance. Gliding through the film in a series of expensive ensembles, Madeleine’s style has a bold simplicity, typified by her grey suit. Comprised of a pencil skirt and single-breasted jacket, the suit has three covered buttons, notched lapels, cuffs and two flap pockets. Two versions of the skirt were made with knife pleats for ease of movement. In its first appearance Madeleine couples the suit with a simple white blouse, black handbag, fur stole, lavender grey gloves and black stiletto heels. Her make-up is minimal and jewellery limited to a small brooch. The effect is ladylike yet severe.
Describing the film to François Truffaut, Hitchcock stated: ‘to put it plainly, the man wants to go to bed with a woman who is dead.’ Hitchcock’s words may be blunt, even flippant, but they crudely capture Madeleine’s allure, both before and after her suicide. When Scottie attempts to dress Judy as Madeleine, he is trying to resurrect a dead woman. Yet even before her death Madeleine has something of the ghost about her.
Elster believes Madeleine to be possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, and Madeleine’s image is appropriately ghostly. Edith Head dresses Madeleine in a sombre palette of mainly grey, black, white and blue: white coat with a black chiffon scarf, black polo-neck, navy blue dress. This washes out Madeleine’s fair complexion, granting her a pale, deathly air. Indeed, Hitchcock especially requested the colour grey for Madeleine in the knowledge that it tends to be too harsh on blondes. These stark tones lend Madeleine a sinister edge; it becomes easy to believe that a spirit might possess her. When Madeleine appears in the florists, softly lit in her smoky grey suit, she looks as Hitchcock desired: as though she has ‘just stepped out of the San Francisco fog’.
More specifically, Madeleine’s appearance illustrates her assimilation of Carlotta’s identity. Mimicking a portrait of Carlotta, Madeleine carries a bouquet of pink roses, and pins her hair into a stiff curl at the back of her head. Scottie watches Madeleine as she sits before the portrait and the camera closes in on these details. No dialogue is necessary. Madeleine’s appearance is enough to persuade both the audience and Scottie that something is terribly wrong.
Madeleine is a femme-fatale, both dangerous and desirable. Yet her clothing is not overtly sexualised. She bears little flesh, often choosing high necklines and long sleeves. The classic ‘Hitchcock blonde’, Madeleine embodies the aloof beauty described by Truffaut as ‘the paradox between the inner fire and the cool surface’.
In this way Madeleine personifies Hitchcock’s sexual ideal, which he described thus: ‘We’re after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom. Poor Marilyn Monroe had sex written all over her face, and Brigitte Bardot isn’t very subtle either.’ Madeleine, carefully buttoned-up in her little grey suit, has a discreet sexual allure. She is reserved, mysterious, the ‘drawing-room type’.
However, unlike Hitchcock’s typical heroines, Madeleine is ultimately sexually unavailable. Scottie can never discover what Madeleine is like outside the drawing-room, not because she dies, but because ‘Madeleine’ does not exist. The costumes enhance this unavailability. They may fit and flatter, but they conceal Madeleine’s flesh beneath neat buttons and sharp tailoring. When Scottie attempts to recreate Judy as Madeleine, he is particularly fixated on Madeleine’s suit, perhaps her most confining and conservative of outfits. Scottie cannot consummate his relationship with Judy until she is dressed in the suit; his desire for Madeleine seems built upon her unavailability. In short, he desires what he cannot have.
The confinement of Madeleine’s costumes initially displeased Novak, who recalled ‘When Edith Head showed me that grey suit, I said “Oh my God, that looks like it would be very hard to act in. It’s very confining.”’ Nonetheless Novak eventually conceded that this was the costume’s strength, reflecting the rigidity of Madeleine’s character, and even changing the way she stood: ‘They made that suit very stiff. You constantly had to hold your shoulders back and stand erect. But, oh, that was so perfect. That suit helped me find the tools for playing the role.’
Judy’s look is entirely different. Economically, she and Madeleine are worlds apart. Madeleine is a wealthy heiress, Judy a shop assistant from Kansas, who lives alone in a small hotel room. Judy’s clothes are cheaper, unsophisticated, and her outfits embellished with inexpensive costume jewellery and scarves. On a walk with Scottie, she accessorises her outfit with a belt, a printed scarf tied to her bag strap, earrings and a brooch. The earthy green of her cardigan and brown of her hair are at odds with Madeleine’s cooler tones. Judy has also turned up her shirt collar and casually tossed her cardigan over her shoulder. The contrast with Madeleine’s sleek suit is striking.
Whereas Madeleine is sexually unavailable, unearthly and unreal, Judy is voluptuous and fleshy. She wears heavy make-up, with vampish eye-shadow and bright red lipstick. Her hair is girlishly clipped back from her face and forms kiss curls along her brow. Embracing a provocative, more overtly sexualised appearance, Judy’s clothes cling to her body, showing off her shape. Exacerbating this, Novak wore no bra as Judy, the shape of her breasts clearly visible beneath her clothes.
Madeleine is a creature of artifice, a fabrication. Judy, on the other hand, is unquestionably ‘real’. Head’s costumes enhance this contrast by emphasising Novak’s body. In Judy’s first appearance she wears a green sweater dress, falling to the knee and belted at the waist. It is decorated with a flat collar, cuffs and scarf, all in matching polka dots. For all the sweetness of the dress, with its playful dots and demure neckline, it is tight, leaving little to the imagination. In the dress Judy resembles the classic ‘sweater girl’, whose attraction lay in a potent mix of girl-next-door charm and Hollywood va-va-voom.
Novak has commented on her comfort and physical ease playing Judy: ‘It was wonderful for Judy because then I got to be without a bra and felt so good again. I just felt natural. I had on my own beige shoes and that felt good.’ Made of softer fabrics, Judy’s costumes allowed Novak to physically relax, slouching and twisting in a way she couldn’t in Madeleine’s suit. Judy, fleshly and natural, seems the corporeal counterpart to the ghostly Madeleine.
Throughout the story clothing signals changes in the plot, having a near fetishistic hold on the characters. From Madeleine’s interest in Carlotta’s jewellery, to her mimicry of the portrait, elements of costume are powerfully linked to identity. Scottie is obsessed with Madeleine’s clothing. It is not enough that Judy physically resembles Madeleine; she must be dressed like her too. He takes Judy shopping and insists on finding exactly the same ‘ordinary, grey suit’. The sales assistant is right when she says “the gentleman seems to know what he wants”. For Scottie, Madeleine is inseparable from her clothing.
The final twist, that Madeleine was Judy all along, is revealed to Scottie when Judy puts on Carlotta’s necklace. An old-fashioned pendant with scarlet stones, it is the catalyst for the film’s finale. As Scottie bitterly tells her, “you shouldn’t keep souvenirs of a killing“.
Edith Head’s costumes demonstrate just how powerful clothes can be in forming identities on-screen. Clothing is the method by which Judy evolves into Madeleine, for both Elster and Scottie, and transcends any practical purpose to become an object of perverse fantasy. It is engrained in Scottie’s fixation: both part of his obsession and the means of its exorcism. Underpinning the plot and guiding the audience, clothing reflects the obsessive love at Vertigo’s core.
By Iris Veysey, listings editor and resident art critic at Vignette.
Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, 1986, revised edition, Simon & Schuster.
Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer, Jay Jorgensen, 2010, Running Press.
Art in the Cinematic Imagination, Susan Felleman, 2006, The University of Texas Press.
Obsessed with Vertigo, Harrison Engle, 1997, American Movie Classics. (Documentary).
The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo: Place, Pilgrimage and Commemoration, ed. Douglas. A. Cunningham, 2012, Scarecrow Press.
You can watch Kim Novak in Vertigo at LOVEFiLM.com.
© 2012 – 2018, Contributor.