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Costuming Hitchcock: An Extract from Hitchcock’s Heroines by Caroline Young

Author Caroline Young has just released a fascinating new book entitled Hitchcock’s Heroines (published by Insight Editions). It celebrates and studies the women in Hitchcock movies; their influence, semblance and iconography. What’s more, Young also examines the role costume design plays with these women, both the characters and the actresses who played them, and how they can be interpreted as far more than just ‘icy blondes’. Here we have an extract of the book exclusively for Clothes on Film:

Kim Novak’s grey suit the colour of San Francisco fog in Vertigo, Grace Kelly as the too-perfect woman in Rear Window, and Janet Leigh’s black and white sets of underwear to indicate both good and evil in Psycho – these are just some of the classic imagery of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, where the style and elegance of his leading lady was carefully planned.

Hitchcock was meticulous about the visuals, and as his career developed, he became more specific with the image as, like a painter, he worked to create subliminal messages through colour. Glasses were a common motif, signifying the unmasking of a woman such as Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound or Joan Fontaine in Suspicion, while a bird brooch on the lapel (such as Fontaine’s in Suspicion, on the character of Madeleine Elster in Vertigo, or twin brooches in A Shadow of a Doubt to reflect the theme of doubles, with the two Charlies) acted as a warning sign, as birds in Hitchcock films commonly indicated dark forces about to strike.

Janet Leigh in her character’s risqué yet interpretably ‘good’ white underwear on the set of Psycho (1960). Costume design by Rita Riggs.

While June and Anny Ondra in Blackmail were two of Hitchcock’s early blondes, Madeleine Carroll was the first heroine whose image and character he truly went out of his way to shape on screen and the first of his prototype ‘cool blondes’ in The 39 Steps, with costumes designed by Joe Stressner that incorporated huge bows and collars, as was a Hollywood costume trend in the mid-1930s.

But it wasn’t until Hitchcock’s first collaboration with Edith Head on Notorious, creating a glamorous wardrobe for Ingrid Bergman, that his visual sense of costume really came to the front. It was also the first film he had complete autonomy as director and producer. David O Selznick had produced Rebecca and Spellbound, firing off his famous memos to the wardrobe department to ensure costumes were just right.

After viewing costume designer Howard Greer’s initial sketches for Bergman in Spellbound, Selznick was dissatisfied. He felt they didn’t suit the character, who was in her late twenties, disinterested in frivolity and romance, and devoted completely to science. Clothes also had to match the budget of a woman in her first year as a member of staff, yet she was also to have pride in her appearance and look groomed. “Let’s not have her dressed as though she were a movie star, either as to the richness of the costumes, or as to the way in which hopefully they have been tailored,” said Selznick.

Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946), which was costume designer Edith Head’s first collaboration with director Alfred Hitchcock.

Notorious marked the beginning of a thirty-year collaboration between Edith Head and Hitchcock. One of Edith Head’s talents was knowing how to please both director and star, and she was aware that Hitchcock was very specific and would indicate clothing and colour within the script. Ingrid Bergman was to be believable as a secret agent, so the clothes were not to dominate. He also specified a palette of all black and white, with its contrasting combination used to achieve different effects, like making her stand out in a scene where she stands out in a vivid zebra patterned top with sequins and an exposed midriff. “In a black and white film the eye is immediately attracted to the stark contrast of black and white, since other colours become various shades of grey,” said Edith Head. “Visually, she became the most important woman in the room.”

Our eyes follow her as she moves animatedly through the party, topping up her guests’ drinks, with Cary Grant in the foreground as a still silhouette with his back to the camera, in an interesting reversal of the male gaze. The outfit and its revealing bare midriff was also treated with humour. “Don’t you need a coat?” Devlin asks her. “You’ll do,” she replies.

Later in the film, Bergman’s gowns become sleeker and more controlled than the zebra print as she must marry to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring. Head said, “In other dramatic scenes, she was dressed either in pure white or solid black, and true to Hitchcock’s form, these colours reflected her mood.” Alicia’s white crepe dinner gown, with white fur and diamonds like bars around her neck, was designed to be pristine, while her dramatic, long black gown for the party was simple and unadorned, so as not to take away from the tension of the scene as she breaks into the wine cellar.

Publicity still of Grace Kelly wearing a very specifically chosen red dress in Dial M for Murder (1952). Costume design by Edith Head.

It was in the 1950s, Hitchcock’s golden era, when elegant blondes, such as Grace Kelly, became the dominant heroines of his films. Hitchcock first cast Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder, as “she has fire and ice and great passion, but she does not flaunt it.” Hitchcock planned a colour progression for the character of Margot with a bright wardrobe at the start, becoming more sombre as the story progresses, from brick, then to grey, then to black. The contrast between Margot as wife and adulterer is made clear, with the transition from pale pink cardigan and skirt to the vibrant red lace dress and red lips for a fireside embrace. Edith Head said Hitchcock “had strong feelings that colour should never be so strong that it overpowered the scene or the actress. If the script called for a girl in a red dress, that was one thing, but to put her in a red dress for no reason was out of the question in a Hitchcock film.”

Margot wears a brick-toned button-down dress with three-quarter length sleeves on the evening of the attempted murder, but after she is questioned, her costumes become darker. When she is being sentenced for her crimes, she wears a grey dress with a black line leading from around her collar to her belt-line, creating the impression of a hangman’s noose.

Margot’s costumes were designed by Moss Mabry, Warner Bros.’ head costume designer who had created James Dean’s red jacket in Rebel Without a Cause. Mabry designed and tested several different options, especially for the dress in the second scene in which Margot entertains her lover. Mabry said of Grace, “She sold these clothes like I didn’t dream possible, and it was actually difficult to decide which ones she should wear in the film. Miss Kelly knows exactly how to stand, how to sit, and how to walk, and you have no idea how these things can ‘make’ or ‘kill’ a beautiful dress.”

Costume sketch of Grace Kelly’s first outfit worn in Rear Window (1954) – a dress that cleverly subverts expectations of her character’s physical prowess and practical resourcefulness. Costume design by Edith Head.

Grace Kelly was anxious to work with Hitchcock again in Rear Window, and by the time she arrived in Los Angeles in late November for wardrobe fittings, Hitchcock had already instructed Edith Head on what styles and colours she would wear to advance the story.

Sticking with the film’s theme of voyeurism, Grace Kelly’s Lisa is a fashion maven who is used to being watched and admired. Lisa likes to display herself through glamorous costume, with an awareness of creating meaning through what she wears. A pale “peach parfait” nightgown is worn by Lisa as “a preview of coming attractions,” to tempt Jeff to look at her rather than the neighbours. “How far does a girl have to go before you’ll notice her?” she says. She has intimate knowledge of the fashion world, saying “if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to wear the proper clothes.”

When Lisa is first introduced, she turns on the lights one by one to reveal a gown with an off-the-shoulder black velvet bodice and full white silk organza skirt with layers of net beneath. The full ballerina-length skirt bobs up and down as she rushes around the crammed apartment, emphasising how much she dotes on Jeff. But instead of impressing Jeff, it serves to cast further doubt in his mind as to whether she can match his adventurous career. However it turns out that Lisa is resourceful: she packs a frothy, satin negligee into her compact Mark Cross overnight case in order to prove that she can live out of one suitcase.

Lisa’s black, silk organza cocktail dress with the pleated skirt becomes a sombre marker when she starts to believe that a murder has taken place; her Balenciaga-styled raw silk suit in Hitchcock’s favourite eau-de-nil, worn with a white halter-neck blouse, demonstrates that she is an independent career woman. “The suit was the one Hitchcock had first seen in his mind’s eye, colour wise, and it caused a furore fashion-wise,” Edith Head recounted.

Publicity still featuring one of Edith Head’s “attention grabbing ensembles”, again for Grace Kelly, this time in To Catch a Thief (1955).

By the time Lisa sneaks into Thorwald’s apartment, Jeff has found a new appreciation for his girlfriend, realising she is not as frivolous as he thought. She wears a floral day dress, designed to add a sense of vulnerability as she climbs up the fire escapes and clambers over railings. The floral dress also connects Lisa to Mrs Thorwald, whose head is buried in the flower beds.

For her third collaboration with Hitchcock, Grace Kelly starred in To Catch a Thief. Edith Head designed “attention-getting clothes” that dripped in elegance and wealth—bathing suits, sunglasses, tailored sundresses, and gowns with a Delphic silhouette. Kelly was given pale shades—azure blue, lemon yellow, pale coral – to work with the bright, Mediterranean location and progressively “warm up” with the character. “I deliberately photographed Grace Kelly ice-cold and I kept cutting to her profile, looking classically beautiful, and very distant,” Hitchcock said.

While the pale blue chiffon gown had tiny straps, the white evening gown was strapless so as to act as a blank canvas for showcasing the diamond necklace. There also had to be enough fabric visible to show that she was wearing clothes in close-ups. The coral pink crêpe skirt and top, which Francie wears during the picnic scene in which she drives at high speed along the winding coastal road, was designed to be very feminine. In the preceding swimming scene, she had been humiliated by a younger woman, and so now she wants to “make a play” for Robie and look as ladylike as possible, with white gloves and a pink, silk scarf. The colour intensified with the drama, culminating in Francie’s outfit at the masked ball. She wears a Marie Antoinette–style golden wig, mask, and an eighteenth-century gown of gold lamé and mesh. The skirt was covered in golden birds, a motif common throughout Hitchcock’s work, and which would hint at danger to come.

Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), costume design by Edith Head. Day discovered that Alfred Hitchcock was particularly precise about what he wanted to see in terms of costume.

In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Doris Day was also dressed by Edith Head, playing a former singer and doctor’s wife who is searching for her kidnapped son. During a first meeting at Paramount Studios, Hitchcock and Day discussed the clothes she would be wearing, and she found the director was “very precise about exactly what he wanted for my wardrobe.” Hitchcock asked Edith Head to design a tailored grey suit for the scenes set in London, which shares strong similarities to the structured grey suit Kim Novak wears in Vertigo. This suit was a practical costume for a woman who was travelling, while the colour, blending into the gloomy brick buildings and quiet streets of London, would not distract from the plot.

For evening drinks and dinner at a Marrakesh restaurant, Day wears an organdie dress with green sprig design, layers of petticoats, and a matching wrap. Not only did it reflect Hitchcock’s preference for green, but it heightened the sense of the character as a wife and mother. The blue linen shirtwaist dress with a white belt and white basket was designed for daytime sightseeing, but it carries through to the drama in the police station. Hitchcock often visualised a harmony in both costume and set design, and so the colour of this dress complements the palette of blues and sand tones in the Moroccan scenes, standing out against the orange of the Marrakesh bazaar while blending with the pale blue of the hotel room. “I always looked forward to my fittings with Edith,” Doris Day recalled. “She was witty, quick, and very exciting. She dresses actors for the part, not for themselves alone. They weren’t right for me. But they were just what a doctor’s wife would wear. And that’s what I was playing.”

After Grace Kelly left Hollywood to marry into Monaco royalty, Hitchcock was never able to fully shake off her allure. He looked to find another actress who could fill her shoes – first Vera Miles, and Tippi Hedren.

Kim Novak in her “silly suit” for Vertigo (1958), the uncomfortableness of which helped her get into character for the part. Costume design by Edith Head.

Much is made of the coolness of the blonde, and Kim Novak in Vertigo was the most remote and ghost-like. Vertigo, a film about obsession and identity, is often considered to be Hitchcock’s most autobiographical. It is a hypnotic film that mirrors his control over the image of his actresses. Partly inspired by French arthouse cinema, Vertigo was more aligned with the beatniks in the North Beach and Greenwich Village coffee houses than a mainstream audience.

Kim Novak plays both the mysterious Madeleine and the earthy Judy, whose identities are bound by what they wear. For the mysterious character of Madeleine, Hitchcock was very specific that she should wear a grey suit with black heels. He told Head “the girl must look as if she’s just drifted out of the San Francisco fog.” “I hated that silly suit,” Novak later said. “But it helped me to be uncomfortable as Madeleine.”

The beautiful black satin gown and coat lined with emerald green worn in the restaurant scene also helped appease Novak and take away the sting of the grey suit. Hitchcock used colour in Vertigo to paint meaning into every scene. Red is the colour of Scottie’s fears, while green, or ever-green, represents Madeleine (she even drives a green car). The first time Scottie sees Madeleine is in a vivid red restaurant, wearing that emerald cape. Judy is first introduced in a green outfit to link her with Madeleine—a moss green pencil skirt, green sweater with polka dot collar and cuffs (to hint at the red polka dressing gown worn by Madeleine), and a little rabbit brooch at the neckline. When Judy tries to assert her own identity, she chooses a lavender dress or a yellow shirt, but with a hint of green in a scarf and in a skirt to reference Madeleine.

Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest (1959). Hitchcock actually took the actress shopping to the Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York to select her attire. The film’s overall costume design was credited to Edith Head.

For Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, Hitchcock had definite ideas of how Eve Kendall would look as a spy and kept woman. Hitchcock told Hedda Hopper, “I’ve extracted every bit of sex she has and put it on the screen. Also gave her beautiful clothes. I dislike drab females on or off screen.”

Hitchcock and Saint went shopping at expensive department store Bergdorf Goodman in New York, where they viewed a parade of models in various suits and gowns, and Hitchcock felt like a rich man overseeing her wardrobe, “just as Stewart did with Novak in Vertigo.” One of Eve’s most striking costumes is a black, long-sleeved cocktail dress printed with red roses, which she wore to the art auction. Hitchcock chose red for moments of danger, and these wine-red roses are a forewarning that her cover could be revealed. “He’d done his homework, I’m sure, and he didn’t have the models come out in anything but what he would choose, too,” said Eva Marie Saint.

Janet Leigh as Marion in Psycho was likeable and appealing, so much so that her early death on screen is devastating to the audience. Hitchcock was fastidious in creating a sense of realism for the characters and sent a photographer to Phoenix where they found a girl like Marion, visited her home, and photographed her bureau drawers, her suitcases, and the contents of her wardrobe. Hitchcock insisted Marion’s were store-bought, not just to save money but also to adhere to the clothing budget of a secretary. Janet Leigh and costumer Rita Riggs visited Beverley Hills store Jax and found two shirtwaist dresses, one in cream cotton and another in blue wool jersey, because, according to Riggs, “Hitchcock likes good wool jersey; it reads well in black and white.” There were ongoing discussions as to whether Marion would wear black or white underwear, but it was finally decided that she would wear both, to make a character statement about her good and bad sides.

Tippi Hedren in her iconic green costume for The Birds (1963), as designed, to be ostensively similar to a Chanel suit, by Edith Head.

Tippi Hedren’s experience working with Hitchcock is often considered the pinnacle of his obsession for blondes. For Hitchcock, his ego drove his desire to create a star and mould her into the girl of his imagination in The Birds.

For Hitchcock, the character began with the visual image. Melanie Daniels was a “wealthy, shallow playgirl,” and her wardrobe had to convey this as well as not detract from the ensuing terror. Because of Melanie’s cool, elegant persona, Edith Head designed a pale green wool shift dress and jacket with a similar cut to a Chanel suit. Six copies were made to allow for adjustments and tears during different scenes when Melanie is attacked by birds. To complete the look, Melanie was given a beige crocodile purse, which she never seems to be without, and a mink coat which Hitchcock felt was vital to the character and made her look out of place on the outboard motorboat. At the end of filming, Hitchcock gifted the mink coat to Tippi, which she later sold to fund her wildlife sanctuary, perhaps as a statement on her fraught relationship with the director.

Hitchcock’s films continue to hold fascination, and the look of his heroines still resonates with fashion designers and photographers recreating the sophisticated, tailored fashions of the women in Hitchcock’s movies.

An extract from Hitchcock’s Heroines, written by Caroline Young and published by Insight Editions is on sale now. Images and captions chosen by Clothes on Film.

© 2018, Lord Christopher Laverty.