Noir fans can get their kicks this weekend when the Aero shows a quartet of films by underrated 1940s director John Brahm. In the meantime, here's a recap of Kimberly Truhler's presentation on film noir fashion.
Film historian and fashion expert Kimberly Truhler joined the American Cinematheque on Saturday, April 25, 2015, for a lecture on costume design in film noir, specifically focusing on the differences in dressing the good and the bad girls. In her research, Truhler uncovered a rather intriguing fact: in most instances, film noir conceals character rather than reveals it. In her lecture, she explored why and how she arrived at this hypothesis.
Truhler began with a historical background of the period because, as she explained, fashion is in part a reaction to history. The big historical event of the 1940s was WWII, which had a large impact on fashion in terms of rationing. Regulation L-85 was put in effect to dictate what kind of fabrics could be used and how much could be consumed. For example, natural fabrics like silk were restricted, and rubber was rationed. Costume designers in Hollywood had to adhere to these rules as well, and as a result, the look of the 1940s tended to be more austere. Multiple restrictions on the amount of fabric that could be used led to this appearance. Length-wise, pencil skirts came into style because skirts could not drop below the knees; a circumference limit did away with voluminous skirts and brought them closer to the body; and hems were reduced to two inches, which is actually relatively deep according to Truhler, but she guessed this generous length easily allowed for clothing to be reused and re-fashioned.
Magazines emphasized the creative options that were possible under the new rules. For example, a tablecloth could be fashioned into a skirt; without rubber for heels, wooden poles became popular and gave birth to the platform heel; and with no silk for nylons, women ‘colored’ their legs to fake the appearance of stockings, since it was still frowned upon to go out with bare legs. The government also reached out to costume designers to put a positive spin on the clothing restrictions. Trends were set in Hollywood and designers at the studios were at the forefront of fashion; this rang truer for the American studios during WWII because all the European couture houses were shut down due to the war. So, even though studios held a nice large stockpile of clothes and materials that they could reuse, the government asked them to leverage their fashion influence to promote new trends and get the public on board with the new constraints. One of the most prominent designers, Edith Head, proclaimed in 1942 that “silk is out!” It was definitely not as a fashion statement, but more so a psychological tactic - instead of focusing on the fact that it couldn't be used, they simply insisted it was out of style.
Another roadblock came in the form of the members of the Hays Office, the enforcers of the Production Code, who also played a hand in fashion restriction (though far before WWII started). Cleavage couldn’t be shown, nor could belly buttons (on women only). If studios failed to adhere to the clothing rules, they would have to go back to the drawing board, which was never in their best interest. Though the end of the war came in 1945, it still took a few years for the public to get comfortable with new fashion trends again. Christian Dior’s New Look of 1947 seemed to break the war trends as voluminous skirts flowed down to the ankles and luxurious fabrics returned; however, some people still picketed his fashion show because they felt he was unpatriotic. Many women, however, embraced the lifted restrictions.
Truhler then turned her focus on costumes in a variety of famous film noirs. She explained that input for clothing designs came from a variety of places, including the source material (though in most cases, little was pulled in terms of costume design), the costume designer, the director, the star, the producer, the studio, the Hays Office, and the production team (art designer, cinematographer, etc). Though Truhler said that most costumes conceal character in this particular genre, she started off with one very straightforward example: Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944). The costumes for this film were designed by Edith Head, who worked at Paramount for a number of decades and won eight Oscars out of a total of 35 nominations, making her the winningest costume designer in history. Stanwyck and Head forged a fruitful professional relationship and the women became lifelong friends. Ironically, many studio heads did not find Stanwyck attractive, though that changed after they saw her in Head’s designs, because she knew how to dress the star’s figure, particularly her long waist.
|Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity|
From the moment Phyllis Dietrichson appears onscreen in Double Indemnity, the audience knows she’s a bad girl. She enters in a towel, which is extremely suggestive and a scene director Billy Wilder must have fought for tooth and nail. The next time we see her we don’t even catch a glimpse of her face – just her feet, including her anklet, which is an important sighting (and added in by screenwriter Raymond Chandler, who apparently had a foot fetish). Stanwyck’s outrageous blonde wig was also a source of contention that turned into a bad girl symbol. Right off the bat, the production team voiced their hatred for the wig; the cinematographer even likened it to filming George Washington! Apparently Wilder didn’t view the dailies, because it took him weeks to realize that everyone was right. By that time, there was nothing they could do about it, so Wilder rationalized the use of the wig: she’s a horrible woman, and her equally hideous wig was another way to show that to the audience.
Head went a bit over the top in scenes to accentuate Stanwyck’s character even further. For example, Stanwyck wears an evening gown…when meeting an insurance salesman in the middle of the day. Truhler mentioned that this particular look was a great example of how Head dealt with Stanwyck’s long waist: the top of the waist line is higher in the front and lower and more narrow in the back. To express the character’s vulgarity and obsession with wealth, Head also padded the character with several pieces of jewelry. Now that one straightforward example was tackled, Truhler focused on four characters and how their clothing shielded their real motives: were they good or bad? Many times, we’re not exactly sure until the end. The first example was Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon (1941), styled by Orry-Kelly, the costume head at Warner Brothers. Kelly was an Australian who moved to New York to the work in the theater. When his roommate, Cary Grant, headed West, Kelly joined him.
|Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon|
Astor’s character in The Maltese Falcon is introduced in a respectable suit with a nice hat, which was one of the only fashion pieces not rationed (so when women got excited over hats, that was the reason!). Astor also appeared in fur in one scene, which was an obligatory item, especially for the bad girls. In another sequence, Astor had to kick Peter Lorre’s character, which was an example of how designers had to keep function in mind. Astor appears in the final scene once again donning another nice suit…though as an accessory, she had a shiny gun in her hand. The next actress Truhler mentioned was Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946), fashioned by Vera West, one of the unsung heroes of costume design who worked as the head of design at Universal. West came from the couture world, and working at Universal, she became known as the queen of horror couture, so The Killers finally gave her a character worthy of her couture background.
|Ava Gardner in The Killers|
This role fit Gardner, who was under contract at MGM, though MGM and Gardner’s brands never really meshed well. Her character first comes out in the famous one shoulder black gown, which continues to influence fashion even to this day. In that scene, she contrasts greatly with the good girl, dressed in white. Gardner’s character does dress down a bit, appearing in a sweater, a trench coat, and a dress with the very popular sweetheart neckline at multiple times in the picture. Truhler then highlighted Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep (1946), designed by Leah Rhodes, one third of the team at Warner Brothers. Rhodes worked her way up as an assistant to Orry-Kelly. When Kelly was drafted, she and Milo Anderson took over. The overall look in this film came largely from director Howard Hawks’ wife, Slim, in particular the houndstooth suit Bacall wears. Slim Hawks was the one who found Bacall on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and told her husband to bring her to Hollywood. There, they became good friends and Slim inspired Bacall’s style on and off the screen, though of course Bacall eventually came into her own personal style.
|Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep|
Bacall’s character in the movie never wears anything too revealing; for example, one scene where she dons a white gown actually called for a deep cut green dress (and a woman with long dark hair) in the book. Bacall’s style still inspires today; an ad campaign for Dior in 2010 drew inspiration from film noir, and, in at least one shot, Bacall. The final example was Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945), designed by Milo Anderson, a self-taught designer who worked in the industry when he was still in high school! Mildred Pierce was Crawford’s first film at Warner Brothers after MGM dropped her, so this was a make-or-break role - she even had to audition. Director Michael Curtiz could not stand her, and even though Crawford came in for the reading in an off-the-rack Sears housedress, he couldn’t resist ripping at the shoulder and exclaiming, “I don’t want to see any of those damn shoulder pads in my movie!” Well, perhaps he should have consulted with Anderson, because shoulder pads run amok in this film. Crawford and MGM designer Adrian spearheaded the trend in the late 1930s, and if you have a fashion icon in the palm of your hand, you’re definitely going to play to her strengths! Mildred Pierce also exhibited a socio-economic arc, in which Crawford goes from housewife to waitress to owner of a restaurant and a successful businesswoman. The polka dot dress she wore in one scene has become famous, and it was actually up for auction recently, though it had been over dyed with ecru and reused, so the original white was now dyed yellow. Crawford also made the pinstripe suit iconic and incredibly ahead of its time, as it’s still a popular item today.
|Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce|
Truhler also touched upon the fact that these films were trying to entertain, and thus, some character’s wardrobes didn’t exactly match their economic status. For example, in This Gun for Hire (1942), designed by Edith Head, Veronica Lake’s character is a rather poor entertainer/singer dating an equally poor police detective. Her paycheck surely doesn’t cover the fabulous clothes she wears! The same goes for Lauren Bacall, who plays a 19 year old traveling the world and conning men in fabulous gowns in To Have and Have Not (1944). Using the case of Veronica Lake, Truhler explained that sometimes personal style trumped what went on in the movies. Lake was so tiny (4’11” in studio records, which means she was probably 2 inches shorter), so certain measures were taken to make her appear taller, and that look became a signature style for her. For example, in This Gun for Hire, Edith Head regularly dressed her in long sleeves, gowns that touched the floor to hide her tall heels, V-neck dresses that elongated her neck, and a cinched waist.
|Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire|
This look showed up again in The Glass Key (1942), but one very noticeable trait was missing: Lake’s long, luscious blonde locks worn in a peek-a-boo style. Lake’s hairstyle was so popular with women during the war period (and it still inspires today) that several accidents occurred as a result because women working in factories could easily get their hair caught in machines. As a result, the government actually went to Paramount and begged them to change Lake’s hair style, or at least roll or tuck it up. Consequently, Lake wears a lot of hats in The Glass Key, but by the time she made The Blue Dahlia (1946) a few years later, her normal hair was back, though trimmed. Apparently, Paramount received so much mail asking to bring back Lake’s style that they complied!
Returning to the topic of color choice, Truhler explained that in film noir, not all the good girls wear white and the bad girls black; sometimes, the color scheme is purposely altered for a number of reasons. For example, in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), an extremely salacious novel that was banned in at least one city, director Tay Garnett addressed the potential censorship issue and star Lana Turner’s tumultuous personal life by dressing her less provocatively and in all white (though the first scene where she comes out in a sun suit is rather revealing). Turner’s character doesn’t don a black outfit until her husband gets killed – you can’t wear white on that occasion!
Out of the Past (1947) provided another example of this. Star Jane Greer, who plays a bad girl for the entire picture, is dressed in white during the first half and black during the second half. The idea was to throw an air of illusion over Greer’s character…as best they could.
To wrap up, Truhler discussed women in film noir who aren’t as straightforward as femme fatales: the intrigante, which means “women who intrigue.” As opposed to the truly bad girls who wish to inflict damage, the intrigante doesn’t mean harm; rather, things just happen around her that she gets caught up in. The film screening after the discussion, Gilda (1946), featured a great example of an intrigante in Rita Hayworth’s title character.
Hayworth’s costumes were designed by Jean Louis, a French designer who eventually worked at Columbia after Travis Banton vacated the post. Though Hayworth was already a star, Gilda catapulted her to international stardom - due in no small part to her incredibly iconic costume and equally famous musical number and striptease. Truhler noted that the famous black strapless dress was actually an “engineering marvel” that was supported by a custom made body stocking. In addition to the stocking, the bodice was built like a harness that had a ribbon strapped onto the body stocking that was in turn strapped onto Hayworth. Furthermore, melted plastic piping was added to the top of the dress to make sure it wouldn’t fall down. Truhler remarked that the construction of the piece was truly incredible.
|Rita Hayworth getting fitted into her gown for Gilda|
That dress kicked off the strapless trend and also worked wonders in concealing certain parts of the body, in particular the midsection with a large black tie. Hayworth was insecure about her midsection normally, but the fact that she had given birth recently didn’t help. Apparently, the dress was so influential that Columbia’s Harry Cohn had every woman who wanted to be a star try the dress on. If it looked good (like it did on Kim Novak), they stayed. If not, they left. The story might be apocryphal, but it's not too hard to believe.
Another gown that attracted attention was the two piece white ensemble Hayworth wears, which ever so lightly danced around the Hays Code requirements. Though the dress was two pieces, you couldn’t see Hayworth’s belly button, and while there wasn’t a lot of cleavage in the front, the entire back of the dress was cutaway. Lastly, the dress featured a rather large slit, but that was only really revealing when she danced.
The Academy didn’t create the Oscar for Costume Design until 1948, so sadly none of the fabulous designs that Truhler pointed out that afternoon were eligible for the Oscar. Despite that fact, film noir was incredibly inspirational to the fashion world during the 1940s, and it continues to influence styles and trends today.