FILM COSTUME - WOMEN IN FILM NOIR
Series in 5 parts
3 - HOW TO DRESS FOR SUCCESS:
JOAN CRAWFORD in MILDRED PIERCE
As uncommon in the Film Noir convention, the leading character is feminine. MILDRED PIERCE by Michael Curtiz (1945) represents an unusually emancipated womanly image - the INDEPENDENT GIRL.
JOAN CRAWFORD, the self-willed Hollywood diva, won her only Oscar for the convincing performance of a power-woman. From a worthy housewife with career ambition to a quick waitress, then to the owner of a restaurant, and finally to a successful business lady, a multitude of transformations have been necessary. Nevertheless, Mildred Pierce’s infallible way to success - hard work and „do it yourself“ - has told on her lovely femininity.
„In the opening scenes Mildred looks soft and womanly; at the height of her success, she has the harsh glint of a frigid career woman. Her hair is now piled on top of her head, and her clothes become more severe and more mannish, her face haughtier and colder.“ (Stephen Farber)
THE DRESS CODE
The American costume designer MILO ANDERSON has been chief designer at Warner Brothers - First National Studio in the years 1933-52. In the iconographic sign system of the INDEPENDENT GIRL the frequent use of work clothes is typical. They represent the social rise of the protagonist - from middle class to upper class. Other clothing combinations, two- and three-part broad-shouldered day ensembles, correspond to the usual fashionable standards of the 40ies.
VESTMENTAL REFERENCES TO THE JOB:
1. Dressing for homework: shirt dress of light-gray cotton; apron of cotton with black/white floral all-over-pattern.
2. Uniform of a waitress: short-sleeved dress with V-neck of black/white cotton with small, geometrical all-over-pattern and white trimming; apron of white cotton. Accessoire: waitress’ cap.
3. Business look: business blazer (jacket with revers - masculine clothing element) and narrow, knee-long skirt, both of dark woolen cloth with bright stripes (pin-stripe); blouse with V-neck of white material. Accessoire: floral brooch (femininity).
Here attractive coolness combines the dark pin-striped skirted suit with a simple white blouse - the equivalent outfit to the suit of the business man with white shirt. This outfit marks the climax of JOAN CRAWFORDs professional career in the dress code and lays an indubitable emphasis on masculine textile tendencies. They refer to characteristic qualities like seriousness, efficiency, dominance, authority, and independence.
Above all the repressive sexuality of the female character is evident throughout the film. The erotization of the costume is inserted in only 1 of the 20 film costumes in MILDRED PIERCE - shoulders, waist and legs are shown demonstratively by means of a two-part bathing costume (bra and shorts).
FLOWERS - STRIPES - CHECKS
The INDEPENDENT GIRL’s emancipation is visualized by individual components of the costume - femininity, control and work. In addition to uni materials (woolen cloth, cotton, viscose, etc.) the massive use of patterns in black/white contrast is remarkable on matrix 2 (see: part 1 of the series). Floral motifs and small floral all-over-prints refer to statement tendencies like femininity and motherliness. The other cloths with small dots connote activity and high spirits.
However geometrical patterns prevail. Narrow vertical stripes and pin-stripes (classical cloth of the banker) characterize both the usual work clothes as well as the typical costume of the businesswoman, and refer to order and control - because stripes often seem to express organized effort and a desire or ability to „follow the line“ laid out by oneself or others. In the dress code, further small geometrical all-over-patterns (e.g. pepita) or large scale square signalize qualities as activity and independence on the one hand, work and masculinity on the other hand.
Already at the beginning of the 40ies, the fashionable hair-style becomes more plump. The dark shoulderlong hair of the INDEPENDENT GIRL is up-to-date but always bound together in the neck or piled on top of her head, using the current forehead bob.
The accessoires orient themselves by fashionable everyday life clothing. The hats are small and placed at the back of the head, mostly combined with decorations or veils. A voluminous fur coat and precious brooches (shaped floral) accentuate the costume of the successful business lady. Handbags and gloves are as compulsory for the fashionable 40ies-outfit as the high-heeled fetter sandals and skin-colour stockings.
Nevertheless the promising career excursion of the INDEPENDENT GIRL ends precisely there where it began, in the arms of her first husband … BACK HOME.
Photos: MILDRED PIERCE, Michael Curtiz, 1945, Warner Brothers, 111 min.
Dressed to kill: BARBARA STANWYCK in DOUBLE INDEMNITY
- 4rd part
© Rosa Burger, MA 1997
Tel. +43 1 535 94 09
FILM COSTUME - WOMEN IN FILM NOIR
Master’s thesis, University of Vienna, 1993.
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