by guest contributor Christian Esquevin
“I don’t wear suits, and I don’t wear gray. Another thing, I don’t wear black pumps,” said Kim Novak to Edith Head, the costume designer for Vertigo. “I don’t care what she wears as long as it’s a gray suit," Hitchcock retorted when Edith reported this conversation to him. Thus began the creative tension over the costuming of Vertigo. But in a clash of opinion over the visual aspects of a Hitchcock film, Hitch always prevailed. Indeed, he had the colors already in mind along with the costume types he wanted even before pre-production for Vertigo began. Kim Novak wore the gray suit with the black pumps - her iconic look in Vertigo. “I had never had a director who was particular about the costumes, the way they were designed, the specific colors,” said Novak about Hitchcock later.
The story theme within Vertigo is based on obsession, and the costume looks for the Madeleine/Judy character are a key symbol of that dysfunction. The “clash” that Kim Novak had with Hitch and Edith Head over her costumes was nothing new in Hollywood, but Alfred Hitchcock’s very specific clothing demands in type and color speaks volumes about Vertigo being for him a very personal film. The combination of the costumes and look of Kim’s Madeleine, the psychological tension caused by the character Scottie’s clash of opposite impulses towards Madeleine/Judy, and the ultimate futility of his possession of her, were all deeply embedded in Hitchcock’s psyche. As far as the costumes being good fashion, it didn’t matter that Kim’s pumps were black. They would have looked better in gray or brown, or as she wanted, in tan to match her nude-toned hose. Wearing flesh-toned pumps was an old trick she’d learned from Marlene Dietrich, a device to make your legs look longer. The gray suit was in a neutral and sedate color. Hitch believed it revealed how the Madeleine character felt about herself. Edith Head often designed gray suits for her film costumes, and wore them regularly believing that it gave her a non-competitive look when working with the stars. But Marlene Dietrich had worn a gray suit for Hitch in Stage Fright, as had Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and as Tippi Hedren would wear in The Birds. So the gray suit and black pumps touched something within Hitchcock, and along with the blonde hair of his leading actresses, denoted for Hitchcock the “woman of mystery,” the cool and subtle beauty with a blazing inside.
As the character Judy, Kim Novak is costumed by Edith Head to appear dowdy. She wears green – a green sweater made bulky by being worn over a blouse. The blouse is green with white polka-dots and with a peter-pan collar turned over the sweater. The look is accentuated by an unflattering hair style. The total look is purposefully unappealing. This look has several purposes: to define the character of Judy in contrast to Madeleine’s; to appear that she is “hiding” her identity; and to provide a stark difference with Madeleine in order to dramatize her make-over. When they go on a date and later go shopping for her clothes, she is dressed better but still very simply. The make-over itself is a key dramatic moment in the film, Judy’s reluctance, Scottie’s obsession in turning her visually into Madeleine, complete with gray suit and blonde hair, provide dramatic tension and then release at the conclusion of the scene. This scene is accomplished through various film techniques that dramatize her unveiling as the re-incarnated Madeleine – making her entrance bathed in a pale and ethereal green light and leading to a climactic kiss. Her gray suit, here as before, tightly accentuates her curves. In its contradictory fashion, it is sedate but seductive.
The nature of the costumes, and the make-over, reverberated not only with the character’s roles, but with the actor’s and the director’s deep psychology. Hitch exercised his darker side in molding an actress into his own obsession, while directing Jimmy Stewart to do the same. Kim Novak as Judy wondered why Scottie couldn’t love her as she was, just as Kim Novak really felt about Hollywood in general. But the gray suit worn with the black pumps allowed Kim Novak to not only be in character, but by taking her out of her comfort zone in dress enabled her to more effectively be an actress that plays a part of a character that is pretending to be someone else.
Hitchcock must have recognized his own dilemma in creating Vertigo. At the climactic end, Scottie demonstrated his tragic disappointment with Judy, “He made you over just like I made you over,” he says accusingly to Judy. Only he (Elster) had made her over first, and thus Scottie was only re-creating another man’s fantasy. And perhaps worse, he accused her of being “an apt pupil,” which she hadn’t been for him. That demonstrated to Scottie, and served the film’s underlying theme, that the pursuit of an empty ideal is futile. For Hitchcock, it was a deeply ingrained motif, one that would keep repeating itself as he tried to mold one Hitchcock blonde after another into his fantasy, only to have her leave him. With the character Scottie, this creation fantasy was played out not as a means of domination, but rather one where once his fantasy woman was created, he could surrender and succumb to her. But we know that that too would have been another fantasy - another twirling and spiraling movement creating a feeling of vertigo.
Vertigo received several Oscar nominations, including Best Art Direction. Edith Head was not nominated for Best Costume Design, which was won by Cecil Beaton’s florid Gigi. And she had just been snubbed for her outstanding costumes for Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. It seems that a fabulous gray suit as character-delineating costume was too subtle to pick up awards. No matter, she had already won five of her eight Oscars by then. Worse, Hitch wasn’t nominated either for this iconic classic.
Christian Esquevin is the author of Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label, published by the Monacelli Press in 2008. The book is about the life and career of MGM’s famed Golden Age costume designer Gilbert Adrian and his subsequent fashion business. Christian also produces the Silver Screen Modiste blog covering classic film fashion.
Christian was born in Marseille, France, and moved with his French parents to Los Angeles when he was four. Los Angeles had a small but close-knit French community at the time that provided the social context for his youth in 1950s and 1960s L.A. One of his great-aunts was the vendeuse for lingerie at the art-deco palace Bullock’s Wilshire. Another one of Christian’s great-aunts had been the Head Cutter-Fitter for the old RKO Studio Wardrobe Department in the 1930s, where she worked under Walter Plunkett and supervised the fabrication of the costumes for Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Anne Miller, and the other RKO stars. Her knowledge and skill in making period costumes was an influence on Plunkett’s specialty in that area. While she had retired by the time Christian arrived in L.A., she used to dress him and his mother and other French-heritage participants in traditional French folk costumes for the Disneyland holiday parades and other ceremonial occasions. She bequeathed him her collection of costume sketches and photographs that started his interest in classic film costume design.
Christian has a Master’s degree in Library Science from USC and is the Director of the Coronado, California, Public Library. Christian’s book on Adrian was the result of several years of research and collecting. The lack of an “Adrian archive” and the disposal of much of the early film studios’ material heritage has fueled his efforts to preserve at least one aspect of film history. He is currently working on a combined biography of the costume and fashion designers Walter Plunkett, Irene (Lentz Gibbons) and Helen Rose. He is a collector of original costume design sketches and has organized several exhibits featuring film costume design based on his collection. Christian launched Silver Screen Modiste in 2009 in order to cover the history, heritage, and fashion influence of classic Hollywood costume design. He has written about Edith Head in several posts and considers her work with Alfred Hitchcock to be among her finest.