Tag Archives: Edith Head

Style on Film: To Catch a Thief

This is our first glimpse of Grace Kelly in one of her most stylish – and summery – films, To Catch a Thief, the 1955 romantic suspense movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Sunning herself at the Cannes Beach Club, she pauses mid suncream application as she clocks our hero, ex cat burglar and Resistance fighter John Robie (Cary Grant), strolling by.   It’s quite a while (20 minutes) before this first, fleeting, appearance by Kelly – and there’s another ten minutes before she is next onscreen –  but there’s still plenty of style to ogle, in the debonair form of Cary Grant.

When Francie (Grace Kelly) and Robie are finally introduced over dinner, she is a goddess-like vision in this elegant, flowing – and very now – strappy blue chiffon gown, created by the film’s costume designer, the inimitable Edith Head. Despite being the daughter of an oil tycooness who talks about “cuddling up to her jewellery” in bed, Francie, tellingly, is initially seen sans bijoux. There’s not so much as a pearl earring on her .. Francie is next seen just for a few seconds in a yellowy day dress before she slips into her bathing gear – this stunning ensemble which causes heads to turn as she strolls through the hotel lobby en route to her swimming date with the one-time cat burglar she’s sinking her claws into…Edith Head may well have been briefed by Alfred Hitchcock to dress his heroine in cool colours in order to underline the idea of her as an ice princess (and, presumably, play to Grace Kelly’s image as “the fair Miss Frigidaire”), but Francie is not exactly backwards at coming forwards – and on to the object of her desire. Dressed in a demure, dusty pink day dress (which, personally, I can’t stand), Francie whisks John off on a racy car trip. Driving at speed with a smug, knowing, in-control, look, she calls the shots about where they’re going and where they’ll have the picnic during which she famously asks: “Do you want a leg or a breast?” ..Having sussed that the object of her desire is also the object of the police’s, Francie tells John to come to her suite for cocktails and a bird’s eye view of the firework display at 8pm sharp. “I haven’t got a decent watch,” says John. “Steal one,” she replies. For the rendez-vous, she wears a simple, strapless white chiffon number chosen to showcase her mother’s (fake) diamond necklace.Francie has to work at it but she does manage to seduce John into some romantic action. (Her attempts at seducing him into some cat burglary aren’t quite as successful.) When they meet a few days later, and a contrite Francie confesses that she has fallen in love with him, she is dressed simply in a cream coat with a black top or dress underneath.The climax of the film is a lavish masquerade ball, with all the guests decked out in the style of the 16th Century. This proved to be the most expensive scene costume-wise that Edith Head had ever designed, and it’s an absolute riot of Crayola-coloured, crinolined dresses. Francie’s golden gown – the only strapless one in sight – stands out. To end, here’s a couple of shots that aren’t from the film. The first is a publicity shot of that extraordinarily simple yet stunning, icey blue Grecian gown: And the second is a favourite shot of Grace Kelly and Cary Grant off-duty. She’s wearing her own clothes (or at least clothes that weren’t seen in the film), and doing for espadrilles what Audrey Hepburn did for ballet pumps .. 

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Style on Film: Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Rear Window (1954) is not only a masterwork of suspense; it’s also something of a fashion show with Grace Kelly/Lisa Freemont trotting out one gorgeous summer ensemble after another for both our and James Stewart’s delectation. After all, as James Stewart’s character points out: this is the Lisa Freemont “who never wears the same dress twice”.The costumes in this ravishing-looking film were designed by that doyenne of movie designers, Edith Head, and they had to highlight the differences between Lisa Freemont, socialite and model, and her relationship-shy guy, photo-journalist LB Jefferies. We know Lisa is a class act from the first moment we glimpse her in smouldering close-up, leaning in for a kiss – the simple, elegant single strand of pearls speaks volumes. If the pearl necklace and tasteful make-up didn’t immediately connote class and wealth, then Lisa’s description of her beautiful dress being “straight off the Paris plane” gets the message across. With its deep “V” neckline at the front and back,  and full, frothy skirt, it strikes the perfect Grace Kelly balance between sexy and chic, and was undoubtedly one of the most influential movie dresses of the 1950s. As you can see here, she wore it with a thin black patent belt, strappy black heels and a white cape and gloves.

According to Jay Jorgensen’s superb book, Edith Head – The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer (Running Press), Hitchcock’s brief to Edith Head was that Grace “was to look like a piece of Dresden china, nearly untouchable”. And yet, for most of the movie, it’s Lisa who is trying to seduce the incapacitated (he has broken his leg) Jeff … For her second seduction scene – where she’s thwarted by her man’s fascination with his neighbours and the possibility that one of them has bumped off his wife – Lisa is a vision of sophisticated sensuality in a black chiffon dress and the ubiquitous pearls, this time a triple strand necklace.

On the third evening of Jeff’s “last week” in his plaster cast, Lisa turns up looking suitably business-like in a sleek, mint-green skirt suit – after all, she is about to go into action as a detective, having been informed, by Jeff, that he saw their murder suspect going through a handbag stuffed with trinkets . As she unpins her veil and peels off her gloves, she explains to Jeff why this makes it all the more likely that he has done away with his wife: “Women don’t keep their jewellery in a purse getting all scratched and tangled up. And they don’t leave it behind either..”

For this scene, the single strand of pearls is back, along with plain, pearl disc earrings – but the whole effect is enhanced by Lisa’s beautiful satin halterneck top and, especially, the fabulous, clunkingly great, multi-strand pearl bracelet on her wrist. Not only does it add a bit of pearly pizazz to the elegant ensemble but it adds weight to Lisa’s case for the prosecution.. “Why, a woman going anywhere but the hospital would always take make-up, perfume and jewellery. .. It’s basic equipment. And you don’t leave it behind in your husband’s drawer.”Next, Lisa gives Jeff a masterclass in what else a woman would pack if she was going away for the night … an exquisite negligee. The story goes that when Hitchcock saw Kelly in this nightgown, he asked Edith Head to put in “falsies” to beef up her cleavage. But an indignant Kelly instead stiffened her back and stuck her chest out, and she and Head managed to convince the director that his instruction had been followed. The weakest link, in my view, in Grace Kelly’s wardrobe for Rear Window is the day dress she wears when Lisa goes snooping in the suspect’s apartment. It has always reminded me of curtains -albeit expensive ones.. See what I mean?I think the other issue I have with this frumpy frock is that I could equally imagine Stella (the wonderful Thelma Ritter), Jeff’s middle-aged, world-weary nurse, wearing it. I much prefer Lisa’s final look of the film – which is inspired by her man’s wardrobe, and which we see in a slow tracking shot, from the  Gene Kelly-style loafers up to the watermelon pink men’s shirt (which Head nipped in with a scarf ring at Kelly’s waist). 

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Style on Film: Vertigo

Like Jimmy Stewart’s character, I’m a bit obsessed with Kim Novak’s wardrobe and look in the mesmerizing 1958 psychological thriller Vertigo. Appearance is everything in this haunting tale of obsessive love from Alfred Hitchcock – and this black and white ensemble not only reflects the simple elegance of the woman for whom our hero falls; it also suggests her split personality. Novak’s clothes were designed by the great Edith Head – but she had a very specific remit from the notoriously hands-on Hitchcock. Here’s the sumptuous evening gown Madeleine wears – with antique jewellery – when she knows she’ll be seen for the first time by Scottie (Stewart).The redoubtable Edith Head once said: “To be a good designer in Hollywood, one has to be a combination of psychiatrist, artist, fashion designer, dress-maker, pin cushion, historian, nurse maid and purchasing agent too.” For Vertigo, her inner psychiatrist had a good work-out as Kim Novak wasn’t the most compliant of stars and was particularly unhappy with some of the clothes she had to wear while playing Madeleine. In particular, she hated the dove grey suit which Head designed according to Hitchcock’s instructions. Head later said that she hoped that Novak would be so taken with the evening gown that she would agree to compromise on the grey suit. Here’s how that contentious suit started life .. This suit (which Novak wore without the hat) is what Madeleine is wearing during the most crucial scenes at the beginning of the film – and it is this ensemble which the pathologically obsessed Scottie recreates for the Madeleine look-alike, Judy, whom he makes over in Madeleine’s image. Novak hated the grey suit, believing that the colour washed her out and claiming that the style was very restrictive (she didn’t like wearing a bra and this suit required the correct upholstery..) She even objected to the footwear – “I don’t wear black shoes,” she explained. Head promptly referred her to Hitchcock.Hitchcock asked Novak what her problem was with the black shoes. According to Jay Jorgensen’s excellent book  Edith Head – The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer (Running Press), she said: “Black shoes always sort of make me feel I’m pulled down . I’ve always felt that your feet should be the same as the top of your head, so that you’re connected. Wearing black shoes would make me feel as if I’m disconnected.” Hitchcock listened and allowed her to ditch the shoes when playing Judy, but insisted that she wear them as Madeleine. Novak agreed. Hitchcock wanted the suit to be grey because it was washed-out and he was keen that the character look as if she had just emerged from the San Francisco fog.

Novak is quoted in Jorgensen’s book saying: “I thought, ‘I’ll live with the grey suit.’ I also thought, ‘I’m going to use this. I can make this work for me. Because it bothers me, I’ll use it and it can help me feel like I’m having to be Madeleine, that I’m being forced to be her. I’ll have it as my energy to play against.’ It worked. That suit and those shoes were a blessing. I was constantly reminded that I was not being myself, which made it right for Madeleine.” It seems that Novak did win on the shoes front when it came to famous black and white ensemble that Madeleine wears when she and Scottie share their first kiss… Check out the neutral (tres 2012) footgear:Winter white coats are so chic – and this outfit is the one which seems to best represent the elegant Madeleine. Here’s another shot: Ironically, given the usual stereotype of the brassy blonde, Madeleine is a class act while it is the brunette Judy – the other character played by Novak – who is the more vulgar of the two women, in terms of personal style. Once Scottie has moulded Judy into a Madeleine doppel-ganger, they decide to launch her “new” look with a night out. For the final scenes of the movie, Judy slips into this gorgeous black chiffon halterneck dress, the deep neckline of which evokes the 19th century fashions worn by Carlotta, the subject of the portrait which so fascinated Madeleine. Confused? You will be – but I don’t want to give anything away in case you’re going to go and watch this beautiful film for the first time.The single-most influential aspect of Kim Novak’s appearance in Vertigo wasn’t one of her outfits, however: it was her pinned-up hair – which, as Scottie realised, helped define her look. Text (c) Alison Kerr (2012)

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Style on Film: Sabrina

This stunning yet simple black cocktail dress which Audrey Hepburn wore in the 1954 romantic comedy Sabrina is – believe it or not – one of the most controversial frocks in cinema history. It helped to make Sabrina one of the most stylish films of the 1950s – and to establish its young star’s famous chic gamine look. It also marked her first collaboration with Hubert de Givenchy, the French couturier, with whom her style would be inextricably linked for the rest of her life. Being a Cinderella-style love story, Sabrina opens with its heroine dressed in rather dowdier attire, however …

Audrey Hepburn’s wardrobe in Sabrina was originally to be designed by Paramount Studios’ costume supremo, Edith Head. In the film, Sabrina, the chauffeur’s lovesick daughter, goes to Paris as an awkward adolescent and returns transformed into an elegant young lady. Edith Head was put out to learn that, after their first meeting, Audrey had asked director Billy Wilder if she could wear “a real Paris dress” in the film. Mrs Wilder suggested Audrey go to Balenciaga but when the young star turned up, the couturier was too busy see her and sent her to his young friend, Hubert de Givenchy.

Givenchy later recalled: “When the door of my studio opened, there stood a young woman, very slim, very tall, with doe eyes and short hair and wearing a pair of narrow pants, a little T-shirt, slippers and a gondolier’s hat with red ribbon that read ‘Venezia’. I told her: ‘Mademoiselle, I would love to help you, but I have very few sewers. I am in the middle of a collection – I can’t make you clothes.’  Audrey asked to see the collection – and ended up choosing all of Sabrina’s post-Paris capsule wardrobe from it, starting with the super-elegant ensemble with which she wows her childhood crush when she arrives back on Long Island from France.


For Sabrina’s first-ever date with David Larabee (the dashing William Holden), the playboy with whom she has been besotted all her life, Audrey (for it really was her choice) selected from Givenchy an exquisite strapless evening gown with a boned bodice and flowing, full, ankle-length skirt. She asked the designer to alter it to that it would hide the hollows behind her collarbone. He later said: “What I invented for her eventually became a style so popular that I named it ‘decollete Sabrina’.”

Needless to say, Sabrina is the belle of the ball in her black and white Paris dress. It certainly opens the otherwise-engaged David’s eyes, prompting him to say: “Oh Sabrina, if I’d only known…”. But the “if I’d only known” dress isn’t my favourite from the film; I love the cocktail dress and cute catwoman-like hat that our fickle heroine wears when she’s being romanced by David’s brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart). What made this cocktail dress so controversial? Well, here’s a clue:

You would assume that this sketch, by Edith Head, is evidence that she designed the dress which sums up Sabrina’s seductive blend of playfulness and elegance. But that isn’t actually the case – though Head herself allowed the misconception to go uncorrected for the rest of her life. The truth – as explained in Jay Jorgensen’s superb book, Edith Head – The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer (Running Press) – is that Head’s department was supposed to make this dress, with its distinctive bows on the shoulder and boat neck, from a sketch by Givenchy. Jorgensen explains: “Confusion about the designs in the film began as sketches were done in the wardrobe department to execute all the clothing needed. Edith began sending the sketches out to publicize the film, leading to the assumption that all the clothes were her designs.” Here’s Sabrina wearing it on her pre-theatre dinner date at The Colony with Linus.

The boat neck of what became known as “The Sabrina Dress” – the design of which was translated into a best-selling dressmaking pattern when the film was released – became a hallmark of the Hepburn look. As did the black legging-like trousers and pumps which she wore, along with a slash-necked top, for a casual visit to Linus’s office.

It’s only when Sabrina removes her coat – a collarless number which anticipates the Givenchy coats she sports in their classic 1960s collaboration Charade – and turns around that we see the sly sexiness of the ensemble:

There aren’t that many different outfits in Sabrina – just enough to immediately establish it as a must-see for style lovers. Which must help explain why Edith Head presumably kept quiet about the extent of Givenchy’s involvement in the film and the fact that, with Audrey, he created Sabrina’s Parisian-inspired look, the look that dominates the movie. Not only did Givenchy’s name appear nowhere in the credits, but Head accepted an Oscar for Sabrina and didn’t even acknowledge the French designer’s contribution to the film.

According to Jorgensen’s book, Head even had the gall to parade the original dress down the runaways of her fashion shows. It was only after Head’s 1980 death, that Givenchy, a true gentleman, finally confirmed that the dress had been his design but had been made under Head’s supervision at Paramount…

 

 

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Happy (and Stylish) Hallowe’en


My favourite screen sorceress is also one of my favourite actresses and beauty icons – the wonderful Veronica Lake, she of the “peek-a-boo” hair and cheeky, knowing smile.. In 1942, she starred in I Married a Witch, playing an impish witch named Jennifer who wants to wreak revenge on the ancestor of the puritan who had her burnt at the stake a few hundred years earlier.

Unfortunately for Jennifer, her permanently tipsy wizard father is a bit of a liability on the revenge front, and events don’t go quite according to her centuries-in-the-making plan.


I’ve been thinking about I Married a Witch a lot lately – not just because it’s appropriate viewing in Hallowe’en week, but also because it features in a superb new book which I’ll be writing about in the next few days: Edith Head, The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer (Running Press).

The legendary Miss Head designed the chic chiffon number that Veronica wears in this picture – along with the rest of la Lake’s gear plus the gowns worn by her love rival, played by fiery redhead Susan Hayward. The film is available on DVD so check it out – and watch out for my celebration of Edith Head, who kitted out Grace Kelly, Barbara Stanwyck, Tippi Hedren, Elizabeth Taylor and dozens more during Hollywood’s most stylish decades …

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Style File: Grace Kelly’s Film Years

This Helen Rose gown, one of several from High Society which were given to Grace Kelly as a wedding gift from MGM, is in the V&A exhibition.

Grace Kelly, one of the most influential style icons of the 20th Century, is the subject of a major exhibition which opens this weekend at the V & A in London. A movie star who became a real-life princess, she is the perfect example of what it means to be stylish: although she followed fashion, she was always true to her distinctive, ladylike look. Only very rarely did she deviate from the streamlined, unfussy suits and dresses which she knew suited her.

The exhibition is divided into three parts: Grace Kelly the actress, Grace Kelly the bride, and Princess Grace of Monaco. Although the view of Jenny Lister, the curator, is that Grace Kelly wouldn’t have become an enduring style icon had she not had a high-profile wedding and become a princess, I personally believe that her movie years alone would have ensured her status.

Here are some of my own favourites from her onscreen wardrobe during the 1950s, starting with a selection from Rear Window (1954), the Alfred Hitchcock thriller which acknowledged the growing fascination with Kelly’s style by casting her as a young woman who works in the fashion industry.

The Edith Head suit - worn with a cream halterneck and cream pillbox hat - in Rear Window was very much Grace Kelly's own style.

Playing a fashion-mad socialite, Kelly is seen in a different outfit in every scene – and her onscreen wardrobe includes slinky lingerie (which she memorably pulls from the dinkiest overnight case – much to the bemusement of her boyfriend, James Stewart), evening wear and casual attire. It’s a veritable fashion parade – and much of it was a reflection of Kelly’s own style. Here’s how she makes her entrance – note the signature pearls are there from the get-go, and watch how the outfit is revealed very gradually (and tantalisingly), culminating in a full-length shot.

In To Catch a Thief (1955), Kelly worked again with director Alfred Hitchcock and costume designer Edith Head, and the wardrobe was as memorable as Rear Window’s. As a  socialite holidaying on the Riviera, she was seen in a number of casual outfits – including this chic little ensemble:

Of course, To Catch a Thief pairs Kelly with another great style icon, Cary Grant who  swaps his usual sharp suits for the casual clobber that one presumes is de rigueur for a retired continental cat burglar. I love this picture of this most elegant pair of stars relaxing between takes – and, although espadrilles aren’t associated with Kelly in the way that Hermes bags, pearls and twinsets are, I always think of her when I am tempted to buy a pair…

It’s not just the To Catch a Thief espadrilles that have forever linked Grace Kelly with this style of footwear in my mind; she also sported them – with beige shirt and chinos (and silk kerchief) – in the opening scenes of High Society (1956).

But  back to To Catch a Thief … The evening gown that people often remember is the gold lame, Marie Antoinette number which Kelly wears for the masked ball. I’m not a fan of it; this beautiful, Grecian-style gown gets my vote in the evening wear stakes.

High Society was Grace Kelly’s last film, made during the short period between her engagement and her wedding, a period when she was also assembling her trousseau under the watchful eyes of fashion commentators from all over the world. Her clothes in High Society were designed by Helen Rose, and, again were very much in-keeping with her own personal style – so much so that she was given a number of the gowns  as a wedding present from her studio, MGM. One of these was this exquisite dress, again in the draped, Grecian style – appropriately enough, as her character has something of a Goddess complex..

This gown, which was worn over a swimming costume in High Society, is also in the V&A exhibition.

*Grace Kelly: Style Icon runs at the V&A from April 17- September 26; the accompanying book, Grace Kelly Style (V&A, £19.99) is out now.

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Style File: Audrey Hepburn in the 1950s

Audrey Hepburn – the ultimate gamine – may have had beautiful doe eyes, a slender, gazelle-like frame and an elegant swan neck but it’s the way she wore clothes that we all envy. She may be best remembered for the  iconic dresses she wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in the early 1960s, but her 1950s wardrobe is worth a look too.  Here’s how she looked playing an incognito princess (opposite Gregory Peck) in her breakthrough movie, the delightful Roman Holiday (1953).

Hepburn won an Oscar for her performance as the princess who lets her hair down (well, gets it lopped off) as she enjoys a day of freedom in Rome. She followed that film with the Cinderella-esque romantic comedy Sabrina (1954), in which she played the chauffeur’s daughter who goes to Paris as an awkward young girl, and returns every inch the chic young demoiselle.

As with Roman Holiday, the clothes in Sabrina were credited to Paramount’s now-legendary chief costume designer, Edith Head – who won Oscars for both films. But in Sabrina, many of Hepburn’s most memorable outfits and gowns were actually the work of couturier Hubert de Givenchy who became her life-long friend. The elegant suit (above) which Sabrina wears when she makes her comeback to Long Island was undoubtedly a Givenchy creation, as was this exquisite evening gown, which our heroine wears in the tennis court/Isn’t It Romantic scene with David (William Holden).

Then there’s the casual, ballet pumps and capri pants/leggings, look that Sabrina wears when she nips in to Linus’s (Humphrey Bogart’s) office in Manhattan..

Funny Face (1957) is another must-see  for devotees of Audrey Hepburn and fans of fashion on film. It’s the story of an “ugly duckling” who is transformed into an elegant swan of a model by a fashion magazine, and whisked off to Paris for her first shoot, wearing Givenchy of course. Here are a couple of the shots of our heroine in model mode.

Hepburn loved this film because it gave her the chance to dance with the wonderful, and equally stylish, Fred Astaire (below). Whether Edith Head or Hubert de Givenchy designed the ensemble that Hepburn wears as she trawls the cafes and caves of Montmartre and Montparnasse is anyone’s guess, but the combination of black turtleneck, black cigarette pants and loafers with a beige parka is sublime – and nobody else, before or since, could have worn it better.

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