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)



Filed under Movies, Style

11 responses to “Style on Film: Vertigo

  1. Paul

    Great film and a great article. I am also rather obsessed by Madeleine. Your article has reminded me what an effect she had on me. She must be THE quintesential Hitchcock’s muse. For me there is only one other film where a Hitchcock leading lady lands a right hook leaving you breathless and instantly hooked on her every move. Although she doesn’t have the Madeleine effect…she’s not far off, so when will you be covering Grace Kelly and Rear Window? That first scene with her entrance is movie magic?

  2. jesse stewart

    I am a fan of classic films, and of this film, I always wondered about that gray suit Novak wore, it fit the mood of the film, but did not look right on her, the clothes worn in Bell, Book and Candle are also great, I think better then Vertigo. The red/black cape and dress at the start of Bell Book and Candle are the best and look the best on her in the night club the Zodic scene, and the Christmas Tree scene following.

  3. GiRRL_Earth

    Great article! I am a fan of Hitchcock films and Edith Head. Vertigo is my 2nd favorite Hitchcock film; Rear Window is my #1 favorite. The dress Grace Kelly is wearing on the first evening she shows up at LB Jeffries’s apartment (beginning of movie) is to die for! As far as I’m concerned, that dress and the green suit GK wears in the next to final scene is Edith Head’s best work. 🙂

    • alisonkerr

      Thanks for your kind comments, Susana. Yes, I agree about the first two outfits Grace wears in RW – and they would both still look fab today, don’t you think? I’ll never like the day dress – but take your point about what it represents, which (given the importance Hitchcock placed on appearance/wardrobe; something that peaked, I think, in Vertigo) is possibly why it was chosen.

      • Hi Alison!

        I’m completely hooked on your blog. I sent the link to a friend of mine who is also a Hitchcock fan. I think he is going to love it as much as I do.

        And yes I agree, those dresses would look fab today. 🙂

        P.s. I own the book: Edith Head, The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer by Jay Jorgensen. It’s a fabulous (large!) book. As an art school drop-out (back in the ‘8os), I so appreciate seeing Edith’s rough design sketches. I admire how she got her start, by lying to the interviewer and using the sketches of a friend. As far as I’m concerned, that took cajoñes grande!

        Enjoy your day!


  4. VERTIGO…The Ultimate Film on Style, Culture, Class and Elegance of an Era long since vanished. Except for we few Last of the Romantics

  5. Ray

    I watched Vertigo yesterday again at Showtime (may be) for the 10th time. First time, I watched it with my sister and my friends in Calcutta, India in Globe theater on 1991 upon recommendation of my father and uncle. I remember I got mesmerised by the story, landscapes of San Francisco, beauty of Kim Novak, and the costumes she wore. And also, I love Jimi Stuart. Just looking at him, you can tell he is a very solid and honest guy. Love this film. And most of the scenes look like oil paintings. America really influence other minds from across the globe by Holllywood than any thing else. But, these day there are no Hitchcocks, Kim Novaks, or Jimi Stuarts.

  6. Just watched this movie for the zillionth time. I never get enough of Madeleine. Do you happen to know about the pin on her grey suit? I can’t quite make out what it is.

  7. Green Lady

    Where can I get a dress like the black chiffon halter neck Kim Novak wore?

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