“I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes,” says Shelby Carpenter, played by Vincent Price in Laura, Otto Preminger’s 1944 film.
When actors are questioned about the process of getting into character they invariably cite that the right pair of shoes or gloves, a strict corset or a comfy cardigan will help them shape and inhabit their fictional persona far greater than any notes from the director. In Dressing Dangerously: Dysfunctional Fashion in Film, a new book by Jonathan Faiers, the author explores this knife-edge relationship between fashion and film, and documents the tiny sartorial details that can tailor the narrative as much as the script.
Faiers’ own narrative covers and uncovers every area of the screen wardrobe. There is the iconic trench coat as worn by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanys, the symbolic red dress that brands Bette Davis a ‘scarlet woman’ in Jezebel, the ‘wages of sin’ fur coat coveted by Doris Day in That Touch of Mink and even accessories as weaponry – a high heel court shoe in Single White Female, a scarf in Dial M for Murder. Also featured is Cary Grant’s torn tailcoat in Bringing Up Baby alongside the monogrammed bathrobe of Joan Crawford (played by Faye Dunaway) in Mommie Dearest that helps depict the actress as a self-obsessed monster. The soiled garments that feature in a chapter entitled Stubborn Stains focusing on the meaning and consequence of cinematic wardrobe malfunctions (Sissy Spacek’s blood-stained prom dress in Carrie or Tippi Hedren’s ink spotted blouse in Marnie) would no doubt need more than a cap or two of Vanish to shift.
Faiers presents his evidence, incriminating or otherwise, with flair; the author originally studied fashion design at St Martin’s School of Art and is now a reader in Fashion Theory at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. The book is a roll call of the criminally stylish, including David Niven in The Pink Panther, Sharon Stone in Casino, Richard Burton in Villain and Marlene Dietrich, who insisted on being costumed by Christian Dior for Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright.
Hitchcock in turn instructed costume designer Edith Head to purchase the wardrobe for Janet Leigh in Psycho for next to nothing from a local store – the same kind of clothes that her secretary character could afford. In an era where buzzwords such as ‘realness’ and ‘authenticity’ are king, this confirms how the right item of clothing can help convey a believable character even before the actor has opened his or her mouth.
Dressing Dangerously tells its own sorry story with Faiers displaying the forensic fastidiousness of a sartorial sleuth, sniffing around in the underbelly of the wardrobe. The same kind of meticulous study demonstrated by costume designers who closely examine historical and vintage clothing in an effort to identify and replicate the areas experiencing most wear and tear.
My favourite artefact at the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition (October 2012-January 2013) was the famous little tramp outfit worn by Charlie Chaplin. The pinched jacket and baggy trousers assembled by the actor himself perfectly captured the tragedy of the down and out loner. And although the black and grey costume was shrouded in the darkness of the gallery, a closer inspection of the trousers offered up ragged embroidery that resembled an appropriate shabbiness.
In this book the author is, quite literally, hanging out cinema’s dirty washing, as in the case of Patrick Bateman (the vicious WASP serial killer portrayed in American Psycho with ultra-cool detachment by Christian Bale), who takes his blood stained Brooks Brother shirts to his neighbourhood Chinese laundry.
Faiers also asks us to reassess our own sartorial screw-ups – the things lurking at the back of the wardrobe.
In fashion I have long been a fan of damaged duds from the ripped and torn blazer belonging to Johnny Rotten to the mammoth moth hole knits designed by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garcons, the felt penned graffiti on the aforementioned blazer or the spray canned brocades and sequins of Alexander McQueen’s infamous Le Poupee collection in Spring/Summer 1997. For Spring/Summer 2000 Vivienne Westwood offered a collection titled Summertime that was a riotous mix of pretty cotton sun dressed marked with readymade red wine and grass stains indicating that the wearer might have a few good stories to tell should their memory allow.
While some of the language featured may linger in academia, the author happily admits that this book simply provided him the opportunity to sit and watch his favourite old films. The collection, both obscure and blockbuster, that Faiers has drawn together with such authority and obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter offers a tremendously comprehensive roster that will prove an essential and intriguing resource for any student of fashion, costume or indeed film lover.
And, if nothing else, Dressing Dangerously will make you think again when at the end of a particularly difficult day you moan that your shoes are murder.
Dressing Dangerously: Dysfunctional Fashion in Film by Jonathan Faiers (Yale University Press).
Picture shows Marlene Dietrich, dressed by Christian Dior, in Stage Fright, 1950.