If I were to say “femme fatale” to you, what would you picture? Chances are, she’d be wearing something form-fitting and satiny—probably black—and most likely holding a gun or a cigarette. Or both. Veils or furs or tiny fascinator hats might play in there somewhere, if you want to get fancy. But that’s the archetype.
You probably wouldn’t imagine a scrawny blonde with a pixie cut in a bathrobe. Or a grimy drifter chick in a crocheted sweater. Or a fifty-year-old woman in a sunhat and a leopard print lounge ensemble. And yet, the bad girls of classic noir encompass all these shades of boyishness, grittiness, and full-on glamour. The one thing they all have in common, however, is that they use their clothes for a definite purpose, be it a stealth attack or a full-on assault.
In one of cinema’s greatest wardrobe scenes, from the noirish Leave Her to Heaven, Ellen, a psychopathically jealous wife, silently browses her closet, looking for the right dressing gown—that she’ll wear when throwing herself down a flight of stairs to kill her unborn child! It’s an extreme example, but clothing, for a femme fatale, offers an outlet for her to direct her own life, to orchestrate the world around her and control the reactions of others. She harnesses the power of her clothes perhaps to win sympathy or to generate attraction, but always to attain her goal.
A lot of characters in movies wear the sort of clothes that an audience expects them to wear. This is a huge generalization, but the costumes of classic Hollywood tend to announce the identity of the wearer, “This is who I am. You know what to expect from me.” The style of a character helps us read her; it introduces us to that person through a kind of sartorial shorthand. Most of the time, those costumes don’t try to draw attention to the fact that they were carefully constructed and selected—except insofar as they are beautiful and worthy of our admiration.
The significance of clothing becomes much more complex when we’re dealing with the deceptive dames of noir. With the truly well-defined femme fatale characters, we the viewers feel that these tough broads actually chose their outfits. We discern an added layer of calculation, of connivance in their clothing choices. The fashions of the femme fatale dare us to decode them, to try to understand why they’re wearing that. What are they after? What are they trying to get by looking that way? Men might explain their strategies in film noir. The women wear theirs.
You are dangerous…
For instance, let’s take one of noir’s best liars—Brigid O’Shaunessy from The Maltese Falcon (costumes by Orry-Kelly). If she has a gift for belying her true nature as a greedy, cold-blooded killer, her clothes are her best accomplices. She fearfully tiptoes into Sam’s office wearing a mountain of fur, thick, bumpy, grandmotherly fur. Her suit doesn’t scream sexy either. On the contrary, it’s rather baggy. And that hat. Has she been shopping Ninotchka’s closet?
Okay, so I’m being catty, but Brigid’s beauty is certainly subdued by the rather matronly clothes she wears. She’s a natural “knockout” because of her porcelain features, but Mary Astor gives us a much more simmering femme fatale in place of the sizzler that Hammett wrote. And it’s utterly perfect.
I mean, evil women don’t wear big waxy magnolias on their floppy, blouson crepe dresses, do they?
They don’t smother themselves in pleats and ruffles and tweed. I remember the first time I saw The Maltese Falcon as a young girl I could not bring myself to believe that Brigid killed Archer. And that she was “going over for it.” I gaped in astonishment. Her schoolgirl manner and her many, many pretenses—destroyed and then rebuilt—had me convinced.
And I would argue that her decidedly un-flashy, quiet, slightly old-fashioned wardrobe as much as promised me that, at heart, she was a good egg. But don’t judge a book by its cover. That feigned modesty was all part of an act. As Sam Spade tells her, “You’re good.” Only as good a liar as her costumes.
Here Kitty, Kitty…
At the other end of the in-your-face sexiness spectrum, we’ve got Kitty from The Killers (costumes by Vera West). The first time we meet the mysterious woman, after quite a bit of screen time spent in the process of “cherchez la femme,” she’s hosting a posh soiree for her main squeeze’s business associates (in flashback). Wearing that black dress, with just a single diagonal strap keeping the bustier up, Kitty practically jumps off the screen. She’s a vision. In fact, we see her for the first time from behind, her alabaster shoulders glowing in the candlelight, starkly contrasting with the inky shade of the dress.
The visibility of her neck and shoulders also conflicts with the ridiculously covered-up outfit worn by Swede’s current girlfriend. Even the most monogamous man on the planet would be tempted.
The dress itself couldn’t be described as tacky. However, the amount of skin she coolly, comfortably displays suggests that this woman, no matter how refined she seems, probably did some gangland finagling to get to this point. The costume hints at the black diamond hardness that Kitty continues to exhibit throughout the film. If she’s partially at the mercy of the men who deign to look at her, well, she’s wise enough to work with their desire to get what she wants.
We first see Kitty as this perfect china doll, another exquisite possession of Jim Colfax and we recognize her as the inevitable lure of Swede’s destruction. The next time we encounter her, she’s even more posh and ladylike in an ornate hat and a square-neckline day gown.
But after that, the moll beneath the polish shows up. In several flashbacks, we witness Kitty hanging out with the Colfax gang as they plan the payroll heist. In those flashbacks, she wears a simple black skirt, unadorned pumps, and a mannish collared shirt with the sleeves cuffed up or a rustic knit sweater. Not just the glossy mob mistress, this dame likes to be there when things are really happening—and can rock a more casual ensemble.
Nevertheless, the rather unglamorous clothes she chose still showcase her voluptuous figure and enable her to stir up trouble between the Swede and Colfax as part of her own ‘divide and conquer’ mentality. She’s not one of the boys, but she dresses to demonstrate that, despite the daintiness of her face and body, her fierce determination cannot and should not be underestimated. The woman in these outfits can say, without the slightlest disbelief on the audience’s part, “Touch me and you won’t live ’til morning!”
A damsel in dis-dress
One of my absolute favorite things that noir dames do is to let themselves be caught, accidentally on purpose, in a state of undress or disarray. Make no mistake: I don’t believe that true deadly women like Phyllis Dietrichson ever let their guard down, even to sleep. Like sharks, they probably have to move constantly and scheme without cease, or they’d die.
Oh, my! You just happened to catch me in my vine-patterned, designer beach towel!
So, when a noir dame reveals a little more of herself than she seems to want to, you bet your life, she’s making an opening gambit. The apparent absence of fashion—just wrapping oneself up in a towel or robe—in fact betrays a conscious choice to say, “Look, I have nothing to hide.”
Most noir men have two weaknesses: (half-)naked ladies and ladies in trouble. The bad girls of noir innovated by combining the two.
Sunglasses on a femme fatale serve no normal purpose. Most of the time, they do not protect these dangerous ladies from the sun; they conceal what they’re really thinking. Often, noir sunglasses are worn indoors—most famously by Phyllis Dietrichson in the famous market scenes of Double Indemnity.
Those almost totally opaque cat eye glasses give her the eeriness of a Death’s Head combined with the suburban garishness of a bored housewife. One gets the feeling that she bought them—like that widow’s hat of hers—just for this occasion. They’re not sunglasses. They’re scheming glasses. Hm, wearing sunglasses to browse the local canned goods. That’s not suspicious, at all.
Of course, Phyllis has a way with accessories: mourning veils and that “honey of an anklet,” that actually enables Walter to learn her first name. It’s the little intimate details that show that, underneath that garish Martha Washington wig and her often bulgy, padded ’40s style, she’s sexual dynamite.
When we first catch a glimpse of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, she’s wearing oddly large glasses that catch the glint of the sun. Those great, bulging round lenses endow her with the look of a fearful insect, a praying mantis in seclusion. She continues to wear them while watching Joe read her script. The glasses render her all the more inscrutable as a means, we understand, of concealing her vulnerability.
Like the many of the most ego-inflated people in the world, Norma quails and withers under the slightest criticism. Her sunglasses don’t keep out the sun; they protect her from the truth. I’d also note that the large, rounded shape of the glasses imbues her with a fusty, outdated air. The shape of her sunglasses wouldn’t have been particularly popular in 1950. But then again, neither were silent movies.
Although I have reservations about calling Leave Her to Heaven a film noir, it does feature one of the most relentless of femmes fatales that I’ve ever encountered and Martin Scorsese has called it a “film noir in color,” so I’m going to go with that. As an insanely jealous sociopath from a well-bred family, the stunningly beautiful Gene Tierney sets about removing any obstacle to the total possession of her husband. In the film’s most chilling scene, she lets her husband’s crippled kid brother drown while she sits calmly in a boat.
As she fails to move a muscle and watches the little boy flail and scream, the blank darkness of her preppy, otherwise innocuous sunglasses translate the emptiness of her own soul. She’s a void. No matter how pretty her face, behind those vivid eyes, you’d probably look into something as black and glassy as those sunshades.
In the dog-eat-dog world of noir, fashion isn’t just a means to an end. It’s an end in its own right. The hard-knocks dames who walk down those mean streets want it all; often born into poverty, noir femmes fatales crave security and luxury: life, liberty, and the pursuit of furs and bling. Margot Shelby of Decoy, played by the rosy but fearsome Jean Gillie, even expounds this philosophy to her boyfriend, who’s reluctant to aid and abet some illegal doings:
“Reality? What do you know about reality? You like the clothes I wear, don’t you? You like to smell the perfume I use. You like that, don’t you? That perfume costs seventy-five dollars a bottle! Seventy-five dollars! That’s as much as you earn in a week sopping up runny noses. A bottle of perfume—that’s our reality.”
Tricked out in lush furs, rich silks, Margot flaunts her swag with the brazenness of a woman born into filth and grime. She occasionally caresses her own jewels, lavishing the affection that she lacks for her fellow man on the cold glitter of those heavy diamond bracelets. Even her shoes sparkle with pave rhinestones and a heavy brooch graces her funny cylindrical cap. She lights up the darkness like a firecracker with her over-the-top glamour, even in the most grim and dire of settings.
Live well and look great, or die trying. That’s Margot’s mentality to the very end.
The fashions of noir are underwritten, usually, by crime. The desire for beauty and style propels the women of noir to navigate the underworld and find men whom they can manipulate into giving them the cutting-edge frocks they so crave. Security, money, fashion—they all go hand-in-hand. Take Vera, the psycho chick of Ulmer’s cheapie Detour. When we first see her, her clothes don’t exactly impress us. She sports a black skirt and heels scuffed up by her time spent hitchhiking. We never really learn where she wants to go or where she comes from.
However, her crocheted cardigan, with great big, round buttons, that once was white looks like it was purchased at a department store by a girl who wanted nicer things, but couldn’t really afford them.
However, no sooner does Vera get her hooks into her fellow drifter and starts spending some of the money he took from a dead man than her true vanity reveals itself. She purchases a chic black gown with a padded peplum skirt (designed by Mona Barry) and a sparkly brooch. “Don’t I rate a whistle?” She asks her companion. Clearly, she aspires a certain kind of upper-crust opulence, but can’t rid herself of her vulgar instinct. I mean really, who goes out wearing a torch singer gown in the daytime? Quelle horreur! Once again, the desire for fashionable duds, as well as other material comforts, spurs Vera on to more and more outrageous criminal schemes—and her own destruction. But hey, maybe it was all worth it for one shopping spree in Los Angeles.
Glamour actually comes from an old word for “spell” or “magic.” And each of noir’s wicked sorceresses casts her own kind of spell when it comes to big league glamour.
Note: if you’re wearing sequins on your skin, your hair, AND your outfit, you had better be nuts, famous, and very, very rich.
Norma Desmond, decorated like a Christmas tree with excessive trinkets, brooches, rings, necklaces, and dress clips, exudes a sense of general decay. She tries too hard. She dazzles, yes, but too much. Just as she wears “a pound of make-up” to go visit the studio, she smothers herself in furs, wraps, and veils.
And yet, there’s something compelling in her decadence. For the costumes, Edith Head channeled am overripe glamour so archetypal, so Hollywood, so leopard-print-exaggerated, that one cannot help but admire the grotesque splendor of it all. Norma, the moth-eaten goddess, the Miss Havisham of Sunny Roseland, radiates the kind of blinding self-indulgence that made the “crazy Twenties” so much more cool and enigmatic than “all that New Hollywoood trash.”
When I last watched Out of the Past (costumes by Edward Stevenson), I couldn’t get over how much Kathie Moffat’s style changed over the course of the movie. First, she walks out of the sun in a feminine, square-necked white ensemble—so very put together and unruffled.
Next, she’s the free spirited beach girl in a peasant dress, her hair soaked by the rain. Maybe she’s not so bad after all? Wrong!
Once she returns to Whit, her silken dressing gowns, simple bias cut dresses, and fluffy mink wraps show that she’s equally comfortable as the gangland mistress.
Perhaps more than any other noir woman, Kathie strikes us as a chameleon. She shifts her shape until she finally transforms into the militaristic dame of the conclusion, her hair hidden by a nunnish traveling snood.
“I never told you I was anything but what I am,” she tells Jeff, but her clothes told us something else entirely.
Pure as the Driven Slush
White costumes make strikingly misleading choices for femmes fatales. In a recent issue of InStyle, Tom Ford cited the white ensemble worn by Lana Turner’s Cora at the beginning of The Postman Always Rings Twice as one of his favorite film costumes (designed by Irene at M-G-M). The duality of white as innocence and the disguise for guilt really comes across from that first long shot of the erotic woman standing there giggling to herself, then intently applying lipstick. Wordless and self-contained, she almost seems like an apparition, some exotic dream girl in a pin-up costume, a fantasy that materialized just for Frank.
Honestly, what woman lounges around the house in white bum-hugging shorts, a midriff-revealing top and a turban, for crying out loud? Throughout the film, white enhances her aura of youth, of childishness and yet also seems to be contradicted by her voluptuous figure. I wonder how many good-looking drifters she surprised with the same routine. This is one complicated dame.
If someone were to ask me which movie character’s wardrobe I would most want to own, I wouldn’t hesitate: Elsa Bannister’s costumes designed by Jean Louis for The Lady from Shanghai. This ethereal femme fatale embraces a varied, but coherent style—she reeks of class and aristocracy, on land, on sea, or in a funhouse. I’m particularly in love with how she pulls off a clingy black bathing suit with a military pea coat and a captain hat. Don’t try that at home!
But the defining outfit of her character, the one that cements our and Michael O’Hara’s deep and unreasonably stupid love for her is a feminine full-skirted white gown with a sheer collared capelet.
This dress, shimmering, sparkling in the moonlight, cloaks Rita Hayworth in a seductive modesty. The floaty white transparency of the capelet might make us think for a moment that she’s an angel trapped in the muck of this nasty world. Elsa Bannister represents the enduring attraction of wickedness that comes to us in the form of what we most want. As she explains, “One who follows one’s original nature keeps one’s original nature… in the end.” Her beauty and her wistful romantic costumes just encourage poor lost souls to follow.
Fashion as a force of nature: Elsa Bannister’s white dress. She floats down the hill to the strains of “Amado Mio,” a clever allusion to Gilda.
I have left out quite a few of my favorite femmes fatales—and written a lot and still not said as much as I had hoped. The next time you crack open your favorite noir, though, I dare you to ask… why did she chose to wear this? What’s her angle? To tantalize? To play a part? To boast about her status? To love? To kill? Or all of the above, perhaps.