Essay by Adrian Garvey Hitchcock’s Woman of Fashion

Adrian Garvey

The figure of the “Hitchcock Blonde” has become something of a visual cliché, easily and frequently evoked in film, fashion and other media through the formal grey skirt suit and meticulous grooming. While this image may correspond to the costuming and styling of some Hitchcock heroines, it belies the richness and complexity of the visual representation of women in his films. This is best understood in relation to considerations of character, and star persona, as well as in the context of contemporary fashion.

In two Hitchcock films of the 1950s, Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), issues of female appearance and fashionability are especially foregrounded. In the first film, Lisa, played by Grace Kelly, theatrically displays her new dress “right off the Paris plane…a steal at eleven hundred dollars” upon arrival at her boyfriend Jeff’s apartment. This sequence, which introduces Lisa to the film, establishes the tension between the couple’s highly gendered professional lives (she works in fashion and public relations, he is a photojournalist), as well as the emasculating threat which the “too perfect” Lisa represents to Jeff. As Sarah Street observes, “Her knowledge of fashion and awareness of her clothed body as feminine spectacle invest Lisa with power over her image, the power of performance and of masquerade, which underscores issues of sexual difference.” (1) Kelly’s own star persona combines here with the character of Lisa to embody Hitchcock’s fantasy of frosty, patrician femininity. In this instance, it was an ideal that brought together untouchable Parisian high fashion with the notion of the American upper middle class woman who inhabited the rarefied atmosphere of the Upper East Side.

If Kelly’s associations of class and elegance made her a Hitchcock ideal, Kim Novak, the female star of Vertigo, who worked with the director only once, is less obviously suited to his world. Her star persona seems insufficiently sophisticated and too overtly sexualised. However, this apparent “lack of fit” adds greatly to her effectiveness in a role which rests on duality and impersonation. Vertigo more explicitly suggests the performative nature of femininity by showing the act of consumption and rituals of grooming that “create” the character of Madeleine. But while Lisa’s use of couture-inspired garments signals her independence and autonomy, for Madeleine they infer dependence on her two male sponsors, Scottie and Gavin Elster, and link her to the patriarchal old order which is nostalgically evoked throughout the film. Vertigo further underscores the artifice of femininity in the contrasting images it offers of Madeleine and Judy, her quotidian “double,” images which blur and merge dizzyingly during the film. Madeleine, the remote, ghostly figure at the centre of the narrative, is streamlined, elegant and meticulously groomed, while the ordinariness and corporeality of Judy is conveyed through her overstated dress and styling. Femininity is reduced here to appearance, “without essence” as Tania Modleski observes (2), with Madeleine – desired and then lost by Scottie who then attempts to recreate her – revealed as a chimera. The ambivalent fascination with the aristocratic “woman of fashion” expressed in the film can be linked to other Hitchcock works, most notably Rebecca (1940), and The Paradine Case (1947).

Madeleine is introduced in the film from the point-of-view of Scottie, the detective hired to follow her. Departing with her husband from a fashionable restaurant, she is displayed in a series of highly composed shots, which frame her as a perfected spectacle. Highlighted against the blood-red interior, she wears a sculpted black evening dress with an emerald and black wrap. The sequence heightens the privileged moment which is a convention when introducing a female star, and which lends a dream-like quality to Scottie’s, and our, first sight of Madeleine. It perfectly demonstrates the quality of “to-be-looked-at-ness” which Laura Mulvey attributes to the female star, but issues of power and subjectivity are highly ambiguous. Scottie, apparently controlling the gaze, is eventually shown to be Madeleine and Elster’s “set-up.” Even without this knowledge, Madeleine seems to command the scene, with the artificiality of the moment emphasising her performance. Ultimately, however, the true architect of the meeting is revealed to be Elster, who displays his supposed wife in anticipation of killing the real one.

Costume in both Rear Window and Vertigo demonstrates the renewed influence of French couture on post-war American fashion. Edith Head, the costume designer on both films, is generally associated with unobtrusive designs, which serve character and narrative and avoid fashion trends, but Lisa’s high fashion status encouraged the use of New Look-inspired designs. While Madeleine’s evening dress suggests the American couturier Charles James, the suit which becomes her emblem in the film draws on the French Christian Dior and Jacques Fath silhouettes of the mid-1950s.

Hitchcock is a supremely visual director, with every element of mise-en-scène in his work carefully deployed, and his use of costume characteristically precise in relation to character, narrative and context. However, the fashionable woman can be seen to occupy a contradictory role in his films: an alluring, powerful figure who also represents a threat to male authority; a perfected ideal who must be reduced or destroyed.


(1) Sarah Street, “The Dresses Had Told Me: Fashion and Femininity in Rear Window,” in John Belton, (ed.), Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.94.
(2) Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (London: Routledge, 1988), p.91.

© Adrian Garvey 2006

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