By: Megan McGurk
Woman’s pictures elevate the significance of style details to an unwritten code that informs women’s lives. In a classic double bind, women negotiate sartorial choices that have both enormous importance and absolutely none at all. In woman’s pictures, viewers bask in plots that measure the thread and texture among layers of stylish import. Ask a woman what she wore when she met the love of her life and odds favour her total recall.
If she pays no attention to matters of style, she’s a rube, such as Jeanne Crain in her mail order dress in A Letter to Three Wives (1949). Wearing a tatty chiffon monstrosity with too many tiers and improbably placed floral appliques, she makes her social debut outfitted as a hick among soigné country club wives. A woman’s lack of style presents social embarrassment, it renders her a ‘Christmas tree’, as snotty teenagers brand over-embellished Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937), whose lack of taste authorises her stuck up daughter to leave and pretend her mother never existed. Style deficiency paints a woman as a gate crasher from the unfortunate side of the tracks, as Lana Turner’s taxi dancer appears to be among spoilt co-eds in These Glamour Girls (1939). A series of awkward, ill-fitted gowns prepare Olivia de Havilland for her father’s psychological abuse and the cruelties of a fortune hunter in The Heiress (1949).
If a woman pays too much attention to fashion, she’s a bubble-headed half-wit with nothing better to do, like Scarlett O’Hara before she must plow the earth to survive, before the war, when women did little else than boast about the size of their waist. An obvious focus on style indicates an outrageous socialite with too much time on her hands, like Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939), who wears a shirtwaist dress with a bustle to a fashion show, where she declares with dramatic irony that ‘no one disputes how I wear clothes’. Or, if she devotes her life to fashion, like the designer Barbara Stanwyck plays in There’s Always Tomorrow (1955) when she makes a friendly overture to Joan Bennett by offering her a dress straight off the runway, Bennett’s character smugly dismisses the need for a stylish dress to stage a romantic evening with the husband played by Fred MacMurray. Busy wives and mothers don’t have time for such larks, she basically scoffs. Bennett relegates Stanwyck’s professional accomplishments to the trash heap with a single eviscerating comment.
In the style wars, what the right dress can do for a woman has endless variation on film, and the scenario never dulls into cliché. Call her Madame Satan (1930), in Adrian’s sex bomb torso cut-out costume for Kay Johnson to win back her husband; Joan Crawford in simple moire silk in The Last of Mrs Cheyney (1937) who has a society dame drooling over her gown, which gains entry to their circle; Bette Davis greets the family in a long sleeve sumptuous number, accented with fresh camellias as newly made over after a nervous breakdown in Now, Voyager (1942), or Anna Neagle, a poor Irish immigrant shop girl who turns up to a society ball in her mother’s vintage blue gown and becomes a modern Cinderella in Irene (1940). A dress might spell social suicide or a passport to social mobility and opportunity—the right frock opens doors.
Fate and fortune often turn on a dress. Susan Hayward’s character Eloise in My Foolish Heart (1949) learns that a frock matters, not only for the impression it gives, but also how it frames power relationships with other women and men. What you wear makes you vulnerable, as Hayward so adeptly underscores with a stirring performance. Playing an Idaho girl in a New York college, naturally she wants to look as though she’s earned the passage from Rocky Mountains to gold standard metropolis. Except she made a greenhorn mistake by assuming a shop clerk in Boise ‘who swore on her life’ knows what will pass for the height of fashion in New York.
A brown and white buffalo plaid swing dress with a scoop neckline bears every aesthetic hallmark of an unsophisticated style frontier: broad, safe, and simple. First, in the words of Miuccia Prada, brown seems ‘difficult and unappealing’ an otherwise tricky choice for a party dress. (I should interject that I wore head-to-toe chocolate the night I met the love of my life, and spent most of 15 years with it as the dominant colour in my wardrobe, but even I never owned a brown party dress). A hue of bespoke industry, acumen and application, brown connotes serious engagement with work and study, not twirling on a dance floor with a new beau. Too sombre for flirtation, brown amounts to frivolity’s antidote. Think of Katharine Hepburn’s style blunder when she marries Robert Taylor in a brown dress (and then meets his society friends) in Undercurrent (1946), where afterward, he rushes her to a dress shop fitting room to remedy her social gaffe. That’s not to malign the shade with a wide range of utility, but a cocktail dress fails within a brown range, unless worn by Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950) who has bigger fish to fry than having any fun, but even her famous Edith Head frock with fur pockets was really more of a rust colour, which has enough energetic red to lift a muddy hue.
The buffalo plaid print seems more aligned with outdoor pursuits or a picnic. As closely as it resembles a tablecloth, buffalo plaid suggests hidden comestibles or hay rather than a lady of intrigue. Only gingham would have surpassed in the infantilised department. A scoop neckline feels askew for NYC in 1949. Something about it looks saccharine, too innocent, more on par with a sweet sixteen party than a grown woman in university out on the town. Eloise looks out of step with the rest of her classmates, which snobby Miriam Ball (Karin Booth) delights to point out when she obliterates Eloise’s pride by telling her that no one wears a dress like that in New York anymore.
Miriam’s cutting remark shifts Eloise to the party side lines where she mewls and nurses her wounded self-confidence. She withers under a fashionable girl’s pronouncement. Only one thing can restore Eloise’s evening from self-pity in the corner, and it comes in the guise of Dana Andrews. With the most desirable man in the room by her side, she makes full social recovery. Along with his attention, he bestows a bouquet of Schadenfreude, when he issues devastating comments about Miriam’s ensemble. Even if men possess zero actual knowledge about fashion, they can still render scathing remarks that invalidate a woman’s style choices, because in the end everything rests upon their approval, so the sands that shift in patriarchy’s hourglass command. When Dana Andrews’ Walt Drieser looks at Miriam Ball, he takes less than a second to declare her a frump. He repeats it a few times. He bases his opinion on the fact that he knows people who went to Paris. By proxy of association, he may claim a mantle of style authority.
Walt also reasons that most likely, Eloise’s dress was manufactured on Seventh Avenue, so it automatically rates as fashionable for the city. His argument seems persuasive on the surface, because the Garment District had a strong level of production and influence in the American clothing industry up until the 1970s. But just because brown and white buffalo plaid comes out of a New York sewing machine, it doesn’t mean women there elect to wear it. Eloise has little interest in poking holes in his theory. She’s content to squeeze solace from his explanation
In a brief exchange, he rescinds Miriam’s status as fashion queen when he compliments her column gown and then adds that every girl in a mining town he had just visited wore the exact same dress as an almost uniform. She freezes as though he had tossed an ice bucket over her head. Before he can get started on her hair, she exits the ball with an excuse about an early morning. Walt’s opinion lacks any validity (it’s a lovely Grecian drape) but since he’s handsome and charming, his assessment may as well be the writ of Pharaoh Ramses carved in stone. Defenceless, Miriam suffers the blow. The vagaries of style limit a woman’s confidence that she’s always able to showcase impeccable style. Subjective, ever-changing and site of a thousand insecurities, fashion means every woman with a pulse knows how the room dims and shrinks in the wrong dress.
Eloise connects the dots for how a dress shapes the evening. Later, in his bachelor flat, she realises the home-on-the-range dress left her vulnerable to not only catty remarks by classmates but also wolfish-minded men on the prowl. Eloise’s dress achieved the same result as a large neon sign announcing her recent arrival from the sticks. Unaccustomed to a man with moves and a game plan, she accepted what he said and did at face value, influenced perhaps by what the dress suggested. Galinsky (2012) identifies a process of ‘enclothed cognition’ in a recent study, which traces a correlation between what we wear and how it influences our behaviour and decisions. In Eloise’s case, she became as naïf as the design, a guileless dress served as gift wrap for a man looking for an easy pick up. She tells Walt:
We only met because I wore the wrong dress.
Years later, when Eloise’s former friend Mary Jane (Lois Wheeler) visits, she doesn’t hold a grudge over how their friendship soured. Pragmatic Mary Jane understands the way the wheel of fashion fortunes turn:
I could have been the girl in the brown and white dress. Anyone could have.
Good or bad luck often comes off the rack.
Listen back to my podcast episode on the picture.