‘There’s nothing organically wrong with you’: Grey Suits on Women in Douglas Sirk’s Pictures

By: Megan McGurk

No doubt volumes abound on Douglas Sirk’s use of colour to throw into sharp relief the troubled recesses of the mid-century American family. In Written on the Wind (1956), for instance, yellow has never looked as lurid as when Sirk uses it to illustrate corrupt appetites of the spoilt rich, from Robert Stack’s two-seater convertible to Dorothy Malone’s polo neck when she attempts to seduce Rock Hudson by the river. Yellow seems apt to suggest bile of an overtaxed liver in all its technicolour excess. Or viewers could pick apart how he uses white dresses for Lana Turner and Sandra Dee in Imitation of Life (1959) to underscore the racial hierarchy that shrinks the scope of Susan Kohner’s life.

Surveying a candy floss palette he daubs across the screen, it’s easy to overlook those masterstrokes he composes with grey; more to the point, how Sirk uses women in grey suits to critique the way gender roles complicate desire and ambition. Bill Thomas receives costume design credit for All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959), but specifically for ‘gowns’, so it’s unclear whether he designed the suits or if they were taken off the rack. Since Sirk paid close attention to the focus of colour in his films, it seems safe to read grey suits as meaningful. More so than pink, grey captures the essence of muliebrity, because grey matches women in their struggle to gain purchase on respectability and be taken seriously. On the colour wheel, grey mutes the assumption of sex. The hue has the potential to stave off sexual overtures, unless you count the obsessive grey suit fetish Hitchcock manifests for James Stewart’s character while he stalks Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958), which may account for my visceral dislike of the film. If a woman in a grey suit has no respite from sex pests, what kind of sense can we locate in the world?  Women wear grey as a shield. It offers the possibility for multiple interpretations. Even though grey connotes ambition, it also represents the way women feel disappointed in their desire.

Jane Wyman’s grey suit captures her delicate state in the scene when she’s expecting Agnes Moorehead for lunch on the patio, a spot where she can also enjoy a prime view of Rock Hudson trimming foliage. Wyman’s grey suit highlights how fragile she feels after losing her husband. She’s not old-fashioned, so her widow’s weeds need not be black. With the jacket slung across her shoulders cape-style, she strikes a pose that indicates a need for support, since the husband she counted on went out and worked himself into an early grave. The boxy cut fortifies her vulnerable frame. It also has the comfort of a cardigan, without the rigid structure of the grey suits her husband most likely wore to his corner office. She doesn’t know what to do with herself now that she’s alone in a house after raising narcissistic monsters who see her only as their servant; nevertheless, she can wrap up and stay warm until she figures it out. Until the arboreal man looms on the horizon, swinging limbs and a torso that appear rugged as oak, she was ready to devote her life to yet another unappreciative man who would insist they follow his schedule and live how he decides. Amidst a riot of autumnal colour in the garden, she looks as frozen and remote as a slab of granite, while serving Rock dainty luncheon rolls smaller than his thumb.

For their impromptu first date, Wyman wears another grey suit. The second grey suit has a belt and more structure than the cardigan suit. It’s also busier, with a black stripe pattern. For the party that’s actually fun, she’s in grey, yet for the stuffy society cocktail affair, she’s in a flaming red dress, most likely to offset doddering beaux, Conrad Nagel. In the old mill love nest with Rock, there’s the Wedgwood teapot, in another blend of blue and grey that suggests a metaphor about female pleasure, especially after she discovers it, he restores it, and then she inadvertently smashes it when she breaks up with him.

Later, Wyman’s Cary wants to know why she’s plagued with migraines. Her doctor replies ‘there’s nothing organically wrong with you’, that the problem was bowing to small minds when she gave up the landscaper.  When a doctor prescribes the medicinal properties of sex with Rock Hudson, look no further. Cary’s problem revolves around the emotional burden women shoulder, that they soothe everyone’s feelings, remain petrified by the gossip and censure of children, neighbours and merchants, and sacrifice their own pleasure to keep the peace.  She should have plugged her ears and found solace in the woods.

Wyman wears the grey cardigan suit again when she watches over Rock’s sick bed, after he took a tumble from a cliff. For this scene, the suit enhances the protective stance she cultivates at the window watching a sylvan tableau with a deer. Once more, the suit bolsters her with support, but this time it’s for the curative vigil she keeps, rather than when she was held captive in a drab suburban faux colonial. Snow may still be on the ground, but you can see and feel a spring thaw in the air. She melts.

Or take Lauren Bacall in a grey suit for Written on the Wind (1956), which looks as architectural as a steel Madison Avenue skyscraper. In sharp contrast to the Dior circle-skirt silhouette of the day, which required women to haul around crinolines and long spools of fabric from their middle, Bacall’s suit emphasises her panther-lean physique. No excess material impedes her climb up the commercial ladder. Bacall’s suit rates bespoke designer, like a Balenciaga original that would cost half a year’s salary, but would remain stylish long after its owner was pushing up daisies. A showstopper, Bacall’s suit looks like something you would see curated behind glass in the V&A Museum. With a modest Peter Pan collar, a slight flare on bracelet length sleeves, cropped wasp-waist jacket and slim skirt at mid-calf length, the suit comes in a shade of grey mixed with a bit of green, one that calls to mind the colour of a dollar bill. Her suit says plain as day she means business. No one who looks this good in a suit should settle for being some dude’s wife, let alone a bitter dipsomaniac’s. She looks ready to storm the conference room, instead of hanging drapes or planning dinner.

When Bacall’s Lucy walks into the hotel suite Robert Stack has ready, her tasteful probity in a pristine suit that underscores her competence and business acumen looks entirely out of place next to the tatty mistress clothes he assembled. She should have exited after she clapped eyeballs on the gaudy array of feather, bead, metallic and satin and insisted on the flight out of town. Stack’s self-loathing and destructive nature recognises her potential which he wants to own and diminish. Not since Gone With the Wind (1939) asked viewers to believe that Vivien Leigh would desire Leslie Howard over Clark Gable has a woman’s choice in a love triangle seemed more inexplicable. Rock Hudson in a russet coloured suit presents her ideal partner, not the raving beast she marries.

Dorothy Malone’s grey suit in the same film suggests her thwarted ambition to helm the family oil business, when all she can do is stroke a phallic derrick at her daddy’s desk in frustration. The tailored grey suit contrasts with the gold wiggle dress, strapless column gowns and all the other cloyingly feminine or seductive raiment she wears throughout the picture. Malone’s Marylee was born to preside over a board room in grey flannel. She’s her true self in the grey suit, one that counters her admission ‘I’m filthy—period!’. No wonder she wastes her time catting around town with unworthy men. Ambition foiled by the flimsy biology-is-destiny claptrap, she’s reduced to nothing more than a bored pleasure-seeker. Malone’s grey suit appears like a sartorial silver cup, with perennial second-place reserved for women. Barred from running the family business, her disappointment gushes over with more force than a fountain of crude they sell by the barrel.

Lana Turner dons a grey suit for a job interview to cloak her desperation in Imitation of Life (1959). The suit’s smooth line makes her seem confident and professional rather than a single mother chancing her arm. Turner’s Lora Meredith won’t sport anything like it again once her star rises in show business. During the early scenes before she’s made it, when she joins together with Juanita Moore to give their daughters a good life, her wardrobe reflects a genuine sentiment in Sirk’s cautionary tale about what women jettison for fame. Turner’s grey suit symbolises her character’s sincerity and earnestness that disappear altogether when she’s in glamorous gowns and furs later in the picture. Her suit acts as a lodestone for everything she desires, and unfortunately, it attracts a style upgrade without much substance. Once the grey suit disappears, Lana looks polished but plastic as the narrative develops. Every other garment looks fake and phony on Turner once the grey suit hits the cast offs.

Frozen, steely, disappointed or authentic, Sirk’s grey suits invite consideration of women’s interior lives beyond a surface reading within a menswear category.