Home Before Dark (1958) tells a story with four dresses. Jean Simmons plays a woman whose psychological recovery stalls through an inability to choose a dress that fits, both in terms her of body and personality. Her character Charlotte Bronn, released from the scary Danvers psychiatric institution, buys two dresses that are wrong on every level. Poor shopping choices signal that she still doesn’t know herself after a year in hospital. Each sartorial travesty shows her effort to gain purchase on reality and find her place within it. Charlotte tries to become someone else, someone her husband desires, when she buys the frocks. The dresses match a streaky peroxide dye-job for an awkward style. Two other dresses and natural hair colour indicate Charlotte’s stable mental health. In between tragic attire, Jean Simmons looks adorable in menswear: a soft wool cap, pea coat with popped collar, relaxed tops and turned up jeans with loafers. She looks most comfortable in shoreman-on-leave gear, accessorised with a mug of sweet black coffee and a cigarette.
Hectored by her step-mother (Mabel Albertson) to buy new clothes, Charlotte visits a boutique in their small New England town, and selects the dress on display she had examined in a previous scene. The shop keeper questions whether Charlotte can charge the items and rings Arnold, her button-down college professor husband (played by Dan O’Herlihy) for permission. Since it’s Charlotte’s inheritance they live on (she also supports her step mother and step sister, Joan, played by Rhonda Fleming, who live with them) the scene builds a moment of humiliation for Charlotte. With no money in her pocket and no access to her bank account, she’s furthered estranged from herself. Who is a woman if she can’t even charge something in a backwater shop?
Among the scenes depicting a woman’s libido on film, Miriam Hopkins lolling around on a bed lamenting the fact that she’s not a gentleman should rank at the top. While she’s remembered for her sexpot role as Gilda in Design for Living (1933), where she plays a woman enjoying a luscious three-way romance courtesy of Ernst Lubitsch, Miriam gets lost in the shuffle in favour of other screen goddesses from the era. She did not announce her desire in the same way that other women did on the screen. Miriam didn’t lower her lids and hug the shadows like Marlene Dietrich; she did not fall into a swoon like Garbo; nor did she adopt a suggestive slouch like Jean Harlow; and she didn’t drape herself in luxe high fashion like Joan Crawford. Miriam, often buttoned up to her neck, with a sober bow laced under her throat, could make a prim skirt suit appear as seductive as a silk bias cut gown. Her trademark used splayed hands across her hips and abdomen, as if to hold firmly in place the seat of desire. Miriam never left you in any doubt when her characters were gasping for it, especially in Woman Chases Man (1937). Posters for the screwball gem label her a ‘she-wolf’ which may misrepresent the romantic dynamic, but she serves as proxy for women (and men) in the audience who want to ogle Joel McCrea. She’s hot-to-trot for him in every scene.
Instead of obvious touches with wardrobe or boilerplate mechanics of allure, Miriam creates a subtle version of a grown woman’s sexual appetite. Miriam also straddles the line between seduction and screwball antics better than anyone, Carole Lombard included. Not many women can shift from a George Raft impression (talking out of both sides of her mouth at breakneck speed) in one scene to salivating over Joel McCrea in the next. Her desire for McCrea knocks against the restraints of a genteel background to obliterate distinctions between a lady and a dame. Miriam’s debutante accent announces cotillions, mint juleps on the veranda, boarding schools, and echoes those familiar rules about what nice girls do and instead blows them a raspberry.
As Virginia Travis, a struggling architect, Miriam conspires with Charles Winninger’s failed entrepreneur B.J. Nolan to take his son through the hurdles, so that Kenneth (McCrea) will shell out from his inheritance and fund an experimental social housing project. But she’s distracted from the plan to eradicate tenements once the tall drink of man-water arrives. Suddenly, the petite blonde looks like a wolf in grandma’s clothing when her eyes land on the son. Joel looks so delectable from his first scene when he’s introduced in a manner that’s usually reserved for a socialite character in film (Claudette Colbert or Barbara Stanwyck, for example). Since we are in woman’s picture territory, our gaze lingers over McCrea lounging ship deck wearing glamorous black sunglasses with all the other gorgeous rich folks. He looks good in a suit, too, when he turns up to lecture his father about fiscal responsibility.
Letty Lynton (1932), well known for the exaggerated organza sleeve gown that Adrian designed to embellish Joan Crawford’s already significant wingspan, features so many more interesting clothes. Clarence Brown’s picture remains out of circulation after an author of a play no one remembers sued and won for plagiarism. It’s a crime against cineastes, because Letty’s wardrobe by Adrian features some of his best work in fusing costume with character. Joan Crawford, queen of underplay, performs an uncharacteristic bit of scenery chewing in the climax scene with Nils Asther. A single blob of mascara slides under her eye as a result. We won’t see Crawford with a smudged face again until she’s beaten and tortured by Nazis in Above Suspicion (1943), her last picture before she left MGM. The ‘Letty’ dress that sold half a million knockoffs pales in comparison to the gown she wears for a first date with Bob Montgomery, a white column gown with silver beading and sleeve inserts in white mink. Joan’s fur shoulder cuffs look like clouds of candy floss that reflect all the light in the room upon her face. She casts an ethereal dream vision to dazzle the spoilt Montgomery.
Adrian gave Joan two different duvoons to snuggle into for this picture. The first is a praline-coloured confection she wears to disembark the ship from South America. When she discovers Nils Asther’s Emile, an ex-lover who turns up like a bad penny to ruin the glow of her recent engagement, she barricades herself in the sumptuous fur to reject his demand that their romance continue. Joan’s Letty cocoons in another fur duvoon, this time in black sable, when she meets Nils Asther in his hotel room to put a stop to his sexual blackmail. Never mind why Joan’s character keeps a bottle of poison in her medicine cabinet, or why she intends to drink it herself as a means to escape Nils’s threat to expose her love letters. Wanda Tuchock and John Meehan’s script contains gems that match the sartorial flair on offer, such as Joan’s remark after she takes off the black duvoon, revealing a silver metallic dress, and asks ‘any wine left? I’m congealed.’ (Or earlier, right before she breaks up with Nils and some random former lover goes in for a smooch and Joan shuts him down ‘You know I never kiss anyone before one o’clock’). Between the armour-plated frock and the duvoon, viewers know style vouchsafe when we see it. Joan appears as impervious to his nefarious plan as if she were wearing a shield and sabre. Nils deserves what he gets when he says ‘women don’t think. They change their minds, that’s all’ and then he knocks Joan to the floor twice. Down the hatch, Emile.
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 ofLife (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.