By: Megan McGurk
Home Before Dark (1958) tells a story with four dresses. Jean Simmons plays a woman whose psychological recovery stalls because she’s unable 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?