‘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.

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Lana Turner in A Life of Her Own (’50): ‘There are rats like you everywhere’

By: Megan McGurk

George Cukor’s A Life of Her Own (1950) wastes no time reminding viewers how tough women have it. For instance, we can’t just walk into a room and sit down. Creepy Tom Ewell (sorry, but I run to the shower to apply salt scrub whenever I recall his oily, horn-dog play for Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch) lectures a wannabe model in his office about a woman’s appearance in any room as something that requires effort, which she must practice every minute she can (when she’s alone in her apartment, in her bedroom, on the street, or in the bathroom). Women should never ‘make up’, and should instead ‘make down’. We should walk on the balls of our feet like wild cats, rather than our heels, like bears. Two imaginary rails should corral each hip to modulate a smooth gait. We should sit in a graceful ‘S’ position which cranks our spine into a chiropractor’s nightmare because the silhouette pleases the eye:

Most women drop into a chair like a bag of meal and haul themselves out of it like a bag of coal.

We should stretch ourselves so that our neck pulls out from shoulders, shoulders out of the waist and the waist out of the hip. Lana Turner sits in a chair trying to commit his mixed metaphor tips to memory. Cats, bears, meal, coal, rails, got it? Meanwhile he would resemble a domino tile if not for the expanse of his well-fed middle. Ewell’s character Tom Caraway sports bad posture, a double chin, traits he excoriates in the job hopeful woman, not to mention his grease pocked complexion and sloppy demeanour. Somehow men who enjoy prosperous careers as curators of beautiful women always fall short of the aesthetic standards they demand of women. Femininity, by contrast to anything lacklustre machismo, rates a full-time occupation. Lana performs his inane specifications to the desired effect and lands a job.

Caraway assesses Lana Turner’s tallboy drum majorette inspired hat and smart waistcoat and quips that she doesn’t look like she’s from Kansas. Lana’s character Lily James responds with a steady understatement which points out that they have magazines and movies in Kansas. She adds, for his education we don’t all wear sun bonnets. Unlike many other films that paint small-town women as awkward fashion hayseeds (like Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart), screenwriter Isobel Lennart (whose credits include Anchors Aweigh; East Side, West Side; Love Me or Leave Me and Funny Girl) realises that ambitious women in rural outposts practice for the thrill of Gotham with enough heated dedication to fry an egg. And director George Cukor knew that women have studied glossy mags and films stars for style tips since his 1932 masterpiece What Price Hollywood? Lily James didn’t work her tail off waiting tables and sweeping up hair in a salon to be turned away at the door for looking corn pone. She’s carefully dressed in a stylish ensemble, as evidence of the old dictum to dress for the job you want. She had plenty of time to do her homework while she worked a variety of jobs for six months to save the train fare.

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