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.