Classic Film Fashion #308: Adrian’s rustic gown for Margaret Sullavan in The Mortal Storm (1940).
Adrian designs a modern interpretation of traditional clothing worn in the German Alps. Instead of a beer wench plunging neckline or dairy maid ruffles, Adrian realises the clean lines of a square notch tab border for the pinafore style shirt dress. The garment is as unfussy and pragmatic as Margaret Sullavan’s character. Standing with her pappy’s 60th birthday cake during the evening when Hitler takes power, she represents everything wholesome and rational, a striking opposite to the swastika armband mob.
Classic Film Guide for How to be a Lady #23: Murder will Out-Style, as demonstrated by Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Gene Tierney and Jane Greer.
In Letty Lynton (1932), Joan Crawford suggests that she intends the poisoned champers for herself, as an escape from Nils Asther’s sexual blackmail, except no lady would choose gold for a suicide. Rather, Adrian’s metallic gown, with high neckline to the throat and long sleeves, provides fashion armour for Joan’s battle against the man who torments her and won’t let go. The artful folds of lamé offer protection and glamour just as the poison fells him before he can carry out his promise to rape. Style makes Joan invincible.
Bathed in the glow of a ripe full moon, Bette Davis empties a revolver into an inconstant lover during the opening scene of The Letter (1940). Orry-Kelly’s dressing gown, with a wide placket collar in white, sheer bishop sleeves, nipped waist and full skirt validates each bullet fired from a woman exhibiting so much style and grace. When the men arrive to hear the story, Bette reclines like a prima ballerina, clutching her fist dramatically around a white hankie to gain strength while she gives her version. Bette’s style is all the evidence the authorities need.
For Leave Her to Heaven (1947), Gene Tierney has fresh ice water in her veins when she boards the rowboat in Kay Nelson’s design, a robe as white and thick as the snow in Alaska. Ben Nye’s makeup supervision underscores the scene with premeditated red lipstick. The tortoise shell shades with green tinted lenses lend further cover for a lady who considers a husband’s younger brother as a nuisance warranting disposal. Gene keeps it cool in order to avoid mussing her smooth bouncy hair or smudging the lippy. She’s so on-trend for resort fashion no one would suspect such a foul deed.
In Out of the Past (1947), Jane Greer’s stylish beauty has Robert Mitchum buying jade earrings before they exchange a word. A wide brim hat, sundress and hoops earrings are fashion perennials, much like the button-front wool sheath Jane wears for firing on the man who tailed them to the cabin. By the end, Jane’s dressed in headgear that resembles a nun’s habit to stylishly deflect accusations of guilt.
Classic Film Guide for How to be a Lady #22: Ditch the heels when needs must, just like Eva Marie Saint does in North by Northwest (1959).
Consider how many ladies onscreen might have been saved or treated with a happy ending at the fade out had they only demonstrated good sense enough to resign those pointy bits of wood to oblivion. Fashion can take a flying leap if it means a lady can’t break out into fleet-footed escape. Eva Marie Saint’s pumpkin sheath is earthy, sensible yet also impeccably stylish. She can cling to a founding father’s nose and still look like the business, once she ditches those pesky heels. And who would ever think of leaving shoes on for a make out sesh with Cary Grant? A lady needs her feet free from a pair of pumps so that she can curl her toes out and under during the smooches.
Classic Film Guide for How to be a Lady #21: Dismiss the ‘spinster’ alarmists as Greta Garbo does in Queen Christina (1933).
Instead of allowing some fella to browbeat her with the possibility that she may never marry and ‘die a spinster,’ Garbo removes the connotations of shame or failure by framing a new context for single lady status. ‘I shall die a bachelor,’ the Queen corrects. She changes the definition of the term that so often consigns women to the sidelines or pity ranks.