“I don’t wear suits, and I don’t wear gray. Another thing, I don’t wear black pumps,” said Kim Novak to Edith Head, the costume designer for Vertigo.
“I don’t care what she wears as long as it’s a gray suit, Hitchcock retorted when Edith reported this conversation to him.
Thus began the creative tension over the costuming of Vertigo. But in a clash of opinion over the visual aspects of a Hitchcock film, Hitch always prevailed. Indeed, he already had the colors and the costume types selected before pre-production for Vertigo began. Kim Novak wore the gray suit with the black pumps - her iconic look in Vertigo. “I had never had a director who was particular about the costumes, the way they were designed, the specific colors,” said Novak about Hitchcock later.
This blog post is a slightly revised version of my contribution to The Lady Eve's "A Month of Vertigo".
The story theme within Vertigo is based on obsession, and the costume looks for the Madeleine/Judy character are a key symbol of that dysfunction. The “clash” that Kim Novak had with Hitch and Edith Head over her costumes was nothing new for an actress in Hollywood, but Alfred Hitchcock’s very specific clothing demands in type and color speaks volumes about Vertigo being for him a very personal film. The combination of the costumes and look of Kim’s Madeleine, the psychological tension caused by the character Scottie’s clash of opposite impulses towards Madeleine/Judy, and the ultimate futility of his possession of her, were all deeply embedded in Hitchcock’s psyche. As far as the costume choices being good fashion, it didn’t matter that Kim’s pumps were black. They would have looked better in gray or brown, or as she wanted, in tan to match her nude-toned hose. Wearing flesh-toned pumps was an old trick she’d learned from Marlene Dietrich, a device to make your legs look longer. The gray suit was in a neutral and sedate color. Hitch believed it revealed how the Madeleine character felt about herself. Edith Head also frequently designed gray suits for her film costumes, and wore them regularly herself, believing that it gave her a non-competitive look when working with the stars. But Marlene Dietrich had worn a gray suit for Hitch in Stage Fright, as had Doris Day in The Man Who Knew too Much, and as Tippi Hedren would wear in The Birds. So the gray suit touched something within Hitchcock, and along with the blonde hair of his leading actresses, denoted for Hitchcock the “woman of mystery,” the cool and subtle beauty with the blazing insides. And as for the black pumps, they can often be fetishistic objects, and Hitchcock's insistence on them here gives them that significance.
The colors of the costumes and the sets had a symbolic meaning for Hitchcock. Gray represented modesty when worn in a gray suit . Perhaps it's dove gray color denoted a uniform to Hitchcock, perhaps even linking it to the color of a nun's habit. And perhaps it was that modesty contradicted by the figure-hugging cut of the suit that added spice to the costume. When Jimmy Stewart as Scottie first sees Kim Novak playing Madeleine, she wears a black gown but is covered in a green-trimmed opera coat at Ernie’s Restaurant. The wallpaper of the restaurant forms a red background that vibrates with the green in these color opposites. For some reason green represented death for Hitchcock, and Madeleine’s car is also green. It’s in the following scene where Scottie begins tailing Madeleine that she first wears the gray suit. His fascination with her was peaked at Ernie's, but seeing her in the gray suit is when he becomes obsessed. As for Scottie’s former love interest Midge, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, she is dressed in warm colors and soft fabrics – symbols of her nurturing and loving proclivities towards Scottie.
After Scottie saves Madeleine from drowning and takes her to his apartment, she is dressed, albeit in his robe, in a vibrant red. Here the color evokes life and full-bloodedness. And indeed, a prior scene of intimacy is implied. Then in a later scene when Scottie and Madeleine drive to the shore, she is dressed in black and white – a black dress with black gloves and a white coat. The black and white in this costume denotes not the unambiguous nature of her character, but rather the duality of her persona. As an added fillip, her black chiffon scarf blows freely with the ocean wind, perhaps a symbol of mystery, or one of doom.
As the character Judy, Kim Novak is costumed by Edith Head to appear dowdy. She wears the "deathly" green color – in a green sweater made bulky by being worn over a blouse. The blouse is green with white polka-dots and with a peter-pan collar turned over the sweater. The whole is accentuated by an unflattering hair style. The total look is purposefully unappealing. This look has several purposes: to define the character of Judy in contrast to Madeleine’s; to appear that she is “hiding” her identity; and to provide a stark difference with Madeleine in order to dramatize her coming make-over.
When they go on a date and later go shopping for her clothes, she is dressed better but still very simply. She wears lavender, a color of mystery and transition. But Scottie will not be satisfied until he makes her over in the very image and dress of Madeleine. The make-over itself is a key dramatic moment in the film - Judy’s reluctance, Scottie’s obsession in turning her visually into Madeleine, complete with gray suit and blonde hair.
The nature of the costumes, and the make-over, reverberated not only with the character’s roles, but with the actor’s and the director’s deep psychology. Hitchcock exercised his darker side in molding an actress into his own obsession, while directing Jimmy Stewart to do the same. Kim Novak as Judy wondered why Scottie couldn’t love her as she was, just as Kim Novak really felt about Hollywood in general. The entire film reverberates not just from vertigo but due to mirroring techniques and doubling of the images of the main characters. We are challenged to keep our footing while viewing this Hitchcock masterwork. But the gray suit worn with the black pumps served their purpose, and they allowed Kim Novak to not only be in character, but by taking her out of her comfort zone in dress, enabled her to more effectively be an actress that plays a part of a character that is pretending to be someone else. The simplicity and neutrality of the gray suit belies the fact that when Kim Novak wears it as Judy she is a woman pretending to be another woman who was herself a fiction. This may create a blurred vision, But Scottie knows he has been tricked.
Hitchcock must have recognized his own dilemma in creating Vertigo. At the climactic end, Scottie demonstrated his tragic disappointment with Judy, “He made you over just like I made you over,” he says accusingly to Judy. Only he (Elster) had made her over first, and thus Scottie had been pursuing the hollow goal of recreating another man’s fantasy. And perhaps worse, he accused her of being “an apt pupil, for Elster, which he repeats twice - something she hadn’t been for him. That demonstrated to Scottie, and served asthe film’s underlying theme, that the pursuit of an empty ideal is futile. For Hitchcock, it was a deeply ingrained motif, one that would keep repeating itself as he tried to mold one Hitchcock blonde after another into his fantasy, only to have her leave him for one reason or another. With the character Scottie, this creation and possession fantasy was played out not as a means of domination, but rather one where we could believe that once his fantasy woman was created, he could surrender and succumb to her. She could have been his Madeleine/Midge. But alas we know that that too would have been another fantasy - another beguiling but untrustworthy image reflected in a mirror, or another swirling and spiraling movement creating a feeling of vertigo.
Vertigo received several Oscar nominations, including Best Art Direction. Edith Head was not nominated for Best Costume Design, which was won by Cecil Beaton’s florid Gigi. And she had also just been snubbed for her outstanding costumes for Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. It seems that a fabulous gray suit as character-delineating costume was just too subtle to pick up awards. No matter, she had already won five of her ultimate eight Oscar wins by then. Worse, Hitchcock wasn’t nominated either for this iconic classic.