Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Costumes of VERTIGO

by guest contributor Christian Esquevin

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 had the colors already in mind along with the costume types he wanted even 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.


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 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 costumes 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 often designed gray suits for her film costumes, and wore them regularly 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 and black pumps 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 a blazing inside.

The color of the costumes and the sets had a symbolic meaning for Hitch as well. The gray represented modesty. When Jimmy Stewart as Scottie first sees Kim playing Madeleine, she wears a black gown but is covered in a green 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. Madeleine’s car is also green. It’s in the following scene where Scottie begins tailing Madeleine that she first wears the gray suit.  Scottie’s former love interest Midge is dressed in warm colors and soft fabrics – symbols of her nurturing proclivities towards Scottie. After Scottie saves Madeleine from drowning, she is dressed, albeit in his robe, in a vibrant red. Here the color evokes life and full-bloodedness. 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 un-ambiguous 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 green – 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 look 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 make-over. When they go on a date and later go shopping for her clothes, she is dressed better but still very simply. 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, provide dramatic tension and then release at the conclusion of the scene. This scene is accomplished through various film techniques that dramatize her unveiling as the re-incarnated Madeleine – making her entrance bathed in a pale and ethereal green light and leading to a climactic kiss. Her gray suit, here as before, tightly accentuates her curves. In its contradictory fashion, it is sedate but seductive.

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. Hitch 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. But the gray suit worn with the black pumps 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.

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 was only re-creating another man’s fantasy. And perhaps worse, he accused her of being “an apt pupil,” which she hadn’t been for him. That demonstrated to Scottie, and served the 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. With the character Scottie, this creation fantasy was played out not as a means of domination, but rather one where once his fantasy woman was created, he could surrender and succumb to her. But we know that that too would have been another fantasy - another twirling 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 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 too subtle to pick up awards. No matter, she had already won five of her eight Oscars by then. Worse, Hitch wasn’t nominated either for this iconic classic.


Christian Esquevin is the author of Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label, published by the Monacelli Press in 2008. The book is about the life and career of MGM’s famed Golden Age costume designer Gilbert Adrian and his subsequent fashion business. Christian also produces the Silver Screen Modiste blog covering classic film fashion.

Christian was born in Marseille, France, and moved with his French parents to Los Angeles when he was four. Los Angeles had a small but close-knit French community at the time that provided the social context for his youth in 1950s and 1960s L.A. One of his great-aunts was the vendeuse for lingerie at the art-deco palace Bullock’s Wilshire. Another one of Christian’s great-aunts had been the Head Cutter-Fitter for the old RKO Studio Wardrobe Department in the 1930s, where she worked under Walter Plunkett and supervised the fabrication of the costumes for Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Anne Miller, and the other RKO stars. Her knowledge and skill in making period costumes was an influence on Plunkett’s specialty in that area. While she had retired by the time Christian arrived in L.A., she used to dress him and his mother and other French-heritage participants in traditional French folk costumes for the Disneyland holiday parades and other ceremonial occasions. She bequeathed him her collection of costume sketches and photographs that started his interest in classic film costume design.

Christian has a Master’s degree in Library Science from USC and is the Director of the Coronado, California, Public Library. Christian’s book on Adrian was the result of several years of research and collecting. The lack of an “Adrian archive” and the disposal of much of the early film studios’ material heritage has fueled his efforts to preserve at least one aspect of film history. He is currently working on a combined biography of the costume and fashion designers Walter Plunkett, Irene (Lentz Gibbons) and Helen Rose. He is a collector of original costume design sketches and has organized several exhibits featuring film costume design based on his collection. Christian launched Silver Screen Modiste in 2009 in order to cover the history, heritage, and fashion influence of classic Hollywood costume design. He has written about Edith Head in several posts and considers her work with Alfred Hitchcock to be among her finest.


  1. A superb job, Mr. Esquevin, of describing the integral connections between the costumes and design of "Vertigo" to its dramatic action and the psychology of the characters. You also tied it all nicely to the psychology of it's eccentric and super-talented director. Hitchcock and his famous attention to detail found no better expression then the Scottie character obsessively focusing on every detail of Judy's clothing so that he might achieve the exact look of Madeleine, his ideal (the Hitchcock blond). The scene in the dress shop where Scottie keeps having Judy try on new outfits as his frustration and need to control becomes more and more pronounced is particularly memorable. It's also amusing to see the shop owner uncomfortably looking on, realizing she is witnessing something extremely private, and perhaps perverse. (I'm sure that during the actual making of the film, Edith Head probably wasn't phased a bit by Hitchcock's similar demands - by that time she'd probably seen it all). Maybe that's a decent metaphor for the creative process itself. Even the swirl in the back of Madeleine's blond hair is another meaningful visual design - it's another vortex that draws Scottie into confronting his ultimate desire and fear. It says something for the power of creative obsession that when I think of Kim Novak the first image of her that comes to mind is that ethereal portrait of her in a classic gray suit.

  2. Christian: Excellent analysis of the meaning of costumes in this film. Hitchcock was a very precise man, so it doesn't surprise me that he would have an exact idea of what he wanted in every element of his production. You would think that Kim Novak might have did a bit of research about the man she was about to work with--I'm sure other actresses could have told her what he was like. I would have liked to have seen the look on Edith Head's face when Novak said she didn't wear gray suits and black pumps.
    Again, fabulous article.

    1. In all fairness to Kim and not doing her research...her first two movies she did without a script. They didn't give her one. Studio actors under contract were treated much differently than actors are treated today. And as far as other actors giving her tips on Hitchcock, seems they all had varying opinions anyway from 'he gave me free rein to develop my character(s)' in Kim's later view to 'he ruined my career' according to Tippi Hedren.

  3. Christian, a great piece of writing. Your knowledge of costume design in movies allowed you to go into great depth about things that most of us don't notice except on a superficial level--not consciously, at any rate, because as you point out so well, Hitchcock knew that costume choices could have a strong subliminal effect on the viewer. I especially like the way you point out the specific ways the costume choices Hitchcock made underscore the film's themes and its characters' personas. I've always thought that Madeleine's gray suit--everybody says that gray is a poor color choice for a blonde--echoes the fog of San Francisco. Also that it gives a ghostly quality to Madeleine's appearance, which of course fits right in with the film's themes.

  4. Truly an excellent article. The costumes are such an important element to this movie, and your expertise in this field is a great asset for us to better understand this compelling film.

  5. Christian, I am breathless over this post. The costumes are such an important part of the story and the characters. Kim's white coat, black glove and and black scarf rates as one of my favorite movie "looks" - but tell me one thing - how did she keep her shoes on when Scottie fishes her out of the bay? Seriously - just wonderful.

  6. I appreciate all your thoughtful comments Motorcycle Boy, KimWilson, R.D. Finch, and Jaqueline T Lynch.You've pointed out how you can look at the costumes on several levels. As you imagine Motorcycle Boy, Edith saw it all, and she was more willing than most to adapt her design style to the desires of the director, or the star. It's said that costume is the second skin of the actor. So beyond placing the costumes in the context of the story, they help the actors feel the role more fully.The symbolism of specific costume design is something I look for - this was used to such great effect by Adrian. And here with Vertigo we have Hitchcock's own obsessive attention to the details and colors of costumes, atypical for directors. As you point out R.D., the gray of the suit echoes the climate of San Francisco, as well as the mists of time from which Madeleine emerges. That scene pictured at the top of the post could not have worked as well in a black gown, or a red one. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts.

  7. Thanks FlickChick for the compliment. I had avoided getting involved in the topic of whether Hitchcock had a shoe fetish on the black pumps section - but since you bring it up....

  8. Christian...very well all my years of classic film viewing, I have always avoided or ridiculed the concept of "fashion design" as superfulous and unnecessary...your blo has opeded my eyes...thanx!!! and KIM NOVAK should have considered herself lucky to get such a plum role!!

  9. Great post Christian! Wonderfully descriptive! I am too at awe with the choice of costumes in Vertigo. Hitchcock's innate understanding of color and how it can affect the mood and themes of a film is incredible. Like you mentioned, the grey suit really added to the mysterious nature of Madeleine. There is an air of uneasiness in the way she looks. Love the scene where Scottie first sees Madeleine/Judy for the first time. The green on her "opera coat" really POPS against the voluptuously red wallpaper of Ernies.

    I love your analysis of the Black And White outfit Madeleine wore in the film, the duality of her persona. Never thought of that! Really fascinating.

    Thanks for the wonderful blog. The month has been so fun so far! Cannot Wait to share my vlog with you guys. :D

    - Brandon Kyle The Cinephile

  10. I love fashion and maybe one of the reasons I love this movie so much.. After reading your amazing post on the fashions featured in the film Vertigo, I'm going to re- watch the film through your eyes..

  11. Christian – The anecdote about Kim Novak’s resistance to that (iconic) gray suit must amuse her now. It was a character-defining ensemble that, over time, became emblematic of her as a legendary ‘Hitchcock blonde.’ I have read that in recent years she’s said her only regret about Vertigo (other than that it wasn’t better received in 1958) is that, when the film wrapped, she didn’t ask if she could keep the white coat Edith Head designed for her ‘Madeleine’ persona. That coat along with black dress and scarf and gloves is, in my eyes, the most stunning ensemble in Vertigo. And, as you say, it does tell a stark truth about the woman who is both Judy and ‘Madeleine.’

    I’ve always felt the Judy character was a bit too tacky, caricature-ish, in her garish make-up, wardrobe and hairdo. As a woman, perhaps, I’ve thought, “How could any woman revert to such a trashy look after having been so utterly elegant?” Of course, a case can be made that the character, Judy, wanted to get as far away as she possibly could from a look that reminded her of abandonment and betrayal and connected her to murder.

    Thank you, Christian, for an inspired in-depth look into the background and significance of Vertigo’s costumes.

  12. Thank you doctom666, hepclassic,Beatlebrandon, and Dawn for your complements about my contribution to the Lady Eve's "Month of Vertigo." Some movies really provide a lot of meat in how costume contributed to the plot, character, and symbolism of the story. Vertigo certainly did. While this is the role of all costume design for film, Hitchcock left no room for accidents or shortcuts. Hitchcock became Edith Head's ideal director.Because of her own insecurities (and her willingness to arrive at the best design through cooperation)she produced her most brilliant work in the very defined constraints of Hitchcock's vision.And with the many layers of meaning in Vertigo, a costume is not just the mere fashion of the day.

  13. Thank you Lady Eve for inviting me to contribute to your fabulous "Month of Vertigo," - all the posts have been wonderful. Yes, Kim Novak seemed to grow appreciative of Hitchcock and Vertigo over time. But for a period she really had some resentment for Hollywood, and she must have felt that she was being manipulated in that role just as she believed she was as an actor. If she initially disliked a gray suit I can imagine what she thought of that first Judy outfit.I can also imagine Edith Head's secret pleasure in designing it for her. But actually, some costumes are purposefully designed to be ugly.

  14. As with the music in a film, the costumes play a very important part to the overall feel of it. I used to think that it was subliminal, perhaps a costume designer or director chose the clothes to fit the film, almost as an afterthought. Certainly not with Hitchcock, and Vertigo must be the pinnacle of his perfection.

    Thanks for pointing it all out so clearly. You have provided an excellent analysis and now I have something else to look for when I see a film.

  15. Christian, as always you have put together an excellent argument for the importance of costuming in films: both for the psychological and visual appeal (and your personal back story is equally fascinating). The color choice for women’s screen fashion is a subject of interest to me, especially when learning the true color used for black and white films. I find myself equally intrigued to learn the color of Kim Novak’s evening dress for the Ernie’s restaurant scenes was in fact black. I always assumed that her dress was blue with a blue and teal drape. I thought it was significant in a room decorated in red velvet; the surest way to draw attention to the actress was to use the blue and the green against the red (not that you notice anything else in the room other than Kim Novak in that stunning dress). I also thought it was significant because her costume for “Bell, Book and Candle” is in the red family while her surroundings at the Zodiac club are blue, a coincidence or a bit of clever visual reference. I am curious how Hitchcock chose to film regarding Madeleine and Judy’s different story lines. Did he film in “chronological” order, or were there days when Kim Novak found herself slipping into and out of both characters as she did their unique costumes? She was, perhaps, not given credit for the delicate balancing act of portraying the women’s different nature’s as well as appearances. Thank you for yet another wonderful contribution in the Month Of Vertigo series.

  16. Thank you Allen Hefner and whistlinggypsy. I'm glad you enjoyed my contribution to Lady Eve's Month of Vertigo. Gypsy - I don't know for a fact but I would doubt that the scene filming of Vertigo was done chronologically. The shots were almost always worked out depending on various logistical needs or constraints - including cost-cutting, exterior vs. sets, weather and location, etc. So Kim Novak no doubt would have to change characters repeatedly. Because of the needs for hair, make-up, and wardrobe preparation, however, these character changes probably did not occur within a given day. And while blue and red set/costume combinations are vivid, the opposite colors of red and green when placed together can actually create a perception of vibration. It all seems to work doesn't it?

  17. Wonderful article, Christian! I love the insights you bring us from an insider point of view! It’s a genuine thrill! As a smalltime but enthusiastic costumer, I have an unquenchable thirst to learn more about the masters of the trade and certainly Edith Head qualifies as such. I’ve often wondered about Hitch’s fascination with that gray suit—I suspect like Coco Chanel’s Catholic school upbringing influenced her color schemes and silhouettes, Hitch’s gray suit fixation has its origins in some childhood memory/scenario. When my director calls for an outfit to project feminine power, strength, purpose, urbanity, intelligence/cunning or sophistication, I pull out the form-fitting subtly colored suit. The resultant yin-yang dynamic of power/seduction is visual shorthand the audience “gets” instantly—this is a woman to be reckoned, but not trifled, with. Judy’s downmarket look conveys lax morals and bourgeoisie longings; she’s Galatia to Scotty/Hitch’s Pygmalion. I’m so wishing it was Sat already…I want to be watching Vertigo again! Thanks again and again for your contribution to this wonderful month of Vertigo, Christian! Kay

  18. Thank you Kay and Classicfilmboy for the compliments. Kay I think you are right about the gray suit and its inherent ability to convey subtle but unmistakable messages about the wearer. And it must have connected to Hitchcock's past, which was a Catholic upbringing also - as well as in his stated purpose for choosing it for Novak in Vertigo (though Vera Miles had a very similar suit designed for her by Edith Head before she dropped out of Vertigo). I didn't go into the men's wardrobe, but certainly the "gray flannel suit" was the typical man's business attire at the time - a symbol for an "everyman" character. And contradictions and polarites are always interesting, hence the cool persona of the reserved blond in a gray suit, with the teasing expectation that there must be mystery and fire lurking within. I'm glad you're enjoying this marvelous series on Vertigo.

  19. Hello Christian,
    I am organising a conference on VERTIGO in Dublin in Sept 2017.
    Would you like to be a speaker at conference?
    contact me Trinity College Dublin -
    D Martin (Dept Comp Sci)

  20. Thanks for this offer, which sounds quite interesting. Please contact me at