For all the things which ail us in Vergito, there’s one thing I and my fellow film-fashion-istas agree upon and that is being haunted by the lovely Kim Novak.
Gazing Upon Kim Novak's Beauty Gazing Upon Another Beauty In Vertigo
While none of us would be as creepy as Jimmy Stewart and force another woman to look just like Novak, we do all admit there would be nothing wrong with emulating Kim’s iconic look in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Perhaps the look that most accentuates Novak’s fair and classic beauty in a most decidedly nostalgic and dreamy way is that grey suit — yes, that grey suit that Stewart menacingly stalks and deplorably directs his new girl into wearing.
Kim Novak In Iconic Grey Suit In Vertigo
The little grey suit has it’s own story which explains why the ensemble was so suit-ed to Novak’s role as Madeleine Elster. Director Alfred Hitchcock wanted to give Madeleine’s clothing — and therefore herself — an eerie appearance. So costume designer Edith Head selected the grey suit, saying it would be “odd” for a blonde woman to be wearing all grey, as it can tend to wash a fair woman’s complexion. This, along with some other details, would have the desired, “eerie” and haunting effects.
In order for that suit, or any similarly styled grey suit in a curve-accentuating classic vintage style to really work on Novak in such a way, Novak had to be a blonde. But not just any blonde. Neither a brassy yellow or a bright and bold platinum would work; Novak’s hair would have to be a lovely ashy-blonde.
Ashy Not Brassy Blonde Novak in Vertigo
And Kim — as the sough-after lost-lover, Madeleine — has demure lady-like makeup in neutral ashy tones of taupe, grey and light peach lips. This prevailing ash-tone-wash of color is continued in Madeleine’s ensemble — her gloves, for example, are taupe, not, as her pumps are, a contrasting black.
Overall, this use of tonal-wash is much like today’s use of pastels in set & costuming to create the feel of a black and white film. The more subtle colors lend themselves to a washed-out “living in the shades and shadows of grey” look which mimics classic black and white film (save, perhaps, for the film noir style) and when applied to just one character, makes them pale by comparison in ways which draw attention and make them seem less real at the same time.
Why then would Madeleine’s shoes be black? More “eerie” and off-putting by design. Not only would black pumps seem fashion-backward in the 1950’s world of matching accessories (and therefore more “odd”), but Hitchcock had other reasons which likely mirrored, in an odd way, Novak’s personal fashion thoughts on shoes (Novak believed your shoes should “match your head,” as you’ll soon see). It is my opinion, that the black shoes are the one thing that anchor Novak in those scenes as Madeleine; they are the one thing that tether her eerie and ethereal beauty to the world — Jimmy Stewart’s world and the viewer’s.
When playing Judy, however, not all of Madeleine’s fashion and makeup tricks were used. For example, the same neutral ashen cosmetic tones may be applied when Novak’s alter-ego (or true self, Judy Barton) is forced to have a make-over — but note that Judy’s eyebrows are fuller and darker, the eye make-up still more defined, that the soft blurred and blended regal yet ethereal beauty of phantom Madeleine.
Kim Novak as Judy as Madeleine in Vertigo
If you are film fashion obsessed like I am, you might enjoy this interview Kim Novak did with Stephen Rebello for The MacGuffin (2004), in which Kim discussed her Vertigo wardrobe:
SR: Costume designer Edith Head was quoted as saying that you arrived on the set with all sorts of preconceived notions about what you would and wouldn’t wear.
KN: I was always opinionated. Once we were making Vertigo, Hitchcock never questioned anything about what I was doing character-wise. Before shooting started, he sent me over to Edith Head, who showed me a set of drawings. When I saw them, the very first thing I said was, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t wear black shoes.’ When she said, ‘Alfred Hitchcock wants you to wear these shoes,’ I said, ‘I’m sure he doesn’t mind.’ I didn’t think it would matter to him what kind of shoes I wore. I had never had a director who was particular about the costumes, the way they were designed, the specific colors. The two things he wanted the most were those shoes and that gray suit. When Edith Head showed me that gray suit, I said, “Oh, my god, that looks like it would be very hard to act in. It’s very confining.’ Then, when we had the first fitting of the dress, it was even worse and I said, ‘This is so restrictive.’ She said, ‘Well, maybe you’d better talk to Alfred Hitchcock about this.’
SR: How did that conversation go?
KN: I went in and he said, ‘I understand you don’t like these black shoes.’ He asked me why and I said, ‘I tell you, black shoes always sort of make me feel I’m pulled down. I’ve always felt that your feet should be the same as the top of your head, so that you’re connected. Wearing the black shoes would make me feel as if I were disconnected.’ He heard me out. And then he said, ‘Fine. When you play the role of Judy, you will not have to wear black shoes. When you are playing Madeleine, you will wear them.’ When he put it like that — after all, he’s the director – I said, ‘OK.’
SR: How did being opinionated lead to any other disagreements between you and Hitchcock?
KN: I really wanted the chance to express myself and he allowed me that chance. It felt OK because he had heard me out. He felt my reasons weren’t good enough, they weren’t right. I just wanted to be heard as far as what I felt. So, I thought, ‘I’ll live with the grey suit.’ I also thought, ‘I’m going to use this. I can make this work for me. Because it bothers me, I’ll use it and it can help me feel like I’m having to be Madeleine, that I’m being forced to be her. I’ll have it as my energy to play against.’ It worked. That suit and those shoes were a blessing. I was constantly reminded that I was not being myself, which made it right for Madeleine. When I went out of Alfred Hitchcock’s office, I remember his wonderful smile when he said, ‘I’m so glad we had this talk.’ I think he saw that this was going to be good. He didn’t say to me, ‘Now use that,’ he allowed me to arrive at that myself.
SR: Was it your idea not to wear a bra when you played Judy.
KN: That’s right, when I played Judy, I never wore a bra. It killed me having to wear a bra as Madeleine but you had to because they had built the suit so that you had to stand very erect or you suddenly were not ‘in position.’ They made that suit very stiff. You constantly had to hold your shoulders back and stand erect. But, oh that was so perfect. That suit helped me find the tools for playing the role. It was wonderful for Judy because then I got to be without a bra and felt so good again. I just felt natural. I had on my own beige shoes and that felt good. Hitchcock said, ‘Does that feel better?’ I said, ‘Oh, yes, thank you so much.’ But then, I had to play ‘Madeleine’ again when Judy had to be made over again by Scottie into what she didn’t want to be. I could use that, again, totally for me, not just being made over into Madeleine but into Madeleine who wore that ghastly gray suit. The clothes alone were so perfect, they were everything I could want as an actress.
SR: The short haircut you usually wore in your films was copied by women all around the world. Why did Hitchcock make you wear wigs in Vertigo?
KN: That’s right, my hair was short at that time in my career and Hitchcock wanted that perfect pulled-back hair. I already hated that gray suit and then having to go through putting on that wig with a false front — again made me feel so trapped inside this person who was desperately wanting to break out of it but she was so caught up in the web of deception that she couldn’t. The fear of not being loved if she didn’t have on these clothes or wore her hair in a certain way — oh, god, she had nothing left but to kill herself in the bell tower.
The Two Faces Of Novak In Vertigo