Our recently-published book Dressing Dangerously, by Jonathan Faiers, is the first book to examine film costume beyond gender studies, beyond star/designer alliance. By focusing on “dysfunctional” representations of dress (think Marlene Dietrich’s blood-stained Dior dress in Hitchcock’s Stage Fright), Jonathan shows another dimension to the emotional bond between viewer and clothing. Here’s Jonathan himself for a more detailed explanation, including one of his favorite examples from the book.
In my latest book, Dressing Dangerously: Dysfunctional Fashion in Film, the usual glamorous and aspirational imagery of fashion promoted in mainstream cinema is analyzed to reveal an altogether more problematic and sinister side. The clothing featured in the book, while indisputably stylish, is also found to be often embarrassing, dangerous and sometimes even fatal. In short it becomes dysfunctional. By this I mean that for all of the memorable movie images we can all recall where glamorous film stars are dressed glamorously, there are just as many, if not more, where fashion misbehaves, refuses to make the wearer chic and sexy and instead causes discomfort, shame and sometimes harm. So, accessories become murder weapons, or clues that incriminate their owners in crime, the fashionably dressed are ridiculed and made to feel unwelcome and certain style choices inevitably lead to mayhem… even murder. Instead of the impossible elegance of the little black dress, Dressing Dangerously discusses the blood stained Dior, the stylish trench coat is turned from protective garment into a cloak of vulnerability and the Savile Row gent makes way for the white-suited psychopath.
One of the aspects that fascinated me during the research for the book was how being too fashionable or distinguished in film can often be every bit as problematic as being unfashionable or dowdy. I became particularly interested in how the idea of being too interested in clothes and obsessed by appearance was repeatedly equated with socio-pathic tendencies, especially in the case of men’s fashion. The flashier the dresser, the more likely he is to have, if not murder, certainly mayhem on his mind. From the 1932 version of Scarface to American Psycho, by way of the British production Villain, Dressing Dangerously explores the parallel escalation of fashionable finery and violence in the sharply dressed cinematic gangster. Although many of these characters are immaculately dressed from head to toe, it is often the tell-tale detail that gives us the greatest clue to their criminal tendencies, the obsession with monogrammed shirts and handkerchiefs, diamond studs and a tendency to colour match just a little too carefully. Details, in fact, are the key to Dressing Dangerously, and so I often discuss one very small detail of dress in conjunction with a similar detail but taken from films often of a very different period and genre. In this way a new visual narrative emerges that can help us understand that clothing in film is not always about looking good.
One such detail is the startlingly fashionable checked overcoat worn by the unknown murderer in the 1950 film noir D.O.A. The distinctive, bold hounds-tooth check topcoat with contrasting enlarged check collar-facing is the only form of identification that Frank Bigelow (Edmund O’Brien) can supply to the police concerning his poisoner in the film. So distinctive is this coat that it becomes the perpetrator of the crime itself, as the audience never learns its wearer’s true identity, and both Bigelow and the viewer have no choice but to equate the coat with the deed. This particular coat’s distinctive mid-twentieth-century styling not only registers optically with Bigelow and the viewer but also acts as a form of sartorial psychological profiling; this is not the coat of a murderer who wishes to fade into the background but rather that of an urbane man about town. The spectacular topcoat matches the anonymous murderer’s equally spectacular choice of poison, the ‘luminous toxin’ with which he laces Bigelow’s drink and which courses through his body as he relates to the police in flashback the deadly encounter with his checked assassin. Here the murderer’s loudly checked overcoat is understood as dysfunctional, drawing attention to the presence of the poisoner and yet diverting attention away from his true identity so that he is known only by his checked livery.
Checks and plaids, whether they are dog-tooth, window-pane or tartan, have long been the favoured pattern of the extrovert, most typically worn by entertainers and those wishing to cut a sartorial dash. The flashy or ‘loud’ dresser in popular culture and especially film wears his checks as a form of disguise; they give him a facade of affability, an attractiveness that hides his true corrupt nature. Sportin’ Life, the drug dealer in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the assorted petty criminals in Graham Green’s Brighton Rock, Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, the boorish two-bit tycoon Harry Brock in George Cukor’s 1950 film Born Yesterday, Daniel Day-Lewis’s swaggering Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, or Fredo the weak and treacherous member of the Corleone family in Godfather II all wear their ‘loud’ checks as marks of deviance, dissipation and sometimes sadism. The bonhomie and jokey friendliness of the spectacular check is often used in film as a form of lure. The innocent or naive is literally mesmerized by the boldness of these characters’ fashionable plaids, and it is only when it is too late that their protective disguises fall away to reveal their true intentions. Or in the case of poor, poisoned Bigelow in D.O.A., the identity of his fashionably checked murderer is never revealed and his stylish swagger remains dangerously dysfunctional.
Jonathan Faiers is a reader in fashion theory at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.