Cherchez la femme fatale: film noir fashion of the 1940’s

Ann Savage, 1945

Ann Savage as bad girl Vera in 1945’s “Detour”

Cinema during the 1940’s, although somewhat lacking the raw dynamism of the pre-code 30’s, allowed for the forging of some the most intriguing genres of film.  Ranging a broad spectrum the included women’s pictures, comedies, westerns, crime films, and war films, 40’s cinema showed the influence of the era.  World War II was showing some of the grimmer facets of human nature, and amidst the patriotism and war effort, there was nonetheless a sense of despair.  Film reacted to this darkness in two extremely different ways: on the light, bright end of the spectrum, there was the musical, with its over-the-top Technicolor, dance numbers, hit songs, and cheerful, smiling, triple-threat stars.  Meanwhile, on the darker side of the spectrum, there was film noir, which literally translates to “dark film”.  Film noir became a sort of subset of the crime and detective genre, but it quickly set itself apart visually, technically, and by its storylines and characters.  Visually, film noir photographers played with light and dark, emphasizing shadow and allowing lighting to become its own character in the story, increasing the tension and suspense of the film itself.  The storyline, typically, focused on a main character (usually male) who was plagued by some unforeseen force that was pulling him into a waking nightmare.  Due to some circumstance, or perhaps a character (such as the femme fatale), the so-called hero of the story was usually descending on a downward spiral riddled by crime, mistaken identity, or some other misfortune.  Things did not usually end well for this anti-hero of sorts, and often there was a woman who, intentionally or unintentionally, was spurring on this fall from grace.

While this new archetype of the femme fatale may sound like a step backwards for women, it actually allowed female actors to play against type in many cases, and to portray a woman who was beautiful and glamorous, yet riddled with flaws.  These women were often using the men to further their own agendas, realizing that they had little tools available to them in order to make their own lives.  The femme fatale also provides a clear example of 1940’s fashion, as her wardrobe was one of the factors that added to her striking image, and exemplifies what was considered glamorous or desirable at the time.  In addition, a subset of film noir, sometimes referred to as a “women’s noir”, allowed female characters to take the lead, such as in Nora Prentiss, although their stories often dealt with romances turning into nightmares instead of the crime-oriented themes of a male hero’s story.

So what set la femme fatale apart from other archetypal women’s roles in film?  Keep reading to find out some of the key elements of femme fatale fashion…

Lana Turner

The purity & sinfulness of Lana Turner’s fashion in 1946

In film noir, the wardrobe of the leading lady often reflected the same playfulness with black and white that the photography portrayed.  Often, when a femme fatale is first introduced, and the unknowing leading man begins to fall under her spell, she is shown wearing white, such as Lana Turner in noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice from 1946.  When John Garfield’s character Frank Chambers meets the seemingly innocent Cora, the beautiful wife of a roadside diner’s owner, he is blown away by her long legs, her perfectly pressed white playsuit, and typically pin-up-style peep-toe white platforms.  Cora wears angelic white throughout the film, even on an ill-fated hitchhiking trip (which is really impractical; Frank should have known something was up then), and of course owns the token white bikini.  However, as the more sinister aspects of her character were revealed, she dons black, vamp-like costumes and an exotic turban.

Sartorial aspects like this are what made a femme fatale’s wardrobe such an important element to the entire film noir universe; visually, what she wore contributed to the tone and mood of the film almost like the lighting and photography did.  Some of the most famous looks from film noir have become the most iconic representations of women in 1940’s film, from Rita Hayworth’s Gilda to Ava Gardner’s starmaking role in The Killers.  Some of the main themes of these iconic looks?  Long, elbow-length gloves meant our femme fatale was serious; floor-length satin gowns in slim silhouettes with classic ’40’s necklines such as the sweetheart, the classic ruched halter, or loosely draped.

Clockwise from left: Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Gene Tierney

As the femme fatale represented a dangerous, mysterious woman that no film-goer was likely to ever meet in real life, she was often allowed some of the most glamorous wardrobe choices, and often took risks with higher hemlines, open backed dresses, and remarkably high platform heels, looks that set them apart from the every-day woman.  The on-screen persona of the femme fatale fueled the 1940’s spirit of escapism; film noir may have emphasized the darker aspects of human nature, but the stories were typically so fantastic and out of the ordinary that they allowed the viewer to be transported out of the utility of daily life during the war.

Barbara Stanwyck

Stanwyck undercover in “Double Indemnity”

Barbara Stanwyck

Apparently you shouldn’t plot to kill someone just because your partner is as well-dressed as Barbara (e.g. those heels are amazing).

Thus, some of the roles for women in these films allowed actresses of the era to step into roles that showed the darker side of female characters; the femme fatale was no damsel in distress, and, although the aspect of the vamp still shone through her archetype, great actresses of the era took advantage of these unique roles.  Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s classic Double Indemnity is an example of this; despite a bad wig and a now-cliche cute-meet (gorgeous girl descends a staircase, long legs the first thing captured by the camera), Stanwyck’s character was unlike most women portrayed on the screen.  She was beautiful, intelligent, and wanted to escape what she felt was a dull and loveless marriage.  The answer?  Murder, courtesy of a somewhat enamored insurance salesman.  Stanwyck’s style in the film has become iconic of the femme fatale; dark glasses, perfectly tailored trenchcoats for all of her shady dealings, dresses that show as much leg as was acceptable, and super high heels.

Film noir regular Veronica Lake showing off her best femme fatale magic tricks.

Meanwhile, films not necessarily considered “noir” often borrowed noir elements, and even utilized women in the leading roles.  In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Rebecca, leading lady Joan Fontaine found herself in a downward spiral and nightmare come true when she becomes infatuated by her new, rich husband’s dead wife.  Uncovering what she can about that mystery, Fontaine’s character, Mrs. de Winter, goes down a path not unlike that of the typical male film noir anti-heroes.  Add to that the usage of light and dark and shadows, and Rebecca takes what could be misconstrued as a “women’s picture” and gives it the noir treatment.  As the main character, Fontaine was by no means a femme fatale, and her wardrobe reflected that.  Instead of the glamorous costumes donned by femme fatales in typical film noir, Fontaine’s wardrobe consisted of extremely prim and conservative fashions, conveying the austerity of British fashions during the war: button-up blouses with high necklines, cardigan sweater sets with a pearl necklace, high-waisted and conservative wool pencil skirts.  Basically, as Fontaine was a woman in a noir setting without the drama of the femme fatale (unless you count Rebecca but, well, she was dead), she conveyed the look of the ordinary woman, trapped in a nightmare not unlike those faced by male characters in a traditional film noir, who often looked extremely ordinary as well, especially compared to the sweeping beauty of the femme fatale.

Joan Fontaine, trapped in the nightmare of “Rebecca”

…but at least she had some really beautifully-made clothes while she was trapped in a downward spiral.

To view more examples of the iconic fashion of film noir, here’s a list of some films I recommend:

  • Double Indemnity (1944) – probably my favorite film noir; a classic in regards to style, plot, characterization, and awesome usage of flashbacks
  • Gilda (1946) – Rita Hayworth’s amazingness and the twisting plot make this film noir a classic
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – admittedly, this film is not my favorite, but it is worth watching to see how beautiful Lana Turner was in it
  • This Gun For Hire (1942) – I had a really big crush on Alan Ladd in high school (which is really nerdy, since so did my grandma), and Veronica Lake looks amazing in this film noir
  • Laura (1944) – this film has a great soundtrack and an even better mystery, revolving around a woman so beautiful people just can’t wait to kill for her
  • Detour (1944) – pretty sure this film is on Netflix instant streaming; it’s one of the grittier films of this genre, but definitely worth checking out, and Ann Savage is a bad ass fyi
  • The Killers (1946) – Burt Lancaster was a babe and nobody dresses better while double crossing him than Ava Gardner
  • Nora Prentiss (1947) – usually billed as a “woman’s noir”; I recommend it for Ann Sheridan’s amazing nightclub singer costumes (nightclub singer is the default occupation of most femme fatales by the way)
  • The Big Sleep (1946) – to be honest, you should probably just watch every Bogart/Bacall vehicle and your life will become better for it
  • Rebecca (1940) – I know, not really a noir, mostly just an awesome Hitchcock film, but I can’t recommend it enough; visually it’s amazing, the plot is extremely creepy, and the main character is a great example of a leading lady in this sort of thriller role (for more like this, I’d suggest Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, as well).

Hopefully this little article has helped to make the world of film noir more clear and defined, especially in regards to the women in it.  Obviously, film noir is one of my favorite genres, in particular because of the amazing female characters (even if most of them end up double crossing someone, or falling from some height and dying etc.).  I have some ideas for the next few articles, and will probably keep focusing on the forties for awhile because the fashion is so good (and I admit that I am not a fan of the fifties; just to warn you I might skip it all together.)  Leave a comment if there is an aspect of forties fashion you’d like to hear more about!

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3 Comments

Filed under Fashion in Film

3 responses to “Cherchez la femme fatale: film noir fashion of the 1940’s

  1. I am not informed enough about fashion to inquire much further, but I did read a book that covers this time period called THE LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver. Her protagonists note that around 1948-1950 the advertising shifted from softer images and portrayals to suddenly having the fashion and products go toward hard, scientific facts, and singing the virtues synthetic materials.

    REBECCA was quite chilling!

    If you do work on the 1950s and like Lana Turner, you will probably enjoy how much analysis has been made over her style and the cinematography with all the mirrors.

    • I’ll have to check that book out, it sounds like it’s about one of my favorite time periods! I saw some pretty funny ads from I think the ’40’s (I think on the retronaut.com) that show women putting on makeup with radium in it and being super excited because it was futuristic, not really aware of how terrible it is for you.

      Yes, “Rebecca” is amazing! So creepy. I love those films from this era. And I will have to do more Lana Turner research for the ’50’s I know she led a very dramatic life!

      Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

  2. Pingback: Songstress Style: Key Elements of On-Screen Glamour | Hemline Quarterly

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