Monday, 21 January 2013

The prettiest costume I've never seen on film

I went to the V&A Costume exhibition last week and I think the unmistakable showpiece of the exhibition was Ginger Rogers dress from The Lady in the Dark. I had never even heard of this film so of course the first thing I did when I came home was to hop on the internet to find out about and buy a copy

And terrible news awaited me. I cannot find a single copy of the dvd for sale in the UK. However I did manage to find this YouTube clip - Ginger Rogers is seen briefly at the beginning but first properly appears in the dress at just after 2min and sings the song Jenny, although she is also in it as a young blonde circus goer at the start. (I'm always startled at how beautiful Rogers is when she's not dolled up)

The film The Lady in the Dark (1944) appears to be loosely based on a stage musical by the same name  with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. It was the first project Ira worked on since the death of his brother and long time collaborator George. Without actually having seen the film its hard to understand, but apparently in the film version they dropped all but one of the songs, which strikes me as a weird way to make an adaptation of a musical.

Ginger Rogers, after the height of her Fred Astaire partnership fame, plays the leading role of Liza Elliott, a female editor of fashion magazine 'Allure' who undergoes psychoanalysis for her headaches. The psychoanalysis has three sections, The Glamour Dream, The Wedding Dream and The Circus Dream, which this dress is from. The opulance of this dress purposely contrasts with the reality part of the film, so the dress doesn't have to be practical or sensible on any level, (at least from an audience point of view) it just has to be completely over the top and luxurious. We first see her in this dress in a circus lions cage, so the fur skirt and bolero are evocative of a wild animal, albiet a very glamourous one. The sequins and red colour are both eyecatching, and there is something of the circus ringmaster jacket in the red structured bodice. The skirt reveal, well its just fun and fabulous, what more do you want?

There appears to be some debate as to whether the dress was designed by costume designer Edith Head or director Mitchell Leisen (who started out as an art director), although Rogers has always given Edith Head the credit. This dress formed a large part of the publicity of the film whos tagline was 'A minx in mink with a yen for men'. The gown apparently cost over $35,000  which made it the most expensive film costume in history (at the time at least), and weighed 35 pounds, but it is worth even more as the real mink fur was sourced from rental furs from the costumier. As you can see from the picture below, a fur bolero was made to match the full fur skirt, meaning a LOT of fur was needed. Presumably the labour of hand stitched sequins formed a large part of the astronomical cost.

The heavily sequined and structured bodice forms a v shape at the lower front and back where it meets the full circle mink fur skirt. The lowcut neckline slit at the front is held with a skin coloured mesh insert. The dress very much follows the shaping of 1940s fashion with puffed sleeves to broaden the shoulders, tiny waist and even with that much bulk around the hips, it is added below high hip height to emphasis slim hips, an obvious additional piece rather than a bulky, figure disguising skirt.

When the fur is lifted up (presumably there are hooks to keep it together for the first part as Rogers turns around for a beat before the reveal) it is seen that the entire underskirt and briefs are embroidered to match the bodic and sleeves. The result is breathtaking. I also love the way the fur is pieced around the hips. There may be practical reasons for this, but it also adds a beautiful horizontal detail to the shape and smoothly runs into the vertical seam lines that radiate out around the skirt. 

And I can't write about this costume without pointing out the divine red peep toes with ankle straps. The ones shown at the V&A are platformed front and are not the originals, but do appear to be a better colour match than the pair worn in the publicity shot at the top.

Here's another picture I found of cabaret performer Jill Burke modelling the gown on a costume cruise ship (I'm a little flaky on the details of that one) but you can see the dress in full circle.

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