“You Gave Me Something Wonderful. You Made Me Unhappy.”
It’s that time of year again, when ghouls and goblins and ghosts put on their scariest outfits and flit about making everyone’s thoughts turn to . . . fashion. No, seriously, Halloween constitutes the holiday for which people are most likely to play dress up, so it’s the perfect time of year to talk about costumes, particularly in the movies. Costuming subsists as the least appreciated aspect of moviemaking, yet it contributes (or not) extensively to the success of the storytelling in a film. After all, what is fashion except a way to tell people you don’t know the story of your life? Instead of a six word autobiography, it’s a six garment profile. It defines, or hides, your identity – or at least, what you project it to be. It covers your body and reveals your soul. Your clothing choices over time document your life history, demonstrating how you’ve changed for all the world to see. That’s a handy tool for a filmmaker. And fashion in film can fine-tune a character’s personality, help tell the tale, or even in some cases, add another whole layer beyond the story playing out on the surface of the movie. The fashions in Bell, Book, and Candle do all those things in a very visible way. In fact, the costume subtext of BB&C tells the Tale of Two Dresses.
BB&C looks like a straight rom-com at first glance. Gillian is a witch living in New York, and getting bored with the routine of her life. Like others of her kind, she can use her craft to obtain many things, but witches are unable to love or cry, and she feels a certain emptiness in her life. Shep moves into her apartment building, and attracts her attention. Sparks fly. Unfortunately, Shep is getting married -in the morning- to Gil’s college nemesis, a thoroughly horrible woman. Gil uses her magical abilities to bond Shep to her, and romance ensues. This is a rom-com, so right after the romance come the difficulties. The two lovers separate, all looks lost, but true love wins out. And it is true love: Gil discovers that she can cry, because she has fallen in love with Shep. She has become human.
Of course, what every man wants in a relationship with a woman is the ability to make her cry.
That’s the journey of the script. The journey of the fashions adds a huge level of propaganda to a fairly simple and well-used formula. Okay, so Gil goes from being a witch to a Real Woman, and Love Conquers All! But the dresses show another transformation entirely, one which takes Gil from dominatrix to demure, and fetish to fluffball. Gil moves from dangerous femme fatale to sweet housewifey. You know all those movies in which the mousey drab little wallflower gets a makeover and blossoms into beautiful and fully-realized selfhood? This is the opposite of that.
This is one of the most interesting films ever, while never garnering the attention it deserves. It’s sneakily fascinating especially with the freakazoid costuming angle. BB&C reveals so much about the era in which it was made, and things haven’t changed all that much. Or at least not nearly enough, in my view. Some, like our current VP, hide misogyny under the rubric of “respect” for women. There is still too much Mike Pence in the world and not enough Lisbeth Salander.
Bell, Book and Candle plays out as The Tale of Two Dresses because the entire story can be summed up in two outfits. The first dress (hereinafter known as The Blackness) is obscene, even by today’s standards. It is black. It clings. It has a fucking hood. Not a hoodie; a hood. As in a nun’s wimple. How perverted is that? Somehow that hood manages to call to mind nuns and monks and all the things that nuns and monks aren’t supposed to be doing. It also evokes such things as black masses and satanic rituals, and it conjures all of these images all at the same time. It’s hard to project “kinkster” without revealing any skin at all, but The Blackness succeeds in doing just that.
The Blackness delineates very nicely that Kim Novak is wearing one of those pointy Mach 5 bullet bras. That bra looks like it hurts, a lot. Fabric didn’t really stretch in the 50’s. Spandex didn’t develop until much later. Stretchy fabric tends to mold the body under it enough that it creates a firmness, an artificial kind of hardness that denies the flesh-i-ness of the body underneath. The Blackness just slides right over the skin. Somehow it’s a lot more revealing than something that covers less. There is not one thing left to the imagination.
Late in the movie, transformation complete, Kim Novak puts on the second dress, hereinafter known as The Pouffy-Ffloufe. The Pouffy-Ffloufe is a white and yellow chiffon soufflé that would work well as a wedding cake, except for the fact that you would choke to death on it. It’s a stiff, puffy confection with a satin ribbon belt, like an old-fashioned little girl’s dress from the Victorian era. It’s awful. I hate it. I can tell by looking at it that I would hate the way it feels against the skin, crispy and scratchy, so unlike the Blackness’s supple reptilian glide.
The Blackness looks like it should come with a matching whip. The Pouffy-Ffloufe looks like it should come with a matching doll.
Remember the twins from The Shining? They were wearing poufffy-ffloufe dresses and they were creepy as hell. Clearly, having to wear such ugly and uncomfortable dresses enraged them so much it prevented them from passing over to the other side and turned them into murderous little demon children from hell.
Early in the film Gil wears black pants (in the ‘50s!) with a black turtleneck, combining black panther lithesomeness with beatnik chic. She completes this ensemble with bare feet, emphasizing her wild, unconventional nature. She also wears a hooded cape that reverses from black to leopard print; it perfectly symbolizes the danger that Gil’s character poses to Shep in the beginning of the film, especially when she wears the leopard spots on the inside (grrrrr).
This transition is mirrored in other aspects of the movie. In the beginning, Kim Novak sells this cool African and Pacific Rim art in her shop, and it is Art with a capital “A.” There’s even a credit to the posh New York Gallery which provided it. The art is wild and a little rough and even a little scary, because it is real. It is genuine.
After Kim Novak’s character falls in love with Jimmy Stewart and starts dressing like a four-year-old, she reopens her shop and sells a bunch of cheap crap made from seashells. From Art to kitsch, from fashion to fuddy-duddy. Even her cat thinks she sucks, and unadopts her. Although, in my experience, cats love chiffon, like a shredder loves paper. What a shame the cat never got to that white dress.
In another variation on the theme of contraction, in the beginning of the movie, Kim’s character Gil can’t stand to wear shoes. She slinks around barefoot. She even convinces Jimmy Stewart to shed his shoes along with some of his inhibitions. Of course the Pouffy-Ffloufe has shoes that match the god-awful sash. The Pouffy-Ffloufe probably comes with a special stick to put up one’s ass, too, in case the dress isn’t stiff enough.
Why does this movie advocate not so subtly that women reduce themselves from self-possessed and strong to weak and dependent? Why does the success of the romance between Gil and Shep require Gil to tame her wildness and voluntarily enter a cage?
It’s important to know history. Context is helpful. The 50’s followed the 40’s, and that matters. We like to think, from our safe distance, that WWII was The Good War, the one that made sense, the one in which none of the sacrifices were in vain. We like to believe that there were no Allied debacles, and no person died unnecessarily. I suspect that the truth was vastly different: that the side that, by luck, screwed up less (very slightly less) won. I imagine that the on-the-ground reality was as terrible as anything that has ever happened in human history.
So after the life-chewing madness of the 40’s, people wanted sanity and safety and sunlight. They would do anything to avoid the death machine again. I’m not sure why the decade after WWI, the first death machine, was filled with frivolity and partying, and the decade after WWII, the second death machine, was so staid and serious and stifling. Why the different reactions to a similar experience? But there it is – there was a difference.
The people of the 50’s let their intense desire for tranquility –and safety – grow into a monster, like some strangling vine rendered gargantuan and all-consuming by a shot of radiation. The zeitgeist started to become incestuous, devouring anything in itself that wasn’t small, mundane, and tidy. And there was always that insidious Communist threat. Supposedly.
So, in a way, Bell, Book, and Candle shows the whole trajectory of the 1950’s, in one woman’s journey towards insignificance. It is odd that this movie, made in an era of rampant fear of Communism and its assault on individuality, so pervasively commands people -women- to submit, obey, and subsume themselves to the collective, the male collective.
Unfortunately, this fear-based belittling of women’s autonomy did not remain confined to the ‘50’s. A weird reprise of this theme occurs in the movie Sweet Home Alabama, with none of the period charm. There’s even a clothing parallel: on the movie poster, Reese Witherspoon wears a black dress. While intentionally modern, progressive, and authoritarian, this dress is unfortunately not sexy. I initially thought this was because Reese Witherspoon is not that in-your-face sexy, but she seriously tarted up in Mudd, so that’s not it. The black dress is severe, matronly, and too old and big for her. At the end of the movie, after she has given up her hard-won and successful career as a fashion designer to become some cracker’s “little woman,” she wears these generic denim “Mom” outfits that could be found at any K-Mart. On clearance. She doesn’t even get the benefit of being darkly alluring and potentially dangerous at first: she just goes directly from ugly, dumpy, ill-fitting, and old; to cheap, dumpy, commonplace, and anonymous. In other words, safe. At least Kim Novak got to wear yellow shoes with the Pouffy-Ffloufe.
Thank God the Sixties followed the Fifties. Perhaps the Fifties even created the Sixties, by stifling all attempts at free expression, until everything just exploded. Luckily, this Halloween we are free to watch the constraining clothing of the Fifties only on our TV screens, rather than wear it in our own lives, if we so choose. Though misogyny-revealing costuming rears back up from time to time, and women’s costumes now show a lot more skin than the Blackness did, they also provide the freedom of movement for female characters to kick a lot of bad guys’ asses. Some people choose their Halloween costumes by dressing up as whatever they want to become in the year to come. At Halloween, we can take off our everyday masks and put on a costume instead. We can disregard the scratchy, stiff Pouffy-Ffloufes and costume ourselves as whatever we want to be. The story we tell with our clothes, and our lives, can be one of expansion, rather than contraction. I think my costume this year may just include a hood.