Fashion Icons: Vertigo, Edith Head, Alfred Hitchcock, and Kim Novak

Madeleine’s icy white coat, worn by Kim Novak in Vertigo. Scan from an Ebay poster auction.

Anyone who knows me knows I love me some Vertigo. It’s my favorite Hitchcock film. The mystery involved makes it an obvious choice for Halloween, but there’s more to in than that. There’s the local aspect (I’m from Northern California), the Edith Head costumes (which aren’t exclusive to this Hitchcock piece, though they are particularly wonderful in it), and Kim Novak, whom I admire greatly.

She’s not just beautiful, she’s a tremendously sensitive actress. Novak’s very raw, vulnerable portrayal of Judy resonated with me. I could relate. Plus, she looked darn hot as both a rough-edged shop girl and a sanitized stand-in for the very patrician Madeleine Elster.

Kim Novak in Vertigo: Studio publicity photo of the actress as cool and unattainable Madeleine (left) and the earthy shopgirl, Judy (right).

 

Novak claimed that she didn’t enjoy all of her wardrobe in this film. She felt awkward in the famous gray suit and black shoes Hitchcock and Head prepared for her “Madeleine” persona and she wasn’t shy about it. When she informed the designer that she wasn’t comfortable in gray and felt the black shoes didn’t balance out her very blonde hair, Head arranged for her to discuss the matter directly with Hitchcock.

While Head likened the matter to a “battle,” claiming that Kim “put to the test all my training in psychology,” Novak provides that there was never any bad blood over it. She was happy that the director was willing to hear her out, even though he still made her wear the ensemble. She told Richard Rushfield of the Telegraph:

“He listened completely to everything I said and at the end of the discussion he said, ‘You will wear the grey suit, and you will wear the black shoes. Thank you for discussing it with me, but I am the director.’ And I said, ‘Thank you for listening to what I had to say and if that’s what you want I’ll find a way to make it work.’ And I left and started thinking about it. I thought, ‘He knows my point of view, he must see a reason why that would work. He wants me to feel that discomfort as Madeleine. And, of course, she should feel that way because she’s actually Judy, playing the part of somebody, so that edge of discomfort will help me.’”

Vertigo suit design originally created for Vera Miles, original casting choice for the role of “Madeleine.”

In a 2003 interview with Stephen Rebello, she described the costume as “restrictive” and literally uncomfortable, which makes Novak’s attitude even more understandable. Some have speculated that the studio fabricated a fashion feud out of the disagreement to generate interest in the film, but it’s likely it’s more a matter of misperception after the fact. Edith Head took both Novak’s outspoken reservations and Hitchcock’s artistic vision seriously, which accounts for the care she took in handling the situation.

And it wasn’t like Novak chronically resisted her entire wardrobe. The structured lines and stark grays, blacks, and whites that dominate Madeleine’s ensembles contrast markedly with Judy’s clothes. Novak embraced this other half of the role, inspired to go braless to accentuate the character’s, erm, freer characteristics. Hitch even let her wear her own shoes with the more casual, earth-toned and orchid shades in Judy’s closet. The actress has indicated that as a performer, she felt a kinship with Judy. When the character pleads with James Stewart’s Scotty to love her as she is, Novak is essentially channeling her own desire to touch the audience as an artist.

The black and green (teal in this scan) evening gown worn by Kim Novak as “Madeleine.” This is the one she wears to draw in the unwitting Scotty at Ernie’s. Scan from an Ebay.com poster auction.

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