Alfred Hitchcock and costume designer Edith Head had an industrious and successful working relationship that spanned 11 films over 30 years. They first collaborated on Notorious in 1946, other notable partnerships included Vertigo, Rear Window and To Catch A Thief – in fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Head helped to typify the ‘Hitchcock Heroine’; it was a joint vision that was initiated by one and completed by the other. Their partnership worked so well because it was on an equal footing: Head was (and remains) one of Hollywood’s most celebrated costume designers, winning a total of eight Oscars (by all accounts she referred to the statuettes as ‘my children’). As a director, Hitchcock was famed for his control and precision; it’s something a feat that he repeatedly hired Head. But she was tenacious, ambitious, dedicated and talented – and came with a reputation for perfectionism that could rival Hitchcock’s
Jay Jorgensen suggests that the Hitchcock and Head’s working relationship got off to a rocky start, the designer finding him ‘somewhat difficult to work with’ but their second collaboration (Rear Window, 1954) fared much better, as Head understood that Hitchcock had a clear vision about how he wanted the clothes to advance the story of the film. According to Head, Hitchcock spoke a designer’s language, even though he himself was not a designer. Hitchcock was keen to avoid garish colours and bold costume designs (‘eye-catchers’), and that the garments should be as unnoticed as it is noticed. In terms of costume, The Birds built on the success of Grace Kelly’s wardrobe and in fact, many of the costumes referenced back – just one way Head and Hitchcock constructed the Heroine with whom he will forever be associated.
Shot in 1963 when the director was at his peak, The Birds is often regarded as the quintessential Hitchcock movie, confident with what it puts in and what it leaves out. Loosely adapted from a short story by Daphne du Maurier, it tells the story of socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) who takes a trip to Bodega Bay to extract revenge upon Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Soon after her arrival, the birds in the area begin to act strangely, attacking at random and leaving a woman for dead.
During the film, Melanie wears just three outfits. The one that stands out, and has come to symbolise The Birds, is the elegant wool crepe green suit. Worn for a considerable portion of the film, the two-piece (dress and jacket) is accessorised with a knee-length fox fur coat, a tan leather handbag, high-heeled court shoes and gold jewellery. Hitchcock favoured green, as it was the perfect blend-in shade. According to Head:
“Unless there is a story reason for a colour, we keep the colours muted because Hitchcock believes they can detract from an important action scene. He uses colour, actually, almost like an artist, preferring soft greens and cool colours for certain moods “ (from Hollywood Costume)
Of course, green looked great on blondes – and blondes were Hitchcock’s favourite victims, frosty and aloof with a hidden fiery or mischievous streak the could win the sympathy of the audience, according to the director, better than a brunette. The green also echoes the shades of the lovebirds that are featured in the opening scene, tying Melanie back to them and underscoring their similarities.
The green suit was, Clothes On Film suggests, based on one Head had previously designed for Grace Kelly in Rear Window. There are subtle differences between the two, but both adhere to clean lines and timeless simplicity; Head and Hitchcock preferring a classic style that wouldn’t date. Melanie’s elegant attire marks her out from the residents of Bodega Bay; she’s a socialite – cool and somewhat smug – and her groomed appearance reflects this. By keeping Melanie in the same outfit for the duration of the film, Hitchcock is able to break down her character; the disintegration of the once-immaculate suit echoes the bird’s increasingly violent behaviour and her escalating desperation. In fact, six copies of the suit were made, and most were destroyed during the final bird attack in the attic.
On another level, that green suit can be read as an expression of Melanie’s repression; it’s a little too chic, a little too ‘done’, and it constricts her personality and sexuality. It would seem logical that the breaking down of this barrier would run parallel to Melanie’s awakening, but Hitchcock kept the concluding scenes of The Birds deliberately ambiguous, the audience is never sure what Melanie’s future is. During the last days of filmmaking, Hitchcock decided to scrap screenwriter Evan Hunter’s ending, replacing it with a lengthy shot of Melanie and the Brenner’s driving away. The birds are not in pursuit, but that’s not to say they won’t be.
According to Hitchcock, the ending was the most difficult single shot he’d ever done – placing the actors and a flock of birds (some of which were live) against a background a weaving them all together – and the resultant scene was a technical accomplishment. The deliberate ambiguity may have resulted in one of the director’s most controversial endings, but it was, and remains, a fitting non-conclusion to Melanie’s story.
Above: Head and Hitccock reviewing sketches for Notorious, while Ingrid Bergman looks on.