Often, the best costumes aren’t the show stopping, covetable gowns or the most revealing dresses. Great costumes are often the least showy, subtly revealing and emphasising character aspects and personality traits. After all, clothing is meant to aid in the construction of character, not overshadow it. Simple details express volumes before the actor has spoken, and the ‘wrong’ choice for a highly visible garment (a hat or neckline for example) can be disastrous. As far as low-key costumes go, Rosalind Russell’s two outfits in His Girl Friday (1940) are up there with the best. Firstly, it’s surprising that there are so few – the fast-paced dialogue and the time frame clearly left little time for outfit changes – secondly, that they are so ‘everyday’, and thirdly, that they were probably been based on Adela Rogers St. Johns, a real-life journalist.
Rosalind Russell wasn’t director Howard Hawks’ first choice for Hildy, the film’s central protagonist. Although co-star Cary Grant signed up early on, several actresses (including first-choice Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunn) passed on the role. The fact that a female lead was required was accidental. Hawks, keen to prove that that Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play, The Front Page included some of the best dialogue ever written, asked his secretary to read the role of Hildy. Upon realising the character worked better as a female, he tasked Hecht with rewriting the script. Despite the specially written role, Hawks struggled to find an actress, and was eventually forced to settle with Rosalind Russell, who had previously proved her comic prowess in The Women.
In Dressed, Russell recounts Hawks’ on-set brusqueness:
“‘It’ll be alright,’ Hawks said. ‘You’ll be fine. Now go to Wardrobe and tell them I’d like you in a suit with stripes, rather flashy looking.’ We’d been shooting two days when I began to wonder about his instructing me that my suit should be kind of hard-boiled-looking was the only advice I was going to get from Mr Hawks.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) Hawks’ misgivings, Russell is the perfect Hildy. A sharp-tongued, witty journalist who’s committed to finding and pursuing a story, she’s the perfect antidote to Walter Burn’s (Grant) unscrupulous, devious dealings. The duo – on screen, a recently-divorced couple – have a wonderful rapport, talking over each other, second-guessing thought patterns and coming up with increasingly fast-paced dialogue. Whilst occasionally disconcerting, it’s a wonderful example of how couples really speak; familiarity breeds understanding and intuition. Hawks reportedly encouraged the actors to improvise, and practice ‘scene-stealing’ tactics. Russell was more than a match for Grant, and their real-life relationship was reflected in the on-screen action; in fact it’s obvious from the opening the scene that Hildy is the only character that can even come close to keeping up with Burns. The audience knows how the film will end before Hildy and Burns are prepared to admit it.
Robert Kalloch was responsible for creating Hildy’s distinctive look. Both outfits are essentially suits, allowing ‘working girl’ Hildy to take her place in the newsroom and project an aura of authority in a male-dominated world. The first is a bold, chevron-stripe jacket and skirt combo, worn with a jauntily placed top hat. The flattering fit-and-flare jacket (which ties with a wide belt), the chiffon scarf, attached to the hat, and the blouse with a ruffled, bow-detail collar are concessions to her femininity, but the outfit is stamped with an authority that’s impossible to ignore. The stripes demand attention, and the loud pattern echoes Hildy’s confrontational and forthright manner.
Like many of Hawks’ films, His Girl Friday examines the relationship between men and women, and Kalloch’s costumes allow Hildy to take on the (mostly male) newsroom by replicating fabrics traditionally utilised in men’s suiting. The wide padded shoulders add visual weight to Russell’s frame and were perhaps inspired by Schiaparelli and Chanel, two of the most influential designers of the era. Clothes On Film suggests that the outfit was actually pink and black – imagine how the feminine connotations of the shade would have played out in a grey-black-brown newsroom. Other, subtle examples of gender interplay – Hildy accusing the men of gossiping ‘like women’, Burns’ refusal to open the door for her and his insistence of wearing a hat in her presence – continuously underscore the fact that she is a woman, questioning her authority whilst reaffirming their own.
Hildy’s second look is a variation on a theme, but is significantly softer. This pinstripe skirt suit is worn with a blouse with a stand collar and a decorative button closure and suede gloves with wide cuffs that sit over the jacket sleeves. Significantly less ‘flash’ than the first outfit, this is meant to be Hildy’s going away outfit, the one she’s chosen to start her new life with Bruce (Ralph Bellamy). Austere, and lacking the authority of the first look, she accessorised it with a battered travelling case and a tweed overcoat that she throws round her shoulders, discards on a desk, then puts back on, until it’s eventually forgotten. Perhaps it’s taking it too far to read it as a metaphor for her fluctuating decision to leave the newspaper business, but it certainly is a comment on her state of mind.
Whilst Hildy can play and look the part in a man’s world, her outfits prevent her from fully tackling it. She struggles to run in her low-heeled court shoes and regularly adjusts her gloves and skirt. These symbols of femininity are hindering her professionalism. Apparently both Hildy and her wardrobe were based on Adela Rogers St. Johns, a journalist, best selling-author and reporter who set a new standard for women in journalism and was famed for her striped suits. As “The World’s Greatest Girl Reporter” she covered key news events for Hearst newspapers; her role as “Mother Confessor of Hollywood” she produced in-depth celebrity interviews.
Both on and off screen, the newsroom was one of the few places where women could stand on an equal footing with men. Taking the lead, using initiative and practising journalistic integrity were not gender-specific traits, and as such Hildy only needs to be a woman to introduce the relationship story. Although the conclusion may be romantic and Hildy is reduced to tears along the way, she remains a journalist; indeed she’s the only one with the wiles, ethics and compassion to solve the mystery. Her wardrobe might place her in the male domain, but she certainly isn’t willing to embrace every masculine trait.