Double Indemnity costume notes: Edith Head creates an atypical femme fatale

“How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

Although fairly indecisive, if forced to choose my all-time favourite movie it’s likely that Double Indemnity would be a strong contender. Billy Wilder’s noir introduced me to the classic film genre and it’s still a thrill to watch – every time I do, I discover something new. Although I’ve written about it in the past I wanted to cover it again for the Favourite Movie Blogathon, but in the spirit of this blog’s original focus, solely considering the costume.

Double Indemnity

There are a lot of things to love about Double Indemnity, but Edith Head’s costumes don’t always top the list. That’s not because they’re second-rate – Head wasn’t capable of anything sub-par – but because they’re too good. Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck) seemingly has an entire wardrobe fully of character-defining outfits, outfits that convey the image of the woman that she wants to be – not the one that the audience suspects she is all along. Designing costumes for a character that’s playing a character is complex, but it’s a role Head took on with aplomb.

It probably helped that Head and Stanwyck were good friends. Their working relationship began when the designer successfully turned the ‘plain Jane’ actress into a sex symbol for The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941). Head employed a few costume tricks to improve Stanwyck’s naturally trim figure (namely widening the waistbands at the front and narrowing them at the back) and the public saw the actress in a whole new light. The Lady Eve bought the designer the acclaim that had eluded her since she took over from Paramount’s legendary head designer Travis Banton in 1938. In Edith Head’s Hollywood, Stanwyck recalls that: ‘From then on I had Edith Head’s name written into every contract, no matter what studio I was working for’. But it wasn’t just industry acclaim: the public approved of the Spanish motifs Head used, and a wave of Latin American fashions swept across Europe.

Robinson, Edward G - Double Indemnity

Aside from knowing how to dress Stanwyck, Head’s Indemnity costumes work because they say so much about the character. Apparently, the flamboyant and brassy blonde wig was Wilder’s idea. He wanted to make Dietrichson look as sleazy as possible. But Head understood that full-on sleaze wouldn’t get Dietrichson what she wanted – the route out of an unhappy marriage came by ensnaring new prey. Men can’t be seduced or infatuated by looks alone – the femme fatale needs to come with elements of mystery and intrigue too. Head balanced the blondeness, exaggerated make-up and heavy jewellery with classic, ladylike garments that attempt to conceal Dietrichson’s deceit. This contrast is at the heart of the character – she’s a woman who never quite says what she means or means what she says. Everything is an act – but look carefully enough and you can see the discrepancies.

Money is Dietrichson’s main motivator, but she needs to look the part to be the part. The only thing she does enjoy about marriage is spending her husband’s money. Essentially she traps him in a web that he has paid for… although it doesn’t result in the happy ending she desired. Whilst her clothes are seductive, they do not obviously denote a ‘badness’. Phyllis needs to get away with it – low-cut dresses, excessive furs, evening gowns all attract too much attention. Her fatality isn’t only skin deep – it goes straight to the core, and to get away with it, she needs to detract attention. It would’ve been easy for Wilder, Head and Stanwyck to create an off-the-shelf femme fatale, but Double Indemnity is a smarter film than that. Part of the attraction is that it always keeps the watcher guessing; it’s possible to read into the characters and storyline in multiple ways. But lets take a look at how costume plays a role in developing – and maintaining – intrigue…

Double Indemnity_Edith Head_03

Look one: the come-hither bath-towel First impressions are everything – this is a lady of leisure who can sunbathe during the day. Sexually aware and alluring, she’s happy to reveal (parts of) her body to strangers. Some might think she’s always on the lookout for prey. By placing her at the top of the stairs, Wilder introduces a physical distance between Dietrichson and the audience, and one that’s never really surmounted, as it’s impossible to know her true intentions.

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Look two: this old thing? An anklet, and Stanwyck’s shapely legs, are the focus as she descends the staircase. The simple trinket is loaded with meaning, and speaks volumes about Dietrichson’s exoticism and cavalier sensuality. Neff can’t get it out of his head. But the alluring anklet (and the heavy cuff and oversize cocktail ring) are at odds with the ruffle-front shirtdress Dietrichson has changed into. Feminine, fragile and romantic… surely no one devious could wear something so innocent? The audience begins to suspect otherwise. In film noir, white is never all it seems – see Lana Turner’s all-white ensembles in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Also note the way she examines her nails – she asks her probing questions too casually for them to be meaningless.

 

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Look three: deceptively feminine florals When Neff returns to the house, Dietrichson is clad in a floral print day dress. It’s a bit more lavish than you might expect for an afternoon indoors, but Phyllis is no housewife – she’s a woman with a plan, as her talk of murder reveals. Again, the contrast between appearance and agenda, and the importance of creating an image that’s at odds with the real intentions.

Double Indemnity_Edith Head_

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Look four: sweater girl A classic belted coat over a simple sweater and pencil skirt. This is ‘respectable’ and ‘innocent’ Phyllis, the needy woman who can’t escape her husband without a man’s help. Neff doesn’t realise that he should approach with caution – Dietrichson might be wearing classic separates, but they’ve been chosen carefully. Form-fitting and subtly sexy, sweater girls (as popularised by Lara Turner in They Won’t Forget, 1937) usually have one thing on their mind, and it’s not small talk. The sexiness doesn’t come from the garment, rather what it promises.

Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck Fred McMurray Edith Head

Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck Fred McMurray Edith Head

Look five: LBD Dietrichson accessorises her ladylike v-neck LBD with an obvious brooch. As her husband signs the insurance policy under her watchful and concerned eye, it glitters in the evening light. Remember: Phyllis likes jewels but she likes the money you can buy them with more, and she’ll stop and nothing to get it.

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck Fred McMurray Edith Head

Look six: supermarket sweep Dowdy, masculine, smart. Not the aesthetic qualities usually associated with a female villainess – which is probably why this tweed waistcoat and white shirt combo work so well. It’s so out of character – an everyday look for an everyday (murder planning) encounter. Ironically, the more Dietrichson tries to fit in, the more she stands out. It’s not just the blonde hair and the perfectly rolled fringes – there’s something about the pristine lipstick that screams ‘disguise!’.

Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck Fred McMurray Edith Head

Look seven: ‘ring-ring’, ‘ring-ring’ A quick scene in a phone booth. Note the central positioning of the ring – another opportunity for Head and Wilder to remind the audience exactly why Phyllis is going through with this. Hint: it’s not because she’s genuinely unhappy. Double Indemnity_Edith Head Double Indemnity_Edith Head_15 Look eight: weeping widow On the surface, Dietrichson is the perfect widow. She looks the part (pillar box hat with face-covering veil, a sober grey skirt suit, black gloves and clutch bag), says the right lines and cries on cue – the crocodile tears are convincing because she knows they have to be, there’s now too much at stake. But she’s too good. She can’t quite fool Neff’s colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), he continues to question the case and the pay-out (Also, note the anklet, visible in the seated still).

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Look nine: suited and booted Another smart suit (similar to the widow scene), another example of Phyllis not playing to expected femme fatale type. But in spite of all her attempts to be – or look – masculine, she’s not in control. Keyes is on the verge of discovering the insurance scam, and the world is rocking beneath her feet. It’s this reliance on traditional attire that conveys Dietrichson’s desire to treat the entire scheme as a business venture with clear goals and outcomes for both players. The heavy wool twill used here (and in the supermarket tweed) conveys an androgyny that’s at odds with the conventional representation of femininity and the expected image of a ‘bad’ girl.

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Double Indemnity_Edith Head_17

Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck Fred McMurray Edith Head

Look ten: shady lady Another ‘incognito’ supermarket meet-up. This time Phyllis comes in a white silk blouse that’s decidedly more feminine than the last – this one has delicate pin-tucks running across the front – and loose fit, tailored trousers with a high, belted waist. A great masculine/feminine combination that represents the contrasts within her character. She’s also wearing sunglasses – unable to fully read her expression it’s impossible to discern her true meaning and motive. She’s concerned that the plan will fail, but is the concern motivated by love or self-advancement? It’s these ambiguities that make Phyllis a more complex character to read. This look is distinctively less showy than many of the previous costumes – perhaps this is her at her most vulnerable.

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Double Indemnity_Edith Head_11

Look eleven: rotten to the heart Probably the most glamorous look Phyllis wears during the entire film. An all-white silk jumpsuit that flatters her figure and recalls the ruffle front dress from look two (incidentally, the action takes place in the same room). One difference? This time, it’s fatal. The understated and elegant jumpsuit emphasises Phyllis languid style, but it’s a studied cool, the costume is a prop to attain something she doesn’t feel. The trousers are subtly masculine but the overall look is feminine – she’s no match for Neff. For the first time perhaps, her garments seem to match her sentiments (maybe she does care for him after all?) but his dismissal of her puts doubt into the audience’s mind. Just who is Phyllis Dietrichson? Even her costumes don’t tell the full story.

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.

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29 thoughts on “Double Indemnity costume notes: Edith Head creates an atypical femme fatale

  1. I’d never thought about her costumes in the film, and I think you’re right that it’s because they’re so perfect (that and the distracting wig:)) Great analysis of what they say of her character. I like the inconsistencies you highlight in particular. Didn’t think it was possible, but I think you’ve made me like the film even more:)

    1. Nothing beats those sunglasses she wears in the grocery store. I ♥ Edith Head. BTW, you wrote a great article a while back having to do with a fashion designer from the early 20th century. The style was bold and geometric. Would you mind reminding me who it was? I’d like to reread your article.

      1. I love the Tate Gallery. Wish I could revisit! Yes, thanks much for the Sonia Delaunay article. It corresponds to a book I’m writing during the time frame, however, it is set in Berlin. I am wondering if her work was featured in films coming out of the Weimar Republic, specifically Fritz Lang?

  2. A terrific post–because I never really took notice of the costumes and how perfectly they enhance DOUBLE INDEMNITY. But the best “costume” of all are those iconic sunglasses. Love your comment about the sunglasses making the viewer “unable to fully read her expression…it’s impossible to discern her true meaning and motive.” I’ve always loved how we’re never quite sure how Phyllis feels about Walter.

    1. Thanks Rick – and very very belated thanks for hosting such a fun blogathon. Was so insightful to read about other blogger’s favourite movies, have added plenty to my watch-list!

  3. Excellent look at how a shady lady should dress. Like others, I’ve never really “noticed” her look, but that is the genius of it, right? She is rotten to the heart, and EG Robinson is the human heart of the film. Poor Fred, he’s just the chump. Great and informative post!

    1. Thanks for reading 🙂
      Part of the reason I never noticed all her outfits (apart from the obvious standouts) is because I’m always too preoccupied by her character!

  4. I loved this post! Too often people think of the “femme fatale” as perpetually dripping in black sequins or skulking about in overtly sexy outfits, but as you point out, many times the costuming goes against or plays with the character in a less obvious way. For me, Phyllis is the ultimate femme fatale, and as you said, she knows how to use her clothes as a disguise. She is playing a part, and if a ruffled dress will get her what she wants, she’ll wear it! Also, there’s more white and pale colors in film noir costuming than people think. It seems counterintuitive to have your murderous femme fatale in white, but it happens a lot, especially in this film, as you point out. I think part of the reason is that the lighting is often so dim that a dark outfit would fade into the set. But white helps the character stand out in the low key, shadowy scenes. And it plays with our assumptions. Anyway, as you can tell, I really enjoyed this post! Thanks!

    1. Thank you for your comment, always happy to hear a post is appreciated 🙂
      I think there’s a lot more to be said about femme fatales that go against type so I’m sure I’ll be returning to the theme in the future – although I’m not sure anyone can top Dietrichson! And I like your point about how white/light colours stand out in b+w, I hadn’t really considered that, but of course it makes perfect sense and ensures the ‘right’ character is the focus at all times.

  5. Can’t say enough about this excellent study of costuming. While I will never like the terrible wig, which simply doesn’t work for me as a viewer (I find it neither trashy nor classy, just wiggy), I have gained ample appreciation for Head’s costuming choices. In addition to differences in quality that you explain very persuasively, there’s also quantity: I simply didn’t recall her wearing so many different outfits! Thanks so much for your engaging study.

    1. Thank you for reading. I agree that the wig is very… wiggy 😉
      I think the quantity of costumes is overlooked because there are a few that really stand out – the sunglasses and anklet for example – it’s so easy to forget the rest.

  6. Ooh, great points, and a very deserved post! With a lot of great movies like this, you really do need to break them down into components—because they work together as a whole so well that you’d sometimes never notice the individual parts! Somehow, even though it’s obviously a B&W movie, the black-blacks and the white-whites and the in-between grays on her really seem so purposeful and communicative about the character. I guess that’s why Head has a stack of Oscars! 🙂

    1. She knew what she was doing, right? And I like breaking films down like this – sometimes it seems like you’re taking a bit too far and overthinking it, but with a designer like Head (and a director like Wilder) you know that everything you see is there for a reason. It wasn’t because it just happened to be hanging around the costume department!

  7. I cannot say enough about this film! I love your approach by viewing the film through Barbara Stanwyck’s (fab) wardrobe. Edith Head has indeed created an atypical femme fatale, one that keeps the audience (and Walter Neff) off balance.

    Wonderful post!

    1. I was apprehensive about writing about this film as SO MUCH has been said (a lot of it very well, too) so hopefully this added a new insight to the discussion. It certainly made me watch it in a new light!
      Thanks for reading Ruth 🙂

  8. What a great and original post! I love Double Indemnity, but nver paid so much attention to Phyllis’ costumes (I tend to prefer whatever Barbara wears in The Lady Eve). Yet, I always think of this movie when I wear an anklet! But let’s not talk about the wig.
    My favorite of the looks is the “sweater girl” one.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Le

    1. I love The Lady Eve too, and was thinking about a similar post for that… seeing as you’ve requested it…. 😉
      I think the sweater is a great look and really shows her trying to be ‘soft’ and ‘innocent’ – of course, we know The Truth!

  9. Great post! Costumes are so important, even though they can be easy to overlook sometimes. You’ve definitely given me a lot to think over the next time I watch this.
    It’s funny how something as trivial as an anklet can suggest so much. Wilder clearly agreed since he used them twice to indicate promiscuity, once in Double Indemnity and once in Love in the Afternoon.
    Thanks for stopping by my blog!

    1. Ohh I forgot about the anklet in Love in the Afternoon! Will have to re-watch that. As I said in reply to a previous comment, you know that with a director like Wilder, nothing ever appeared on screen by accident!

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