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Designs that conceal desire

The waist-nipping fashions of the 1950s -- and all they represent -- are an integral part of the film 'Far From Heaven.' They help to tell a story about repression and marital secrets.

October 27, 2002|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

It's not often in films today that costumes play a leading role. But in "Far From Heaven," about a homemaker facing a marital crisis against the backdrop of rigid, mid-century American society, perky peplum jackets and crisp crinolines are the foil for suppressed desires.

Director Todd Haynes had clear ideas about costume styling from the start, many inspired by the 1950s films of Douglas Sirk. "The first image I got in my mind was of Julianne Moore in dark sunglasses, with her red hair in a chiffon scarf, set against the blue New England sky with the reds and oranges of fall around her. I drew a sketch of it in marker and stuck it in front of me while I wrote," he said.

Cut to the opening shot. Along with the scarf and sunglasses, Moore, who plays Cathy Whitaker, wears a demure green swing coat and ladylike orange gloves. Dressed in autumnal tones, she embodies a suburban world in which women are as much a part of the scenery as are the falling leaves. Their households revolve around children and hostessing, and their stiff girdles and enveloping furs seem designed to rein in any selfish yearnings.

To execute his vision, Haynes chose costume designer Sandy Powell, with whom he worked on "Velvet Goldmine" (1998). Although she began by having Moore try on vintage pieces, Powell ended up making all of the film's costumes. "Things had to look new and fresh," she said. "And we had to take into consideration that Julianne was changing shape by the minute."

Moore is a vision in full, flowerlike skirts, which did double duty to disguise her pregnancy. The feminine silhouette with a cinched waist -- the hallmark of Christian Dior's 1947 New Look that trickled down even to the Sears catalog -- was a contrast to the austere, wartime styles and reflected the idealized domesticity of the era when many women returned to the home after working during World War II.

Powell created some lavish pieces, especially the sexy-but-safe copper-colored taffeta gown with three-quarter-length lace sleeves that Cathy wears as hostess of a dinner party. But it is Cathy's lavender scarf that has the greatest sartorial impact. A mere wisp of silk chiffon, it is carried away by the wind into the hands of her gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). That simple square of fabric becomes a symbol of the yearning for freedom and true love of an entire generation of women.

In contrast, Cathy's best friend, Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson), is outfitted in slim shift dresses and pencil skirts paired with boxy jackets. "The film was set in 1957, a time when the silhouette was changing.... The more fashionable look is worn by Eleanor," Powell said. "But we didn't want Cathy to adhere to high fashion. She's a middle-class New England housewife."

The restrictive silhouette seems to mirror Eleanor's role as the stalwart of polite society. She may pose as the best friend, but when Cathy's relationship with the gardener sends tongues wagging in the narrow-minded town, she shows her true character.

Haynes plays with color throughout. To complement Cathy's wardrobe, Raymond is costumed in warm tones, including an autumnal plaid coat similar to one worn by Rock Hudson in Sirk's 1955 film "All That Heaven Allows." But Cathy's husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), who has his own secret that threatens to disrupt his domestic bliss, stands apart in cool blue-gray suits and fedoras.

The shade of lipstick that Moore wears is Cherries in the Snow, a 1950s red that Revlon no longer sells but that makeup artists can still get. And, although Haynes wrote the role with Moore as a redhead, she chose to wear a blond wig. "Julianne saw Cathy as such an American girl in a warmly generic sense that red seemed too exotic a hair color for her," he said.

The clothing says a lot, as did the fashions of the Eisenhower era. Life looked and seemed ideal -- handsome men with shiny wingtips and shinier hair and doll-faced women in bell-shaped skirts and waist-nipping jackets designed to emphasize every child-bearing asset. But under the surface, the forces of change were bubbling up.

The costumes in "Far From Heaven" work to create a snapshot of America teetering on the edge. As Haynes said, "They suggest something else without showing it to you. Because the more you go in the direction of beauty, the more claustrophobic and repressive this society appears."

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