Talking Film Costume: Grace Kelly in “Rear Window”

The thriller is at the forefront of Rear Window (1954), but the film is really a love story between L.B. Jeffries, Jeff (James Stewart), a photojournalist, whose profession and travels mean everything to him and who is reluctant to commit himself to a relationship, and his high-spirited girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), who wants to marry him.

Jeff is confined to a wheelchair at home with a broken leg and, from his window, he watches his neighbours from over the courtyard. As François Truffaut observed in his book, Hitchcock Truffaut, it was this technical challenge that had Hitchcock’s interest in making the film, based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, “a whole film from the viewpoint of one man, and embodied in a single large set”. Another one of Hitchcock’s genius touches is that each of the neighbours Jeff is watching represents not only a permutation of the possible outcomes of the relationship between Jeff and Lisa, as Paul Duncan suggests in the book Alfred Hitchcoch: The Complete Films, but also an image of the world, mirroring, as Hitchcock told Truffaut, “every kind of human behavior”, “a small universe” (and “a display of human weaknesses and people in pursuit of happiness”, as the French filmmaker himself concurred).

”It was a possibility of doing a purely cinematic film.
You have an immobilized man looking out. That’s one part of the film.
The second part shows what he sees and the third part shows how he reacts.
This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea.”

Alfred Hitchcock


Edith Head sketch for Grace Kelly’s costumes in “Rear Window”, 1954


Edith Head was the costume designer. She had previously worked with Grace and they had become good friends. Their relationship grew even closer when Hitchcock chose them both for Rear Window.

In one of the most famous close-ups in film history, we are introduced to Lisa in a scene where a drowsy James Stewart awakes to a full close-up of Lisa coming towards him for a kiss. The neckline of the dress was kept very simple so that Grace’s face was framed by it for the close-up. When the camera pulled back, Hitchcock made sure that the public knew that Lisa was a woman who came from wealth. A dress “fresh from the Paris plane” was how Lisa described it, with a fitted black bodice with an off the shoulder, deep “V” cut neckline and with cap sleeves, and a mid-calf full skirt, very New Look style, gathered and layered in chiffon tulle, with a spray bunch pattern on the hip area. A black patent leather belt, a white chiffon shoulder wrap, white elbow-length silk gloves, a single strand of pearls and black high heeled strapped sandals complete the look. Lisa works in the high fashion New York trade and her interest in clothes – so obviously put on a show here – is in high contrast to Jeff’s. “Lisa, it’s perfect – it’s always perfect,” he answers u enthusiastically when she asks what she thinks of her dress. Beauty, or this kind of beauty, emphasised through the most glamorous clothes, is of no importance to Jeff as long as their interests lie in opposite directions. Costume is used to establish identity – feminine perfection – but it also quickly gives us the exact idea where the relationship between the two protagonists stands.

Edith Head sketch for Grace Kelly’s costumes in “Rear Window”, 1954


The simple black silk organza dress, with translucent cap sleeves, appears, darkly, at the pivotal point in the film, when Lisa starts to believe Jeff, and that the man they are watching is a murderer. And Jeff starts to see her with different eyes.

Edith Head sketch for Grace Kelly’s costumes in “Rear Window”, 1954


When Lisa arrives to spend the night at Jeff’s, she is wearing the famous eau de nil suit: a midi-length jacket with stand-up collar and rounded shoulders, a style reminiscent of the designs of Cristóbal Balenciaga. Underneath, she wears a white silk halterneck, beautifully gathered at the waist (see above) with a wrapover front that sits atop a ’50s style midi skirt, but in a tubular cut this time, nipped in at the waist. The ensemble is further accessorised with a white pillbox hat with half veil, a single strand of pearls, stud earrings with glass cameo, and a multi-stringed pearl bracelet with hanging gold ornate lockets. The bracelet is by far the most spectacular piece of costume Lisa is wearing, reestablishing her image as the personification of idealised femininity reflected in the way she dresses.

From inside her Mark Cross overnight case, Lisa produces a nightgown which she calls “a preview of coming attractions.” The dialogue is incredibly witty and entertaining in Rear Window, as it usually is in Hitchcock’s movies.

At some point Lisa says: “I wish I was more creative.”
Jeff: “But, sweetheart, you are. You have a great talent for creating difficult situations.”(referring to her decision of spending the night over)
Lisa: “I do?” (smiling satisfyingly).

Grace wears a print dress towards the end of the film. Edith was more liberal in her designs in the 1930s, as David Chierichetti, film historian and costumer, remarked. In the 50s and 60s, she simply didn’t use prints, because she was worried that the picture could be delayed and the prints would look dated. “She uses a print dress here, because it serves a certain dramatic purpose.” It’s a beautiful, very feminine dress, and Lisa has high heels on. “This look makes her more vulnerable, more natural, more foolhearty.” I think it is when Jeff realises how much he loves Lisa.

The casual outfit Lisa wears at the end of the movie was Hitchcock’s way to suggest she could be the sporty type, Jeff’s type, after all. Edith dressed Grace in slim indigo jeans and a pink casual men’s shirt with button-down collar and rolled-up sleeves, and dark brown loafers.

Grace Kelly’s costumes in Rear Window are the perfect example of the stylish and elegant fifties. But, most importantly, they are an essential part of building-up character and just by watching Lisa’s changing outfits and wealth of details of her clothes, you become aware of the layers of the story and of the character.

Photos: movie stills, Classiq Journal. Credit: Paramount Pictures

Editorial sources: the books Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer, by Jay Jorgensen / Alfred Hitchcock: The Complete Films, by Paul Duncan

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