It’s time for another fashion installment in an Alfred Hitchcock film. The thriller is at the forefront of Rear Window (1954), but the film is really a love story between J.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. One of Hitchcock’s genius touches is that each of the neighbours Jeff is watching, being confined to a wheelchair at home with a broken leg, represents 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.
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 nod to Lisa’s adventurous nature. She is trying to convince Jeff that she is the right girl for him and that she can live his kind of life (it’s Hichcock after all, a man of details, and the costumes help advance the story). 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.
Jeff: “Is this the Lisa Freemont who never wears the same dress twice?”
Lisa: “Only because it’s expected of her.”
The pleated silk organza little black dress, with translucent cap sleeves, that appears, darkly, at the pivotal point in the film, when Lisa starts to believe Jeff, that the man they are watching is a murderer.
The famous eau de nil suit. When Lisa arrives to spend the night at Jeff’s, she is wearing 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 gold and silver pearl bracelet with ornate lockets (that’s what I would call a classic statement piece of jewellery).
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. 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, said. 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 feminine, more foolhearty.”
The casual outfit Lisa wears at the end of the movie was Hitchcock’s way to suggest she was 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. I’ve rarely seen photos of Grace Kelly in jeans; I would have loved to see her emulate this modern look more often.
Grace Kelly’s costumes in Rear Window are the perfect example of the stylish and elegant fifties and one of my favourite wardrobes created by Edith Head for a film.
photos: movie stills, captured by me, production credits
sources: the books Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer, by Jay Jorgensen, and Alfred Hitchcock: The Complete Films, by Paul Duncan