Joseph Kessel’s novel Belle de jour, on which the film is based, “is very melodramatic, but very well constructed, and it offered me the chance to translate Séverine’s fantasies into pictorial images as well as to draw a serious portrait of a young female bourgeois masochist,” Luis Buñuel wrote in his autobiography, My Last Sigh. “My fascination with fetishism was already obvious in the first scene of El and the boot scene in Diary of a Chambermaid.”
In Belle de Jour, Cathrine Deneuve is Séverine, an upper-middle-class wife who spends her afternoons as a prostitute in a luxurious Parisian brothel. Belle de Jour is something very rare in the world of cinema. As Jean-Claude Carriere, the screenwriter, said, for the first time in the history of cinema Luis Buñuel dealt in a perfectly clear and obvious way with female erotic fantasies, something no one else had attempted before. But it was done in the most discreet possible way, nothing explicit is revealed in the movie, as Buñuel wanted to see Séverine covered with clothes. He does not care for her nakedness, but for the clothes that cover it, and for her perfectly polished appearance. The imagination defies reality.
The precision of those cuts! Two-tone red, slightly A-line dress with button shoulder straps
and belt, worn with a short red, double-breasted Eisenhower jacket.
Here is a director who paid great attention to costumes. In Viridiana, for example, in order for the clothes to be authentic, they “scoured the outlying districts of Madrid for them, particularly under bridges, giving poor people new clothes in exchange for their rags, which were then disinfected but not washed. Dressed in these clothes, actors felt their poverty in a real way,” Buñuel explained.
The clothes in Belle de Jour are the opposite of poverty. Designed by Yves Saint Laurent, Catherine Deneuve’s costumes marked the beginning of a long-standing relationship between the actress and the fashion designer and fixed her image for many years to come as the epitome of chic bourgeoise. With Luis Buñuel’s help and under his direction, Saint Laurent, who would prove to be an astute film costume designer, the greatest cinephile among the fashion designers, as François Truffaut named him, managed to convince Deneuve not to wear too short skirts in the movie in a time when mini-skirts were ‘in fashion’, so that the film would never become outdated and grounded to a certain historical moment.
Despite a certain 1960’s sensibility, the style in this movie has survived through generations, a quality of all Yves Saint Laurent’s designs, noted for their ‘classic modernity’. Catherine Deneuve has always evoked an eternal femininity through the timelessness of her classic looks and clothes and the designer played a great role in this from that moment on.
Yves Saint Laurent worked very well with the director, understanding that garments must be sewn on the character – figure-hugging, tailored, minimalist and cut just above the knee, including an element of sexual display, but a controlled and class-coded one, which protected the heroine. Buñuel watched clothes very closely and knew exactly what he wanted to express through them. In their ultra-sophistication, the clothes brought an almost surrealist aspect to the film, a typical Buñuel element.
A very interesting shorter sweater sleeve length, above the wrist,
leaving room to show the white cuffs of the garment underneath.
The elegance of a monochromatic outfit.
The simplicity of the sleeveless dress underneath the glamorous leather coat is exceptional.
Classic tennis attire
Séverine’s clean, perfectly cut military coat is one of the most instantly recognisable film costumes of all time. Almost all of Séverine’s clothes are military inspired, referring to the rigorous way she lives her life as a bourgeoise. The grey wool coat she wears when she steps into the brothel for the first time is double-breasted, ventless, with wide-spread collar, epaulettes and just-above-the-wrist sleeves. Black wool high hat, black gloves and tote, black Roger Vivier shoes.
A close-up of the accessories and the impeccable tailoring of the coat.
In the sixties, Yves Saint Laurent marked a turning point in the safari style with his iconic jacket. In the film,
Séverine is wearing a safari dress. Sand tone, patch pockets, chain gold belt, fly front zip, epaulettes, and shirt cuffs.
She’s wearing a black patent trench coat when she goes back to the brothel, a sign that she wants to continue with her double life.
The last outfit in the movie is the little black dress with contrasting white silk French cuffs and collar, and black belt. Schoolgirl-like, incredibly suggestive for that reproachful last scene of the film.
Catherine Deneuve had all the qualities for the role: young, beautiful, with an aura of mystery emanating from her looks that she’s always managed to keep, and a kind of surface coldness. She could perfectly belong to that social class. And Belle de Jour is the most representative example of film as an art form.
The Roger Vivier buckled Pilgrim pumps may be legendary,
but these suede shoes with scalloped edge are the ones that truly stand the test of time.
Images: stills from Belle de jour, courtesy of Classiq Journal. Credit: Robert et Raymond Hakim / Paris Film Productions / Five Film
Editorial sources: My Last Sigh, by Luis Buñuel. Yves Saint Laurent, by Chenoune Farid. The special features on the ‘Belle de Jour’ dvd and the booklet “Catherine Deneuve: from ice maiden to living divinity” included in the Luis Buñuel Collection box art released by Optimum Home Releasing