The plot in The Birds (1963) has socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) chasing Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) to play a prank on him to a town where birds are attacking people for no apparent reason. Nobody has any idea what draws the birds and turns them bad, and Hitchcock makes sure that the mystery stays intact, choosing not to explain what’s happening. The open ending leaves you reflecting and that’s one of the most intriguing parts of the movie.
The small town is called Bodega Bay and is at about 60 miles North of San Francisco, and the sense of location is so sharp and assured that it makes it seem very familiar, like you’ve been there. It’s a feeling that stays with you and that makes the film all the more impactful. San Francisco was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite movie locations and this is such an interesting subject that I will probably approach it in a future blog post, even before I get my hands on this book.
Tippi Hedren had just the kind of cool blonde good looks that Hitchcock liked. And she does look so cool and sharp in this first costume (my favourite of the two in the film), a simple and elegant charcoal grey wool blend suit with stand collar, three-quarter length sleeves and angled front welt pockets, worn with long black leather gloves, an oversize fold-over clutch and classic pointed-toe pumps. I’m not overlooking the white shirt either, collarless and with three-quarter sleeves, with its cuffs peeking from underneath the jacket sleeves – I love this detail, as I myself like to play with layering sleeves lengths. If we look for a little symbolism, as it usually is the case with Hitchcock’s films, we can see this costume as a sign of the dark events to come.
Hitchcock was planning on using a lot of green in the movie, and limited Edith Head, his long-time collaborator, to using green in Hedren’s wardrobe as well. “Green to Hitchcock evoked a chaste, cool quality, setting Melanie apart from the Bodega Bay residents”. Edith Head used another one of her designs, the eau de nil suit worn by Grace Kelly in Rear Window, as inspiration for Tippi’s green suit, only this time with a structure more akin to a Chanel suit. The costume designer kept the lines simple – she usually did, especially in the ’50s and ’60s, because it had always been her fear that if she didn’t, her designs wouldn’t stand the test of time. Six copies of the suit were made, since Tippi would wear it for a large part of the film, and most of them would need to be distressed during the repeated attacks of the birds.
Sleeveless sheath wool dress with side darts, bias finish on the jewel neckline, nipped in at the waist, matching big buckle belt. It is teamed with a matching jacket with three-quarter raglan sleeves with turnback cuffs and patch pockets. A mink fur coat, a brownish tote, taupe shoes and suede gloves, and a ton sur ton silk scarf complete the look.
Isn’t it interesting that Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), an old flame of Mitch’s, is wearing green too, but a darker shade of green, in one of the scenes? That was Hitchcock – a detail is not just a detail and every single frame is meticulously constructed.
Reportedly, Hitchcock personally selected Hedren’s jewellery for the film: a multi-strand, two-toned pearl necklace and bracelet and a pair of gold hook stud earrings for the charcoal grey suit, and the same earrings, a gold necklace, a chunky gold ring and a delicate gold bracelet watch for the green suit. It was important that Melanie be elegant to suggest her privileged social position and materialistic nature, so her wardrobe had to send out a certain message.
Since Hedren wears only three costumes, her entire film wardrobe cost just $5,000. The nightgown she wears in the film was supposed to have been purchased at an inexpensive variety store, so that’s just what Edith did. “There are wonderful designers who make you look good, very elegant,” Tippi said. “But Edith taught me that you not only design to make a person look according to their character, you have to make sure the person can do the action.”
The sense of style in Hitchcock’s films always comes as a bonus. The importance of the clothes is never underestimated, quite the contrary, the costumes are one of the many elements that come together like pieces in a puzzle to create a work of art – therein lies my fascination for Hitchcock’s movies.
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photos: stills from the film, captured by me from Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection | Universal Pictures, 1963
sources: Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer, by Jay Jorgensen / Alfred Hitchcock: The Complete Films, by Paul Duncan