Style: Lauren Bacall in ‘Designing Woman’

Designing Woman was a designer’s dream come true”, said Helen Rose in an interview. They say that the idea for the film came from the MGM head costume designer, but it was in fact based on Woman of the Year and everyone who saw the movie starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy can tell this. Helen Rose must have adapted it to take part in the fashion world. Lauren Bacall is Marilla Brown, a successful fashion designer, and Gregory Peck is Mike Hagen, a sports writer. They meet in California while on vacation, fall in love and hastily get married. Returning to New York to real life is a real challenge for the newlyweds. They realize their lifestyles are worlds apart and all kinds of comical matrimonial problems arise.

“Lauren Bacall has a perfect figure for clothes and a genuine feeling for them” (Helen Rose). She wears about thirty changes throughout the film and they range from a yellow bathing suit to a glamorous mink dress and a striped long skirt paired with a billowy sleeved sheer blouse. Designing Woman (1957) was a perfect occasion for Helen Rose to show her tremendous range, great style and skill.

Note: the format of the photos is a little different, because the film is widescreen; however, the image is not distorted.

The clothes she wears on vacation are very different from the ones she normally wears as a career woman, fact noticed by Mike as well on the plane on their way to New York when Marilla changes into her work clothes (image below): “the first one in a series of wardrobe changes that never failed to amaze me”. Polished and impeccably tailored, with a clean, classic line and in a wide range of colours (Helen Rose knew how to use colour) from black and navy to red, green and orange, they fit perfectly and are very functional too, one other detail that Helen paid great attention to. Because the garments have to look great not only when she stands still, but when she walks across a room or after she sits down on the floor sketching. Marilla wears her high style city clothes with as much ease as when she wears her holiday wardrobe. She looks comfortable whatever her attire.

There is one sequence in the film when a choreographer of a dance show Marilla is designing the costumes for explains her how the gowns must move with the performer. It is obvious that this is Helen Rose’s own voice: clothes in general have to move with the woman. She never lost sight of this aspect, not even with the most glamorous outfits she designed.

There is also a fashion show in the film. Although I’m not including photos in this post, I would like to share a very funny description of Mike’s when he attends his wife’s presentation: “Have you ever been to a fashion show? It’s a sort of a pagan ritual, a ceremonial dance where the faithful sit around sipping tee and worshipping clothes. There is a sacrifice involved too: $1,500 for a dress, $350 for a nightie. So help me! The high priestess of this slaughter was my Marilla.”

The mink dress: dark ranch mink, black broadcloth, very full skirted and worn over a black taffeta bell shaped petticoat.

This is one of my favourite dresses: taffeta full skirt and V-neckline chiffon top accessorised with sparkling jewelry.

Helen Rose knew very well that each and every actress was different in personality and figure and she knew how to bring out the very best in everyone, but by emphasizing the woman, not the clothes. “I don’t think clothes make the woman. I’m a firm believer that women make the clothes. To me a woman should be like a beautiful jewel and the clothes just a setting, our background. Chic, styled, flattering, but basically simple.”

photos: screen stills captured by me; kindly link back to classiq if would like to use any of these images; production credits
Part of the editorial content is based on the interview with Helen Rose on the this DVD


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