The song Put the Blame on Mame that Rita Hayworth sings twice in Gilda (1946) is a sarcastic apprehension of the way women are considered responsible for the disasters caused by the men who become obsessed with them. There are hardly a few takes in the entire film in which Gilda appears on her own, not close to a man. It’s one of the elements used by director Charles Vidor to build up her character. Another one if the voice-over of Johnny Farrell/Glenn Ford that informs us of Gilda, mainly from his negative point of view. And yet another one is the glamorous wardrobe she wears, which helps consolidate the image of femme fatale in this classic film noir.
The costumes were designed by Jean Louis, the famous head designer at Columbia Pictures, who collaborated with Rita on nine movies. His creations complemented Hayworth’s figure and he had an important contribution to her fashion trend-setting image. One of the most beautiful actresses of all time (and the wife of Orson Welles for a brief period of time), Rita Hayworth is enigmatic and radiant in Gilda, a role that fitted her like a glove. Gilda is casino owner Ballin Mundson’s newly wife. But she is also a woman with a past, a passionate and troubled past she shares with Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), an itinerant gambler who has become Ballin’s right hand and whom she meets again after she marries. Rita and Glenn had an amazing chemistry on-screen and their characters’ love-hate relationship is responsible for a big part of the tension throughout the movie. There is also the way black and white filming captures a beautiful face and the depth of a scene that colour is simply impossible to do.
For Gilda, Jean Louis created daring, sensual gowns in luxurious silk, satin, metallic and transparent fabrics, transforming Rita Hayworth into a screen goddess, but more importantly for the plot, into a femme fatale. From her diaphanous, light-weight, off-the-shoulders négligée, to the evening dress decorated with gold bead stripes, with beautifully contoured shoulders and pleated from the knee below, to the gorgeous halter-neck, draped grecian evening dress with a beaded midriff and matching bracelet, and another timeless grecian style dress, for day this time, with a studded belt and padded shoulders, Gilda projects an overt sexuality, not just through clothes, but through movement, too.
The Gaucho costume she wears at the carnival is exactly that, just a costume.
After Mundson’s supposed death, she marries Johnny in a black suit. It’s the typical fashion style of the ’40s, but a strange choice for the event yet very suggestive for the plot, and this was the idea. She wears another suit, a very formal, well-tailored pinstriped one paired with a crisp white blouse, further down the plot, and what is interesting about her clothes after her marriage to Johnny is that even her evening wear, although still glamorous, becomes less sensuous and more structured, less radiant and mysterious, and more femme fatale.
She is trying to escape her marriage with Johnny, but finds out that she can not.
Notice the irony: “libre” written inside the taxi cab, which means free” in Spanish (the story takes place in Argentina).
But it’s the black satin dress – strapless and side-slit down to the ground, with a huge bow at the hip, and paired with high above the elbow black satin gloves – worn in a memorable scene of the movie, in which Gilda is singing and improvises a quick striptease that has made film history. With a single-glove striptease, Rita Hayworth had the power to seduce every single man in the audience. On her, the black satin dress was irresistible, fiercely femme fatale, a fashion trend-setter and the image of a star being born, all at the same time.
images: film stills. Columbia Pictures