Julie Andrews in “Victor Victoria”, 1982 | MGM
In Victor Victoria, Julie Andrews plays “a woman who pretends to be a man who pretends to be a woman”. Victoria is an unemployed performer who cross-dresses as a last resort to make money. Clothes are explicitly performative here, as Victoria Grant becomes the most famous female impersonator in 1930s Paris.
She initially puts on a man’s suit out of a different kind of necessity: after treating herself to the biggest, and about the only, meal she has had in days and pulling a trick so that she doesn’t pay for it, she exits the restaurant together with a newly made friend, Carole “Toddy” Todd (Robert Preston), and they are caught in the rain. They go to his hotel room to dry up, but when she is about to leave, she realises her clothes have shrunk and she has nothing to wear. So she puts on a man’s suit, belonging to Toddy’s ex-lover. She knocks off the said lover when he returns to the room for his clothes and treats Toddy badly. And that’s when Toddy has the idea of the female impersonator by a man who is in fact a woman. She keeps the suit.
Blake Edwards directed the film, based on a German movie from 1933, Viktor/Viktoria, and Patricia Norris (The Candidate, Scarface, Days of Heaven, 12 Years a Slave) was the costume designer. Victor Victoria is not only an extraordinarily funny film where romantic complications ensue because of mistaken sexual identity, but one that affords its characters more than that, subtly yet openly navigating a tightrope of uncertain sexual identity. The place of good comedy in cinema is simply not rightfully acknowledged. It should be.
The androgynous look has had famous exponents in cinema, starting with Greta Garbo breaking ground in “The Single Standard”, 1929, and Marlene Dietrich. In fact, Carole Todd, who comes up with the idea of the Victor/Victoria act, has two photos of Garbo and Dietrich glued to his hotel room walls. The story takes place in the 1930s, a time when cross-dressing was an intriguing game for actresses, and the first ones who took on the game were Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. This clash of the feminine and of the masculine, especially in those times, not only did it have to do with the real life unconventionality of Garbo and Dietrich, but also with a darkly and powerful seductive side, especially on the screen, of a female body hidden beneath clothes stolen from a man’s closet (which is literally the case in Victor Victoria).
Julie Andrews in “Victor Victoria”, 1982 | MGM
But as we will see when we get to Marlene Dietrich’s Amy Jolly in Morocco, her character is different from Julie Andrews’ Victoria. It’s only Victoria who pretends to be a man – Julie Andrews makes another great role here. But in the case of Victoria, too, that androgynous look, despite being an act, becomes more seductive than the obviously all-female attractiveness – once King Marchand (James Garner), a gangster who pretends to be a businessman doing business with gangsters (“it seems we are both pretenders,” Victoria tells him), hiding in the bathroom, “sees the female impersonator is in fact a woman, this permits him to unproblematically look at and desire her as such,” Stella Bruzzi remarks in the book Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies, arguing that such an image is attractive precisely because, “on a visual level, it destabilizes gender identity and sexual difference”. When he eventually kisses her, she is wearing a tuxedo.
The man’s suit and power dressing would become a uniform for the successful woman in the 1980s, allowing her to demonstrate she was equal to men by literally wearing their clothes. There is a line in the film (filmed in 1982, but with a story placed in the 1930s) when Victoria tells Carole Todd that she likes the feeling of impersonating a man, remarking that she feels emancipated, and that she has access to things she would otherwise not have as a woman, a remark relevant both for the 1930s, when Garbo and Dietrich were starting to revolutionise gender perception, defying social norms while proving the seductive power of a woman in trousers, and for the 1980s, when the rules of seduction between the sexes had definitely changed.
Marlene Dietrich in “Morocco”, 1930 | Paramount Pictures
Morocco was Marlene Dietrich’s first American film. For her role as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, dressed by Travis Banton, the exotic and unknown woman with a mysterious past, she was nominated to the Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The top hat, tuxedo and white bow-tie she wears for her first performance in the film became her signature look. To say that her opening number, when she is dressed up as a man and kisses a woman in the audience, was a provocative scene for 1930, would be an understatement. But that sexual scene was tolerated on screen and passed regulations precisely because it was regarded as part of the heroine’s performance. Women wearing trousers in 1930 was a controversial thing, too, but in a nightclub in an exotic country like Morocco, it was acceptable. Moreover, the foreign, the unknown and the unexpected have always fascinated the audiences, especially in those times, and the film’s producers knew that the public would be seduced by the exotic location and Marlene’s outlandish look and connotations of adventure, shady past and independent sexuality.
She wears trousers only in that sequence, but it is Dietrich in that tux that stays with you and this has remained the look most often associated with the image of Marlene Dietrich. There is one unforgettable moment with Marlene during her opening number when she leans back onto the railing separating herself from the tables in the audience. She barely yields any body weight to the rail before swinging one leg over, lightly bringing it to the ground and then swinging the other leg over too. She couldn’t have personified the mystery, sex appeal, detachment and confidence she eludes, had she worn a dress. Her slightly crooked smile acknowledges that she loves playing the role of a sexually controversial person. Because she is performing, too, just as Victoria in Victor Victoria, but the performer does no impersonation here, she has just changed the tools of attraction. “Gender roles are reversed,” remark Gerd Gemünden and Mary R. Desjardins in Dietrich Icon, “as she apprises with her gaze a man in the audience”, Tom Brown (Gary Cooper), a young private in the Foreign Legion. “There is a foreign legion for women, too”, she says, and that whole performance of hers in a tuxedo illustrates that.
“I’m sincere in my preference for men’s clothes – I do not wear them to be sensational”, Dietrich said. “I think I am much more alluring in these clothes.” By deciding to put her in trousers in the first important act, Josef von Sternberg not only built up the anticipation for the audiences, who were anxious to see Marlene’s legs revealed as they had been made famous in The Blue Angel (1930), also directed by von Sternberg, but this smart move would always link her image to that of an enigmatic person, who, unlike many other stars, would use subtext to enhance the femme fatale perception of her. The director had seen her wearing a man’s suit and a top hat at a party in Berlin, and it inspired him to use it as a dramatic look for her first musical number in an American film. The result still tantalizes the viewers, nine decades later.
Katharine Hepburn in “Woman of the Year”, 1942 | MGM
With Woman of The Year (1942) Katharine Hepburn emerged as the archetype of the strong yet feminine woman, whose battle of the sexes was not really a threat to the status quo, but merely a search for love. The movie, directed by George Stevens, was a success when it was released and it reinvented Hepburn. Katharine’s independent nature comes through in her character, but the film did something else, too, sexualising her in a way no other film had succeeded before, not even The Philadelphia Story. In her autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life, Katharine recalled that Spencer Tracy reportedly said, before making their first film together: “How can I do a picture with a woman who has dirt under her fingernails and who is of ambiguous sexuality and always wears pants?”. He then saw The Philadelphia Story and changed his mind, she continued.
After some poorly received films at RKO, Hepburn had returned to the stage, playing in Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story in 1939. She sold the movie rights of the successful play to MGM, where she had a fresh start with The Philadelphia Story, the movie, in 1940. Adrian was the studio’s costume designer and wanted to dress her in clothes that would let her personality shine through. He did this with simple, elegant, smart costumes and gowns that flattered her small waist and long legs. “Hepburn’s physique was the type Adrian liked – tall, broad-shouldered, athletic, similar to Garbo’s but with even thinner hips,” notes Christian Esquevin in Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label. From the very beginning of their collaboration, The Philadelphia Story, Adrian put Hepburn in clothes that made her emerge as a classic movies star for the first time in her career (prompting even Spencer Tracy to change his perception about her), but he also put her in trousers. According to the aforementioned book, Adrian, one of the designer’s sketches for a pants suit for Hepburn had producer Joe Mankiewicz note to Hepburn: “Are you sure these too should be slacks? Fine by me if fine by you.” Naturally, it was, and what it impresses the most is the progressive thinking of everyone involved, both men and woman.
In Woman of the Year, Hepburn’s Tess Harding, the brash, polyglot, internationally inclined political affairs newswoman, falls in love with Sam Craig (played by Spencer Tracy), the crusty sportswriter. Katharine Hepburn fearlessly and uncompromisingly set out to become a star in an industry that wanted greatness on its own terms, an industry that often tried to destroy the original few. Katharine wanted greatness on her own terms, she wanted to be an unconventional movie star, she wanted everything to be about her. “Hepburn’s presence is always more radical than her films” and “this suggests why she is so important: her presence forces her films to go in directions they cannot possibly follow, adopt strategies they cannot fully sustain, raise issues they cannot adequately resolve,” says Andrew Britton. But I believe that when Hepburn emerges in trousers and a velvet smoking jacket (20 years before the historic collection in which Yves Saint Laurent “invented” the women’s tuxedo), with embroidery adorned fastening system, she is more Hepburn than Tess Harding. Adrian was ahead of the times, and Katharine was too. They were a perfect fit.
Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett in “The Comfort of Strangers”, 1990 | Erre Produzioni, Reteitalia, Sovereign Pictures
When I wrote about Armani and Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers, I wasn’t sure about Natasha Richardson’s “unstructured” jacket, the signature Armani design and his own favourite piece from all his creations, whether she was wearing it with a dress or with a skirt. And I have decided that I would rather not know. Because wouldn’t it make so much more sense if she wore her buttoned up suit jacket with trousers?
The Comfort of Strangers, a rich, stylish piece with a sleek, threatical approach, is good to look at. Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson), the English lovers who return to Venice, the site of their rendezvous a couple of years prior, to rekindle their passion, are good to look at. They must be, because not only is this quality the obvious reason for their mutual attraction, but it’s also what makes them the objects of desire for the other two protagonists, Robert (Christopher Walken) and Caroline (Helen Mirren). Rupert Everett, in the prime of his youth, dressed in his casual Armani clothes. Natasha Richardson, a wholesome beauty with golden locks, all clad in Armani’s best.
That particular sequence when she is wearing the jacket has Mary and Colin having dinner on the terrace of their hotel and at one point Mary realises that the people at the next table are admiringly talking about Colin and his looks and she approvingly tells him that. Colin thinks, in turn, that it is Mary who must be the center of their attention. It’s universally accepted that they both are good-looking. And that their Armani clothes suit them. And it is in that particular look that she is the most attractive. Wouldn’t it make sense that she is the most attractive when she is dressed in menswear inspired clothes? Giorgio Armani is a great modernist and his tailoring traded stiff formality for assured relaxation, suggesting new, natural, minimalist, effortless attitudes, a less mannered style of the female figure, while preserving elegance, sensuality and distinction. “I imagined women in new roles, women who no longer have to pull their skirts down over their knees when they sat down or unbutton their tight jackets as soon as they took their places at the table for a business meeting. The elegance of the gesture, for me, has always been of essential importance, it is an integral part of style and one’s way of dressing.”
Carrie Coon and Jude Law in “The Nest”, 2020 | Element Pictures, BBC Films, Elevation Pictures
In Sean Durkin’s The Nest, one of the best films of this year (a wrenching, precisely directed, beautifully done film), Jude Law is Rory, an investment banker who moves back to his native England from New York with his American wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), and their two children. He is a good salesman, even great at using his looks and charm to sell things, but unfortunately what he is trying to sell the most is a fantasy. The family is starting to crumble in the chilly and majestic English countryside. There is a dark atmosphere lurking which makes you pay attention to things beneath the surface. That surface is something that Rory cares about. He is working hard at projecting a certain image.
Allison is the one who is trying to keep him grounded. She raises horses and teaches riding, and her casual, practical, lived-in clothes (riding attire, cosy, oversized sweaters) are not only a reflection of her profession, but also of her rooted yet vulnerable character. She comes from a hardscrabble background and even when they were living the American suburban life, she was rather distrustful of it and not fully comfortable with the good life. Her discomfort grows deeper when they move to England in a sumptuous albeit gloomy mansion. But Allison gets the chance to show her alluring side on a couple of occasions, one of which at a party at Rory’s boss’s house, where she is wearing a tuxedo (Matthew Price was the costume designer). In fact, Allison and Rory are both wearing tuxedos, which makes her that much more appealing. It’s like she is saying that she is putting on a show, too, for Rory’s sake, but she’s doing it on her own terms.
The best part of her dress-up however comes a little later, at another dinner where she was compelled by Rory to come, as he and a co-worker are trying to bring in new business for their company. She is wearing an exquisite backless black dress, and when, after Rory is trying too hard to appear someone he is not, she is asked by the others what she does for a living, she answers that she is cleaning stables, a job she has taken recently (“It feels good to do some real work,” she had told her neighbour who gave her the job, after her first day of work). Everyone thinks she is joking at first, but when they realise she is not, the joke’s on Rory. Allison won’t put up with a fake image anymore, and the intensity of her performance says it all (especially that she realises that maybe she has something from Rory’s materialistic tendencies in her and she finds it hard to admit it, and therefore she gives away her fur coat to the coat check girl in the restaurant when she leaves the place before the dinner is over), and it’s only because she has her feet deeply earthed that they, as a family, could see past the ruin.