Updated: Jul 16
From Gilda’s iconic gown to Cora’s all-white wardrobe, the femme fatales of the 1940s – and what they wore – get a worthy showcase.
“That’s a honey of an anklet you’re wearing, Mrs. Dietrichson.”
One of the most memorable – and menacing – relationships in film noir kicks off with the observance of a piece of jewelry. Fred MacMurray’s glance at Barbara Stanwyck’s ankle, a moment that crackles with dialogue by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (based on James M. Cain’s novel), instantly sets the seductive-meets-dangerous tone in 1944’s Double Indemnity, among the reasons it’s considered an essential film noir.
Film historian and GlamAmor blogger Kimberly Truhler explores this and other details in Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s (GoodKnight Books, $45), which spotlights the signature costumes and other aesthetic elements of the decade’s most influential genre in cinema. “The 1940s are an area of passion for me, partly because these movies include some of the most influential style of all time,” says Truhler, who hosted a longtime fashion-in-film series at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles before the pandemic required a shift to virtual events. Part three of her noir-themed online series is set for Sunday, Jan. 17, at 4 p.m. PT (click here for details and to register).
Truhler selected 20 films to highlight in the book, starting with 1941’s The Maltese Falcon and wrapping up with 1950’s Sunset Boulevard. “It was easy to select 13 films that were just non-negotiable, films like Gilda, Laura and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and from there it was about filling in the other seven,” Truhler explains. “I wanted to include at least a couple that were on the fence, because in the world of noir there’s always the debate: Is it noir or not? So I added films like Shanghai Gesture and Notorious and discussed the reasons they were worthy of being included.”
Lighting inspired by German Expressionism, pre-code films like 1932's Shanghai Express and 1933's Baby Face, and the impact of World War II also play a role in Film Noir Style, as Truhler writes about these and other influences. “I wanted to do something beyond discussing the costume designers and the looks they created; I wanted to connect the dots and illustrate the other elements that also contributed to this very specific decade of style,” she says.
Though the book is also brimming with stories about Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and other A-list actresses, it’s the costume designers who are the true stars of Film Noir Style, as Truhler does a deep dive into both the work they produced and their lives outside the studios. For The Postman Always Rings Twice, Irene Lentz (always billed solely by her first name in opening credits) created a now-iconic wardrobe for Lana Turner that leaned heavily on white; Lentz's reasoning was a blend of how Turner’s Cora might dress in a climate that included Santa Ana winds with an almost operatic take on the innocence communicated by white, even as the woman wearing it is contemplating murdering her husband.
But Truhler also delves into Lentz’s struggle with alcoholism, which caused her to commit suicide in 1962. “She led a very sad life for a lot of reasons, but the fact that Irene was on a bender in the middle of designing this movie also could not make a better noir story,” Truhler reasons. Universal International costume designer Vera West, meanwhile, was known largely for the work she did on that studio’s legendary monster films of the 1930s, but her contribution to fashion and film is forever cemented with the one-shoulder black gown she designed for Ava Gardner for 1946’s The Killers. It would be among West's final projects, as her body was found floating in her pool the following year.
“The end of her life is such a great part of the noir narrative,” Truhler says. “I was excited to tell her story, also because Vera enjoyed a nearly two-decade career as a contemporary of Travis Banton [at Paramount Pictures] and Adrian [at MGM], but she didn’t have the benefit of the glamazons we know from those other studios. Universal just wasn’t known for those kinds of pictures.”
Other anecdotes include the iconic black satin gown Jean Louis designed for Rita Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame” number in 1946’s Gilda – the strapless dress was outfitted with an interior harness so Hayworth could dance and move freely – as well as Edith Head’s designs for Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire. Head’s work is featured in four films in the book, while Jean Louis follows close behind with costumes for three films. “The austerity of the era was perfectly in line with Edith's design instincts, and then you add in that she was able to work with great stars like Veronica Lake and Barbara Stanwyck,” Truhler says. “The ‘40s were a perfect time to feature Edith, because she really came into her own in this decade.”
Fellow designers Orry-Kelly (The Maltese Falcon), Milo Anderson (Mildred Pierce), Leah Rhodes (The Big Sleep), Gwen Wakeling (I Wake Up Screaming) and Edward Stevenson (Murder, My Sweet) also enjoy the spotlight in Film Noir Style, which ultimately makes a compelling case for why fans still care about these films 80 years later.
“The ‘40s were a perfect time to feature Edith, because she really came into her own in this decade.”
“My mission is always to show the style, because it’s something that lives with us still,” says Truhler, whose long-term plan is to write additional books themed to other decades. “Costume designers played such a vitally important role in the success of these movies, and they’re a key reason people are still checking them out for the first time or returning to them again and again. Fashion is a worthy art form in Hollywood, and we’re always going to be fascinated by it.”