Test your knowledge of the films and costumes of legendary femme fatales.
Spoiler alert: These are the answers to “Siren Style: 12 Film-Noir Questions.” To take the quiz, click here.
Question #1: Vera West worked on some of Universal’s best-known monster movies, but she also created an iconic gown for Ava Gardner’s entrance in this 1946 film noir, co-starring Burt Lancaster in his film debut:
Answer: The Killers. Making the move to Hollywood after studying at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and working for a New York atelier, Vera West became head costume designer for Universal Pictures in 1928, one of the earliest examples of a woman in the film industry holding a chief position. Universal’s acclaim rose in the 1930s with a series of “monster movies,” including 1931’s Dracula, 1932’s The Mummy and 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein — West’s work on these films was uncredited, but one of her costumes for Boris Karloff for the latter film can be found in the archives of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and is credited to her. West designed costumes for almost 400 films during her two-decade tenure at Universal, including this now-iconic gown worn by Ava Gardner in 1946’s The Killers, which also marks the screen debut of Burt Lancaster. A copy of the gown can be seen in the Ava Gardner Museum, located in the screen icon’s birthplace of Smithfield, North Carolina.
Question #2: 1942's This Gun for Hire was the first of four noir films that paired Veronica Lake with Alan Ladd; this designer created Lake's costumes for all of them.
Answer: Edith Head. While the gorgeous Lake gained worldwide acclaim for her signature peek-a-boo hairstyle, Head — at the time the chief costume designer at Paramount Pictures — said she had trouble dressing her because the actress was extremely petite, just 4 feet, 11 inches tall. But in Edith Head’s Hollywood, the legendary costume designer also pointed out that Lake had the smallest waist in the industry: 20-3/4 inches. “Everyone was telling me to make her into a sex symbol,” Head said in her posthumous autobiography. “She had a good bust, but I couldn’t show it because of the Hays Office’s anti-cleavage rules. I was forced to be extremely careful in every costume she wore.” Head also called Lake’s pairing with Alan Ladd “one of the most famous teams of the 1940s, ranking right up there with Bogart and Bacall.”
Question #3: This designer’s work on Gilda resulted in some of Rita Hayworth’s most iconic looks.
Answer: Jean Louis. French-born Jean Louis worked with Hayworth on nine films at Columbia Pictures, but their most famous collaboration is unquestionably 1946’s Gilda, directed by Charles “King” Vidor. The black strapless gown Hayworth wears during the “Put the Blame on Mame” number is one of the few film costumes so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page, which details the harness Jean Louis created inside the gown so Hayworth could one and dance freely. But the full range of his work on Gilda is worthy of admiration, including this two-piece look designed for Hayworth's performance of “Amado Mio.”
Question #4: Jean Louis also created stylish costumes for Hayworth for this 1947 film, directed and co-starring Orson Welles, Hayworth’s husband at the time; but it was her short blonde hair that seemed to capture audiences’ attention.
Answer: The Lady from Shanghai. Hayworth was known for her stunning mane of auburn hair, but Welles decided, for the sake of the character, that his wife should change the style to a short cut in platinum blonde. The alteration to Hayworth’s look caused Columbia Pictures studio head Harry Cohn to tell the actress, “He’s ruined you.” Audiences indeed didn’t care for the change, and the film fared poorly at the box office during its initial release. More recently fans not so wedded to Hayworth’s signature look have accepted the blonde style — it’s notable, for example, how her hair stands out against the dark backdrop during the climactic hall of mirrors sequence.
Question #5: Travis Banton created the costumes for this 1945 film, which is often confused with another noir story starring Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson.
Answer: Scarlet Street. Just a year before Scarlet Street, Fritz Lang directed another film noir with several of the same cast members: The Woman in the Window, also starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea. In addition to the cast, the two films shared several themes, from the infatuation Robinson’s character has for Bennett’s femme fatale, which drives him to commit nefarious acts in both films, to a painting of Bennett, which also playing an integral role. But while Travis Banton designed the costumes for Scarlet Street, it was Muriel King who created the looks for Bennett in The Woman in the Window.
Question #6: Lana Turner’s all-white costumes in The Postman Always Rings Twice send virtuous signals about her character, though she’s anything but; who was the designer?
Answer: Irene Lentz. The Montana-born Lentz had big shoes to fill when she succeeded Adrian as the head costume designer at MGM, but she also created several iconic looks in classic cinema, and her work on 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice ranks high among them. According to Irene: A Designer from the Golden Age of Hollywood, it was Lentz’s plan to dress Turner’s character in all white, with the exception of two planned looks in black, a thematic idea that the costume designer equated with something you might see in an opera. Director Tay Garnett agreed, noting that it was “worth the risk” to create the right portrait of Turner’s Cora Smith. Turner’s entrance, wearing a white turban, midriff-baring top and shorts, with matching white peep-toe pumps, has become one of classic film’s most iconic looks. Also, a fun fact: the fabrics used for Turner’s costumes weren’t a true white, but were toned down a bit to accommodate photography.
Question #7: Leah Rhodes created the wardrobe for this 1946 film noir, which is based on a Raymond Chandler short story and is the second onscreen pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Answer: The Big Sleep. Director Howard Hawks captured lightning in a bottle with the pairing of Bogart and Bacall in 1944’s To Have and Have Not, and the success of that film — and Bacall’s resulting stardom — were key reasons for the idea to reteam the trio for The Big Sleep. But this different and sometimes confusing script didn’t sit well with the studio or preview audiences, and reshoots were required (also to enhance the romance between the lead characters), among the reasons for the two-year gap between the two films. The houndstooth suit Rhodes created for Bacall to wear in this scene also became a popular look by women eager to copy any detail involving Bacall.
Question #8: Barbara Stanwyck loved working with this designer so much on The Lady Eve, she had her services written into her future contracts, including 1944’s Double Indemnity.
Answer: Edith Head. Stanwyck fell in love with Head’s work during filming of The Lady Eve in 1941, when she discovered that the costume designer not only understood what looked best on her body, she also created high-fashion looks that made the actress simply feel beautiful. “I was never a clotheshorse, but suddenly I felt like one in that picture,” Stanwyck said later. “For The Lady Eve Edith made the most beautiful clothes I had ever worn. Every change was spectacular.” In Edith Head’s Hollywood, the designer agreed: “Lady Eve changed both our lives. It was Barbara’s first high-fashion picture and her biggest transition in costuming.” The partnership was so successful, Stanwyck had Head written into her future contracts as her preferred costume designer; Double Indemnity was one of the 25 films they worked on together.
Question #9: Laura may be the most famous film featuring looks by this costume designer, who also created the wardrobes for The House on 92nd Street and Fallen Angel.
Answer: Bonnie Cashin. The Oakland, Calif.-born Cashin decided from an early age that she wanted to be a costume designer, and designed for dance and theater companies in New York and Los Angeles before making the transition to films. She signed a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox in 1943 to work under head designer Charles Le Maire, and her most high-profile assignment came a year later, with 1944’s Laura, starring Gene Tierney in the title role alongside Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price. Her looks for the Otto Preminger film communicate Laura’s career ascent nicely — but after other films that included Anna and the King of Siam and noir films like The House on 92nd Street and Fallen Angel, Cashin decided she didn’t care for Hollywood life, so she moved back to New York to start her own fashion label. Cashin later also would find success designing sportswear and handbags for Coach; some of the handbags she created for Coach are today considered among the company’s most iconic designs.
Question #10: At least two of Edward Stevenson’s costumes proved to be a challenge for Jane Greer in this 1947 film noir co-starring Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas.
Answer: Out of the Past. Robert Mitchum was far more experienced on film sets than Jane Greer during filming of Out of the Past, and from the stories she told later in life, he seemed quite protective of her, to the point of ensuring that her costumes, by Edward Stevenson, looked as they should. Prior to filming one scene, Mitchum noticed that Greer's dress didn’t show off her waist to its best advantage, so her borrowed a pin and cinched the dress in back himself. In another anecdote, Greer recalled that the RKO costume department sent her to set with her costume not completely finished in back; as it wouldn’t be visible in the scene, they thought it was an acceptable solution to avoid a delay in filming. But Mitchum noticed and wasn’t pleased, pointing out that Greer’s acting should be supported by a complete costume. The scene waited while she returned to the wardrobe department and the design was completed.
Question #11: Gloria Grahame played a woman treated badly by her mobster boyfriend, played by Lee Marvin, in this 1953 Fritz Lang film, with costumes by Jean Louis.
Answer: The Big Heat. “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better.” That’s Grahame’s character, Debby Marsh, in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, based on a serial that ran in the Saturday Evening Post. Grahame’s costumes by Jean Louis aren’t too memorable, but her performance is, playing the girlfriend of a ruthless mobster, Vince Stone, played by Lee Marvin. Glenn Ford’s Dave Bannion is the hero of the film as a police detective out for revenge, and Grahame’s Debby seeks him out to help — but when Vince discovers she met with Ford in his hotel room, he assumes the worst and exacts his own revenge, throwing a pot of scalding hot coffee in her face. Debby is horribly scarred as a result, but works to get justice for both herself and Bannion. Today it’s considered one of Grahame’s most iconic performances and solidified her status as an icon of film noir.
Question #12: Anthea Sylbert was nominated for an Oscar for Best Costume Design for this 1974 Roman Polanski neo-noir film, in which Faye Dunaway plays a stylish femme fatale.
Answer: Chinatown. Though it’s technically neo-noir, Chinatown has been considered among the best of the film-noir genre of the 20th century, largely due to both the performances and the script by Polanski and Robert Towne, who received an Oscar for his work. Sylbert likewise was nominated, with the stylish, beautifully coordinated head-to-toe looks she created for Dunaway drawing the most attention. Sylbert unfortunately lost to the year’s other high-profile costume work: The Great Gatsby, with costumes designed by Theoni V. Aldredge.