Alfred Hitchcock may have been the undisputed master of cinematic suspense, but he certainly made clear what he valued in a leading lady: an icy-cool, put-together exterior suggesting a buried, boiling passion. It’s an archetype that still resonates today.
Within the next year, we will see it on display in at least two movies about Hitchcock and his sharp, studied blondes: The Girl (a Sienna Miller vehicle about the director’s obsessive and often turbulent relationship with Tippi Hedren) and the laboriously titled (for now) Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, starring Anthony Hopkins and Scarlett Johansson.
Even the fashion scene is rife with references both direct and oblique to Hitchcock’s restrained ideal. Most prominently, nothing completes the sartorial picture as perfectly this spring as a prim, architectural coat or jacket. At Louis Vuitton, rounded shoulders on stiff yet voluminous silhouettes channel 1950s swing coats, while toppers from Jil Sander are meticulously tailored, pristinely white and snugly yet sexily close to the body. On his spring runway, Naeem Khan, the Mumbai-born American designer, presented pieces that were heavily influenced by a frequent Hitchcock collaborator, costume designer Edith Head. Looking ahead, Toronto’s David Dixon, inspired by the film The Birds, envisions a ladylike fall 2012 heavy on cinched blazers and pencil skirts.
“This idea of the modern woman has been tough to shake in the 50-plus years since it was introduced,” says Noah Cowan, artistic director at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, where he curated a recent exhibition on Hitchcock’s ultimate fantasy woman, Grace Kelly. “Its ambivalence has allowed the appearance of the Hitchcock woman to become a yardstick against which other narrative stories around women and especially how they look are measured.”
“The Hitchcock woman,” Cowan continues, “has been vital to fashion because of the obsessive concern with detail in his films and especially in the construction of his female characters. Films like Psycho and The Birds simply cannot operate as thrillers unless you are both attracted to and wary of the enigmatic women at their core.”
Of course, very few of Hitchcock’s heroines, who are invariably carefree society girls or strivers seeking to become them, are burdened with the drudgery of a 9-to-5 job, giving them the freedom to wander, skulk and plot − and look fabulous doing so.
“To look back at the sixties, fifties and even the twenties, as many designers did for spring, is to look back at a time when optimism was really in fashion,” suggests Nicole Phelps, executive editor of Style.com. “And with an ultrafeminine coat, there’s a sense that these designers were idolizing women of leisure who weren’t necessarily going to the office every day.”
This is not to suggest, however, that pendulum coats or long, structured jackets are at all impractical. In Vancouver, where temperamental weather demands having a coat or jacket at the ready, such items are proving very popular this season, says Henny Rebodos, the director of merchandising for Aritzia. “Women have gone from [styles that appear]effortless to putting more effort into what they wear, into what they look like,” Rebodos notes. “It’s about having perfect hair, putting together a great, thoughtful outfit from head to toe.”
In her workplace, Rebodos adds, women are likely to wear their jackets throughout the day, calling for the kind of polished effect this season’s cover-ups offer. “It adds more depth to an outfit,” she says.
And as this suggestion of depth hints at, the resurrection of Hitchcock’s feminine ideal in fashion is far from a random lark, more than a nod to its obvious chic factor. “I think there are a lot of parallels [between the director’s heyday and]the age we live in now,” Cowan says, noting that Hitchcock and Head introduced their vision of conservative femininity at a time of great technological and social change. As it did then, “the realignment of society through technology [today]has created major challenges for all aspects of global culture, including fashion.”
This may explain why designers are showing few signs of abandoning such shapes and silhouettes just yet. “We’re going to be seeing much more emphasis on the hips [when it comes to outerwear]” Phelps surmises. “[Expect the return of]the hourglass shape, which is still very refined but makes you think of Marilyn Monroe and other sirens from Hollywood’s past.”
Of course, the great, tragic Monroe, who was more sultry than soigné, probably wouldn’t have found herself on Hitchcock’s callback list – her sexuality was too overt. But the message right now does bring to mind one of her most famous credits, even if it is with a twist: When it comes to femininity, we still like it haute.