Severe Suits and Bermuda Shorts: Fashion in Witness for the Prosecution

30 Mar

Posted as part of The Hollywood Revue’s Fashion in Film Blogathon running March 29-30.

Witness for the Prosecution is not the most fashionable movie ever made.  It does not make my heart leap and yearn like Humoresque or cringe and guffaw like High School Hellcats.

It simply has costumes that really fit the characters (not to mention the characters the characters are trying to make everyone believe they are).

So let’s take a look-see.

First we’ve got our intrepid hero, Charles Laughton, and his gal Friday (who is really his nurse because he has a heart condition and he does not want anything to do with her for most of the movie), Elsa Lanchester.

Old British Nurse

This little car ride shows us their typical wardrobe (as well as their typical attitude).  I did a little research (the rigorous and academic typing of “1950s British nurses” into Google Images), and even by 1950s standards, Lanchester’s outfit here is bulky and old-fashioned.

And she’s a bulky, old-fashioned nurse who delights in her bulky, old-fashioned ways.

Inside, this bossy, archaic (and totally endearing and delightful) woman shows Laughton his chair lift (lol), and we get a better look at his suit.

Chair Lift

It’s probably expensive (because he’s a barrister, and this is Hollywood), but it’s just a plain old suit.  He’s a plain old dude.  He’s smart and he’s good at his job (and he hides cigars in his cane), but he’s certainly not the flashy type.  Below we see it slightly better.  We’ve got pinstripes on the pants, a two-button coat, a vest.  A good-looking and smartly assembled, practical ensemble.

monocle

Of course, then we need to meet Tyrone Power, so we get the introduction of one of the most significant clothing props in the movie: The Monocle of Truth! Laughton uses it to cast glints of sun into people’s eyes to gauge reactions and whatnot.  ‘Cause he’s sneaky, as all people who wear monocles are wont to be.

Tyrone Power's First Appearance

Then we meet Tyrone Power, who presents himself as an everyman.  His suit is a three-button number (less fashionable), and it doesn’t even match.  I mean, it goes together, of course (in black and white, anyway), but it’s more of a casual slacks and sport coat thing rather than a suit someone might wear to a formal meeting or to work in a ’50s office.

This shows he’s a guy who probably isn’t wealthy nor too worried about his station.  This is what he wants us to believe, of course.  Bum bum bum!

Then he goes into a flashback about how he knew the woman he supposedly killed.

That Hat

In the flashback, he’s wearing an even more casual sport coat.  And he’s helping her pick out a ridiculous hat.  He’s supposed to be this kinda low-class charmer, and his plaid softly reinforces this.

And that hat.  If anything in film is shorthand for “kinda silly uppercrust lady,” it’s a stupid hat that is also hella expensive.

Then we see Marlene Dietrich for the first time.

severe dietrich suit

Where Tyrone Power is virile and casual and not matching, Dietrich is staid, severe, put together, cold as ice.  Where he’s your fun uncle with a convertible, she’s your harsh maiden aunt who makes you practice piano instead of play outside.

Her outfit matches her bearing–the bearing she wants us to believe she has, that is–that stereotypical frosty German frau who can’t be trusted as far as you might throw the stick up her butt if you could dislodge it.

Then we get a flashback of how Power and Dietrich met.  The first time I saw this movie, I was probably expecting Dietrich slung over a chair in a top hat and some stockings or perhaps adorned in something feathered and beaded and low cut and supremely bizarre, or maybe just in a sequined tuxedo.  You know, Dietrich stuff.  Nope.  We get this:

happy dietrich

I mean, sure.  That’s pretty Dietrich, I guess.  But it’s all harsh lines, with no room for any femininity.  Her schtick is usually one of those dichotomies where we’ve got hard and soft together, revealing and conservative, sexy and aloof.  This is all hard.  The clothes themselves cover everything, and then she’s got an accordion to help hide herself.  What’s the deal, Dietrich?  No sousaphones available?

Anyway, this is not the usual fantasy cabaret singer thing.  This is a dystopian cabaret singer, hiding her main asset as an entertainer during a war–her body–from her customers.  Really.  Could Dietrich actually succeed as just a singer?  She ain’t no Rosemary Clooney, that’s for sure.  She’s Dietrich.  Where them legs at, girl?

On rewatchings, one must wonder how much of any of the flashbacks is true.  Is this for real what Dietrich was wearing?  Is this seedy little place really where they met?  I digress.  What I mean to talk about here is that Power’s story depends on Dietrich’s being an ice queen.  And even though she’s some sexy war chanteuse on some level in this scene, we still see her filtered through this construction of her as remote, foreign, even mean.

Then the spit hits the fan in the crappy little bar, and Dietrich ends up crawling around on the floor picking up the pieces.

Dietrich crawls through debris, leg exposed

And there’s a more familiar tableau.  The pants have ripped; the hat has been lost.  Now we’ve got the turtleneck and the remnants of the hard-lined pants, but we’ve also got soft, feminine flesh, and sexily disheveled golden locks.  This is the hard/soft masculine/feminine Dietrich we know and love.  And she’s pissed off, to boot!

With this slight change in costume, the audience gets its tacitly promised Dietrich leg action and a little more insight into her character, as well.  We see this is something she endures often, and she jumps at the chance to leave her current situation.

Once she sheds the hat and accordion and a seam in her pants, she’s willing to give it a go with Power.  She’s been using her masculine garments as protection against the masses, but shields have failed, and now she engages the enemy by seducing him for her own purposes.

seducing dietrich with coffee

They go back to her room, and we see the juxtaposition of his pristine uniform and her tattered… everything.  He’s her knight in shining armor, and she’s this ice queen that was melted not because she loved him but because he was there and he was whole and he had coffee and gum (or so the dude’s narrative goes).

Back in the present, we move on to the trial phase where Dietrich’s wearing another severe suit, this time maybe with a satiny collar?  I can’t really tell.  But it’s not that flattering, and it’s certainly very severe and in line with how her character is supposed to be–domineering, ominous, haughty:

severe dietrich suit 2

Oh, and lest we not forget, wig party!!!!  Just so we are reminded that this is all very English, old chap:

so many wigs

And then Power takes the stand, and we’re supposed to think he’s earnest because he’s wearing that same kind of ugly suit he’s been wearing for the whole trial and has tousled hair.

ugly suit, tousled hair

I think the problem with the suit is that the collar of his shirt isn’t starched enough.  Something’s wrong with the lay of that collar.  Perhaps that suggests he doesn’t have a “real woman” caring for him at home because a real woman would take care of that sort of thing.

At home, the doctor and everybody are trying to convince Laughton he’s going on vacation after this trial is over.  And here are some hideous bermuda shorts to prove it:

bermuda shorts!

The look on Laughton’s face says it all.  He’s not that kind of dude.  Not in the least.  Maybe if they were plain khaki.  But probably not then either.  He’s at home in his suits, in his robes.  He works.  That’s what he does.  This fashion moment also serves to lighten the tension.  It’s right between some courtroom drama and some scar-face-cockney-woman drama.

Right after, Laughton goes to talk to the scar-face cockney woman who claims she has info about Dietrich’s dirty deeds.

teef

And everything about this chick is gross.  That fabric she’s wearing–some kind of old lady rain slicker–gives everything kind of a disgusting sheen.  And the blouse beneath is too busy.  And the scarf is too much with it all.  And her nails are outrageous.  And her teeth are a mess.

Of course, we are supposed to distrust her and dislike her but then come to believe her story because we distrust and dislike Dietrich more, especially after we know that Dietrich cut this unfortunate dame after stealing her man.

We’re supposed to say, “Yeah, Gross Lady!  Dietrich sucks!  How are you supposed to find another dude when you’re super gross?  Dietrich must pay for her transgressions!”

The costuming here–kind of a bag lady with a slutty vibe–both distances us from the character and serves as the character’s credibility at the same time.  It’s an ingenious plan.  Bum bum bum!

So then the trial’s all over, and Power’s exonerated, and the Dietrich ruse has been revealed, Dietrich wants to get some lovin’, but Power ain’t havin’ it.

girlfriend's outfit is much cuter

The fact is, his girlfriend has the better outfit.  I mean, that hat is precious, and that dress is flattering, and those pearls are very attractive.  And chica’s got a stole.  Cute.  So cute.

The way she’s dressed is warm, inviting, fashionable, pleasing–the opposite of the persona Dietrich has cultivated in order to sway the trial.

In one of the last scenes, we see the dark Dietrich and the light other lady reacting to Power’s death.  The cut of their clothes is pretty evident in this full-body shot–the boxy suit and the fitted dress.  The masculine Dietrich, the feminine other gal.  The black vs. the not black.  All of that sort of stuff.

stagey tableau

In conclusion, the fashions depicted in this film stand as pretty ordinary apparel because this is not a movie that wants to assault its viewers with glamour.  It wants to assault its viewers with intrigue and cleverness.  And its costumes, which blend into the background and imbue the film with a casual ambiance, fit into the puzzle as skillfully as the clever, crisp dialogue and the beautiful, nuanced acting.

Additionally, the sets and costumes both retain some of their adapted-from-the-stage feel.  While Dietrich wears a couple of suits, they’re basically the same suit.  And we know Lanchester wears the exact same thing every time we see her.  It’s easy to remember what we’re watching, whom we’re watching, without worrying about the next fur coat that might distract us (Perhaps that’s just me.  Whoops).  It’s all rather elegant in its simplicity.

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11 Responses to “Severe Suits and Bermuda Shorts: Fashion in Witness for the Prosecution”

  1. silverscreenings 30 March 2013 at 9:40 PM #

    Fabulous review & analysis of the wardrobes in this film. I really like this film and will look at the clothes more carefully next time I watch it.

    This made me LOL: “The Monocle of Truth! “

  2. Angela 30 March 2013 at 9:54 PM #

    Excellent post! Witness for the Prosecution is one of my all-time favorite movies, but I had never really thought too much about the costuming before. Thanks for offering some new insights to an old favorite!

    And thank you so much for joining my blogathon!

    • TheBestofAlexandra 30 March 2013 at 10:50 PM #

      Thanks for having me! And I also love this movie and am glad to have done it justice in your eyes.

  3. FlickChick 31 March 2013 at 5:40 PM #

    Wow – the first in-depth analysis of Charles Laughton as fashion plate! And those wigs! How right you are.A very well done look at the role costumes play in this film – most enjoyable!

  4. idawson 31 March 2013 at 8:54 PM #

    Nice look at a film that I would not have thought to take a look at the related fashion. I guess we often associate fashion in film with glamour but really whether or not it is “memorable” in a fashion-sense, the fact remains that fashion is vital to any story being told on the silver screen.

    • TheBestofAlexandra 31 March 2013 at 10:20 PM #

      You’re exactly right, and that was exactly what I was going for. Thanks for stopping by!

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  1. Fashion in Film Blogathon: Day 2 | The Hollywood Revue - 30 March 2013

    […] of Marlene Dietrich, The Best of Alexandra examines the costumes of one of my personal favorite movies, Witness For the […]

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