Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Sartorial Mystery

A good costume is worth five pages of dialogue in film. It can give you the key to a character's personality, to the mood of the scene, or to a shift in the plot. It can inform the actors' own performances, like Kim Novak's stiff, binding gray suit from Vertigo or Louise Brooks' ruined blouse and skirt in Pandora's Box. With that in mind, I'd love to know the meaning behind these two hats:

So, above we have Katharine Hepburn in 1940's The Philadelphia Story and below, we have Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's The Lady Eve. In both scenes, we have a leading lady in a daytime scene where she is supposed to be charming and confident. And yet each time I see these films, I am always thrown out of the moment by those (to my eyes) silly-looking hats. Adrian designed for Philadelphia and Edith Head was behind Eve so at least two geniuses of fashion were throwing their weight behind the idea that a woman could look enticing in the Wee Willie Winkie hat. Was it just a brief fashion trend of the early 1940s, here and gone? And yet it's only in these two classic films that I see it. At any rate, I'm keeping an eye out for any more of those hats. 

The Philadelphia Story picture is credited to Style Matters; Alison's  got a nice fashion post on Katharine Hepburn.


  1. Are they meant to be "modern" updates of the bonnet? Either way, you're right--they aren't all that flattering at all!

  2. Not being a fashion expert myself, I really have no idea if they were updating anything. If those hats were showing up in the screwball comedy scenes, it would make sense to me, but in fact, both scenes are at least somewhat serious.

  3. I'll just address Adrian's hat for the moment. Since his parents were milliners, he knew how to design hats and make the most of them. Nothing was done by accident in his designs. In this scene with Jimmy Stewart, it's the equivalent of Hepburn, as Tracy Lord, "letting her hair down." And Adrian loved polarities and opposites. The "goddess"" Tracy Lord wearing this kind of hat is just such a contrast.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Christian. I was hoping you would weigh in. Your take on Hepburn's hat makes a lot of sense to me and I think you can definitely see Adrian's sense of purpose in his designs for Hepburn in this movie. The dress she's wearing when she's trying to put one over on Mike and Liz that seems both flattering and silly. And speaking of hats, there's her hat in the final wedding scene. To me, her costumes in this movie kind of alternate between showing her "goddess" side, her soft side, and her silly side. Hepburn never looked lovelier.

    I am curious though about why these hats seem to pop up around the same time in two different movies and yet, I can't recall seeing them in any other movie of the period.

  5. Rachel, as the daughter of a sweet, stylish woman who was always recognized by her wonderful hats and the way she rocked them, I enjoyed your post about those "Wee Willie Winkie" hats! It's always fun to see how womens' styles evolve over time. Can I correctly assume you've seen the film version of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, with its classic musical number sending up headgear, "Anatole of Paris"? If you haven't, do check it out sometime!

  6. Thanks for commenting, Dorian. I'm endlessly fascinated by hats, especially considering I'm of the type that never looks particularly good in them. Yeah, I actually posted one of the lyrics from "Anatole" in my Ten Hat Quips post.

    And it looks like you're my 20th follower, which makes me very, very happy.