Edith Head’s designs for Kim Novak in Vertigo are arguably some of the most important costumes in film history. The film revolves around the idea of identity and appearance with Novak playing dual characters. Madeleine and Judy are defined by their sharply differing styles: one sophisticated and urbane, the other earthy and more vibrant.
This demure gray suit is first seen on Madeleine as she enters a flower shop, a stiff, drab figure in a riot of color. The same costume reappears midway through the film when Jimmy Stewart’s character uses it to transform Judy back into Madeline.
Remarkably the costume is little changed from Head’s illustration, which was executed by Grace Sprague. The jacket collar is slightly altered but otherwise, Novak’s Madeleine appears at the flower shop holding the mink almost exactly as rendered in this working drawing.
Compare this outfit to the green sweater and skirt ensemble currently on view in the Academy’s Hollywood Costume exhibition. That rather garish costume is worn by Novak’s Judy, and it is a striking contrast to Madeleine’s wardrobe. The vibrant color draws the viewer’s eye and the soft fabrics emphasize the actress’ figure.
Novak has said over the years that the differences between the characters’ wardrobes helped her immensely as an actress. Wearing Madeleine’s tailored suit affected the way she carried herself and gave the illusion of hard lines while Judy was all about soft curves and tactile fabrics. Good costume design is meant to do just that—inform a character’s development—and Head’s designs wonderfully illustrate the power of costume and their transformative effect in defining identity.
Come see the difference for yourself. Hollywood Costume is on view now through March 2 at the historic May Co. building, soon to be the permanent home of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.