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Fashion Meets Film: Noir and the Femme Fatale


Classic Noir at its best-- Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity

Classic Noir at its best-- Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity

There is no cinematic image more classically fashionable than the femme fatale. A long standing tradition that has been morphed and changed over the years, there is still something dark and alluring about the way  a woman is presented on the screen, at least when that woman is a femme fatale. What does femme fatale mean anyways? We hear the term all the time– in everything from songs to lipstick shades– but where did it come from? Who is a femme fatale? What does she represent? What does she look like?

The traditional "bad girl" femme fatale was sexed up in ballgowns, and sleek in suits with seamed stockings.

The traditional "bad girl" femme fatale was sexed up in ballgowns, and sleek in suits with seamed stockings. These ladies showed us how it's done in 1942's The Shanghai Gesture.

We can thank the much celebrated genre of Film Noir for the term, and for developing a certain image of femininity, and womanhood’s intersection with fashion, on the big screen. Traditionally defined as a film genre that stretched from the early 1940s to the late 1950s, Noir is used to describe the stylistic crime dramas of the period that often explored themes of moral indecision and repressed sexual impulsion. Noir plots are easily identified because most revolve around a hard boiled detective with a questionable moral compass who must solve a crime driven by jealousy, passion, alienation or false suspicions. The detective, though a series of flashbacks and interactions with unsavory characters and plenty of femme fatales, must conquer their moral complexities and  Noir films are most celebrated for their beautiful black-and-white cinematography. Lighting is always low key, ensuring that dramatic juxtapositions between dark and light become the film’s key, shadowy visual component (even in Noirs that are in full color, lighting often emphasizes the play between dark and light in a scene). Wide lenses, low angles, and editing devices such as wipes/washes were huge technical components to the style. Also interesting is the use of mirrors and reflections; characters are frequently reflected in mirrors, or through windows/glasses. This unique genre-specific choice is a great example of how noir uses visual elements to emphasize human themes–characters deep in internal conflict and strife often need to, quite literally, face their own reflection to get a wake-up call. This scene below, the opening scene from the noir classic Double Indemnity, gives us a good idea of what traditional noir looked like on the screen.

Because an important part of telling a deeper story in Noir films is the visual, fashion played a major part in the movies, ya seeeeees (that was my attempt to sound like a wise-cracking detective, probably didn’t go over too well…) ?!

Vertigo's Kim Novak is the epitome of femme fatale, a cuvry suited woman with red lips who leads Jimmy Stewart's detective astray.

Vertigo's Kim Novak is the epitome of femme fatale, a cuvry suited woman with red lips who leads Jimmy Stewart's detective astray.

In particular, the ensembles so typical of a Femme Fatal spoke volumes about the kind of woman she was. A seductress, a temptress, and the possessor of womanly wiles so extraordinary that they could manipulate even the most cunning of detectives, the femme fatale was fashionable yet under wraps. Wearing nothing overtly sexy or revealing, she accentuated her eroticism in the details. Off the shoulder necklines, lacey ruffle details, and suits tailored to perfection were all designed to highlight the femme fatale’s voluptuous figure. Stockings with seamed backs were the ultimate finishing touch providing just a peak of naughty sexual suggestion. Check out this short scene from the 1958 Hitchcock classic Vertigo, in which Kim Novak’s character Judy Barton tries on a pair of heels for a peek of her seamed stockings. Va va voom!

"Play it again Sam!"

"Play it again Sam!"

The femme fatale’s makeup and accessories were always the pinnacle of perfection, whether she was playing the good girl in disguise or going for all-out sexy. A great example is Ingrid Bergman in the most famous noir/lovestory, Casablanca. Playing a good girl with an unsavory past involvement, Bergman’s character Ilsa’s makeup is cleanly done but emphasizes her eyes and lips. Her accessories, including fedoras, dazzling broaches, and tailored trenches, all point to how poised she is, despite the fact that a layer of mysterious depth lies beneath.

Femme Fatales Gone Wild! The Shanghai Gesture

Femme Fatales Gone Wild! The Shanghai Gesture

Much has been written about the femme fatale on the screen, including feminist theorists who find it to be a distasteful representation of women. While I can’t necessarily argue with that, it’s obvious that film noir has had a tremendous impact on fashion. Everyone from Versace to Marc Jacbos and Zac Posen have shown lines with tangible ties to the fashions found in film noir. With red lips and seamed stockings making a comeback for this fall, noir’s hold on the fashion community doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon!

Want to learn more about Noir? If you’re based in SF, make sure to hit up the Roxie Theater! From September 17th to September 30th, the legacy theater will host limited showings of 22 Noir gems as part of their “I Wake Up Dreaming” film festival, including rare favorites from genius directors like Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray. Trust us, this one can’t be missed! And make sure to wear your seamed stockings to your screening!


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One Response to “Fashion Meets Film: Noir and the Femme Fatale”

  1. thinMovie says:

    Thanks I had a a great read

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