Film & TV

Hitchcock Classics – Vertigo

Have you ever seen Vertigo? The Hitchcock classic about an ex-police detective who experiences and extreme fear of heights and – you guessed it – vertigo. Personally, it is one of my all time favourite Hitchcock movies and up there in my top 20 overall also.

To sum up the plot in the most basic of ways: Scottie (James Stewart), the main character with the fear, is hired by an acquaintance to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) who has been acting strangely with her husband convinced she is possessed. 

To completely ruin it for all who have not seen the movie, Scottie follows Madeleine who appears to attempt suicide by jumping into the San Francisco Bay. He subsequently rescues her. Fake Madeleine is pushed off the top of a church steeple. Scottie believes Madeleine is dead. Later, he meets a woman who looks mysteriously similar to Madeleine but with a different hair colour and completely different dress sense. He forces her to have a complete makeover to imitate the appearance of his dead flame with whom he has developed an obsession over. The makeover then reveals her to be the same woman. Madeleine, real name Judy, explains all to Scottie then through a cruel twist of fate also plunges from the top of the same steeple hence leaving Scottie alone once again.

The movie itself is a little over two hours long but it is worth it. Throughout the movie, we are just as clueless as Scottie right until the end when the true story is revealed. All throughout the viewer gets hints as to what has really happened but up until the final 5 minutes, we are still in the dark. It truly is a compelling story.

However, what interests me the most is not the acting or the sets, nor the director. To me, the stand out feature of the entire movie is costume. The way in which the main female character is conveyed is almost fully through the use of costume. The colours, the fit, even the hair style. They are all key features in the separation between Kim Novak as Madeleine and Kim Novak as Judy.

As Judy, Kim Novak is drab to say the least. She is just a girl from Kansas who by unfortunate circumstances got caught up in this mess. She has mousy brown hair, a less than refined appearance and a dress sense to reflect her personality. She has harsher make up and overdrawn eyebrows. Judy doesn’t even wear a bra; a sharp contrast from Madeleine’s restrictive outfits. Through Judy’s costumes I am not blown away. But then again, we aren’t meant to be.

In contrast with Judy is Madeleine. Through her clothing, the audience see how trapped she was. The tight fit and sharp clean lines symbolise this, not just in her clothing but in the character she had to play. Judy had been hired to impersonate Madeline and her clothing mirrors her sense of confinement. She was not free to do whatever; she had to stick to the routine of what the real Madeleine would have done. The costume which is arguably the most famous is the grey skirt suit. Kim Novak herself criticized the general discomfort of the suit in an interview, calling it “that ghastly gray suit” and saying that “…they had built the suit so that you had to stand very erect or you were suddenly ‘not in position’.” However, without that suit the image that many will think of when they hear of Vertigo would be very different.
3511 novak-and-hitchcock vertigoartmuseum
Another important costume of Madeline’s is the oversized, slouchy white coat, black dress and black chiffon scarf combination. Though I love the grey suit, this is the stand out outfit in the movie for me purely based on the beautiful coat. Even now, 55 years from the movie being made, it would still look up to date and is extremely wearable. The extreme black and white contrast of the colours could be used to indicate the split between Madeleine and Judy. While browsing the internet, I have seen many comparisons between Madeleine’s white coat outfit in Vertigo and the all-white ensemble of Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct. While I have not seen that film, I understand the comparisons. Also, whilst I was browsing the Topshop website spending a gift card I received at Christmas I stumbled across this coat which, although cream not stark white, is rather similar.
novak stone

The costumes were designed by legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head who created costume masterpieces for numerous movies.

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