What’s in a hat?

There’s never been a more troublesome bonnet. D.W. Griffith’s The New York Hat (1912) is a version of the Cinderella story, scripted by Anita Loos and Frances Marion. Mary Pickford plays Mollie, who leads a cheerless life thanks to her miserly father. When her mother dies she leaves money in trust for Mollie with the Minister, played by Lionel Barrymore. Mollie falls in love with an exotic hat from New York she sees in the milliner’s window, and the Minister, remembering her mother’s dying wish, buys it for her. This innocent act sets off the gossips, and a mighty scandal ensues. The Minister eventually produces a letter from Mollie’s mother explaining all, order is restored, and the Minister proposes to Mollie.

Mary Pickford’s acting in the film is a masterclass in the intimate performance style developed by Griffith at Biograph. She conveys a wide range of emotions from joy and wonder to ecstasy, despair and distress through small gestures and subtle body language as well as facial expressions. Her ‘bits of business’ with hat, gloves and kerchief are brilliantly executed. Her acting style is a modified version of the histrionic techniques favoured by silent screen actors in the period, who used conventionalised broad gestures and frozen poses to express heightened emotion. Pickford moves about in a more naturalistic manner that departs from tableau shots to create the impression of ‘real’ space. The film displays the match cutting and parallel editing that became standard in classic cinema.

The hat is a wondrous concoction, hot from the sophisticated city. In Mollie’s small town with its malicious gossips, it stirs up salacious rumours about the young girl and the Minister. Although these are resolved, the underlying theme is quite racy. The meeting of city style and small town mores creates a disastrous situation that devastates Mollie and results in the destruction of the hat by her father. (In 1927, F.W. Murnau would make Sunrise A Song of Two Humans with a similar town/country theme — though without the hat.) There’s a moral, of course, warning against the dangers of city decadence and excessive consumerism. The New York hat is pivotal: Griffith et al. use it as a narrative device, and as a means of demonstrating acting technique, highlighting the significance of screen costume in telling stories, evoking character, and producing spectacular visual display.

The video essay takes found footage from the film, cropped and re-edited with added music, visual and sound effects, to analyse the fine details of Pickford’s emotional performance. Along the way, some playful touches feature the hat itself as a central character.

© Pam Cook

More …

Roberta E. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991

BFI Southbank was abuzz on 10 April for the BEV festival screening of Why Change Your Wife?, featuring a superb live score created and performed on stage by the Niki King Jazz Quintet. The film, shown in sparkling digital transfer, is a witty marital comedy starring Gloria Swanson as newly married Beth, who is determined to improve her husband Robert’s mind. He (Thomas Meighan) would rather pursue other pleasures with her — such as dancing the foxtrot.

Gloria Swanson as Beth
Gloria Swanson as Beth

Beth doesn’t care about style. She dresses down and wears reading glasses. She introduces Robert to serious music — a performance by virtuoso Russian violinist Radinioff (Russian ballet dancer Theodore Kosloff), who turns out to be something of a Lothario.

Why Change Your Wife - Cecil B. DeMille - 1920

To spice up their love life, Robert goes shopping to buy clothes he hopes will change his wife into the vamp he would prefer her to be. In the Maison Chic he is surrounded by women draped in exotic orientalised gowns and shoes and accessories that leave him bewildered and excited.

Thomas Meighan as Robert
Thomas Meighan as Robert

At the gown emporium he meets model Sally Clark (Bebe Daniels), who sets her sights on him even though she finds out that he’s married. Sally is aware of her charms and has no compunctions about using them to snare her quarry.



Sally wears her heart on her shoulder
Sally wears her heart on her shoulder

Robert resists her advances and ends up buying a revealing negligee for Beth, but she is horrified and refuses to wear it without underclothes. Sally visits Robert at his office on the pretext of returning something he left at the shop. Just at this moment, Beth turns down her husband’s invitation to a show because she wants to attend a more highbrow event, and Sally and Robert go to the show together. At her apartment later, as Beth waits for Robert at home, Sally tries to seduce him and they dance the foxtrot. Beth is upset when Robert gets home late and they quarrel. The rift gets worse and Robert decides to divorce Beth and marry Sally. Stung by gossip that her lack of clothes sense drove her husband away, Beth decides to acquire a new wardrobe.

Beth fascinates Robert with her new bathing suit
Beth fascinates Robert with her new bathing suit

Her makeover is dramatic. On holiday at a luxury spa with her Aunt Kate (Sylvia Ashton) she shows off her new bathing attire, complete with  bejewelled sandals and daring leg bracelet worn below the knee. Her revamp is a magnet for the male guests, including ex-husband Robert, who is at the spa with new wife Sally. When Robert is clearly attracted to Beth, Sally flirts with Radinioff, who is also at the spa (wearing a revealing bathing suit himself) and has pursued Beth. Beth and Robert independently decide to leave, ending up on the same train. Back in the city, when Robert slips on a banana skin and is knocked out, Beth arranges for him to be taken to her place to recover. He cannot be moved for 24 hours, so Beth telephones Sally to let her know. A jealous Sally insists on taking him back home, at which point the film appears to tip over into revenge melodrama. Beth threatens Sally with a vial of acid, whereupon Sally attacks Beth, breaking a mirror, and throws the acid in her face.

Beth is attacked by Sally
Beth is attacked by Sally

In a brilliant comic reversal, the acid turns out to be eye wash (Beth was bluffing). But the brief foray into violence and melodrama is telling: there’s a moral there somewhere about the consequences of investing too much in appearance. Sally leaves and Robert is reconciled with Beth. They remarry and in their new home Beth wears her glamorous bohemian wardrobe and dances the foxtrot with Robert. Why change your wife when she can change so you don’t have to?

Why Change Your Wife?  is a delight. A Gloria Swanson vehicle, it plays with the star’s reputation as leader of style and fashion. Clearly aimed at the female audiences who were so significant in the 1920s, it not only puts costume design on display but also at the heart of the narrative. The numerous close-ups of fashionable items of clothing eroticise shoes and accessories to create fetish objects that capture the eye and the heart and awaken libidinous desire.



beth shoes

This highlights the tie-ins that operated between film and fashion in the teens and twenties — department stores were often involved in promoting movies, frequently hosting fashion shows. The costumes are a tour de force, designed by Clare West and Natacha Rambova, who was probably responsible for the exotic extravagance of the fashionable gowns. Rambova, a protégée of Theodore Kosloff, was known for her bohemian elegance. She worked on other Cecil B. DeMille productions and went on to become a leading costume and set designer, working with Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino on prestigious art productions. Costume adds so much to the film — sometimes the designs are so over the top they are comic in themselves, satirising women’s attachment to fashion and cinema’s exploitation of it. 

Screen shot 2010-05-26 at 9.28.07 PM

The costumes also send up the vogue for orientalism and the female types in circulation at the time. In spite of her transformation into a vamp, Beth is unable to behave like one and remains a good wife — albeit one who is capable of using deceit to get her way. At the end, a compromise is reached and Beth emerges as a domesticated version of the vamp. The somewhat unstable resolution reminds all wives they should remember to be sweethearts sometimes — but not before a lot of fun at the expense of marriage is had on the way. 

A very enjoyable experience — thank you BEV 2014 and the Niki King Jazz Quintet!



© Pam Cook

My review of the 2010 Fashion in Film festival programme waxed lyrical about Nino Oxilia’s delirious melodrama Rapsodia satanica, for which Spanish-born fashion designer Mariano Fortuny created diva Lyda Borelli’s extraordinary costumes. The entire film was influenced by Fortuny’s style – here’s your chance to see how. Sublime!


The Last Bohemian Dream


The Circus (1928)

In his fascinating book Acting in the Cinema James Naremore analyses the first film in which Charlie Chaplin appeared as the Tramp character that became his trademark, Kid’s Auto Race (1914). Kid’s Auto Race, also known as Kid Auto Races at Venice, is a six-minute Keystone comedy produced by the legendary Mack Sennett, for whom Chaplin went on to perform the Tramp in many more silent films. Naremore focuses on the details of Chaplin’s pantomime, mentioning in passing the contribution of his costume in singling him out from the rest of the crowd at the scene, which stages the filming of an auto race in which the Tramp causes chaos by getting in the way of the camera. For Naremore, this film establishes Chaplin as a celebrity by contrasting his theatricalised acting with the more naturalistic performance and dress of the ‘real’ spectators.

This inspired me to look more closely at the role of costume in building the Tramp’s identity and distinguishing the character as a star. Although this was the Tramp’s first appearance, Chaplin’s distinctive comic performance style was evident in the Keystone comedy Making a Living (1914), in which he played a swindler. The tramp costume was devised for Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914), made just before but released after Kid Auto Races

Kid Auto Races (1914)

In silent cinema the actors often wore their own clothing. According to Chaplin’s autobiography he created the Tramp’s outfit from deliberately contradictory elements: baggy pants, tight jacket, oversized shoes and small derby hat provided by fellow actors and whangee cane owned by himself. Accessories such as the high-collar shirt, check waistcoat and tie are not accounted for, but Chaplin claims to have added a moustache to make himself appear older. In this first manifestation, the Tramp is scruffier and less affecting than he became later. The cigarette adds to his louche appearance and the cane is a parody of gentleman’s attire. Chaplin gives a professional clown’s performance in the tradition of the North American Tramp/Hobo; his costume is based on a collage of mismatched pieces that appear to have been randomly collected from discarded clothing. This contrasts with the dress of the other participants, which is tidy, appropriate and in tune with the setting, indicating their authenticity. While the dissonant parts of the Tramp’s outfit do not cohere into a sartorial whole, their recombination indicates the character’s aspirations to be a dandy.

The Tramp’s clothes draw attention to the social significance of dress as well as to his affectation, which Chaplin developed as a feature of his performance. The collage effect, deriving from popular forms such as the circus and street theatre, resonates with the aesthetic strategies of the Surrealists and others. The pastiche of styles portrays the character as a fabrication, a social type rather than a rounded individual. While the rudiments of psychological motivation are there in the costume’s ridicule of the Tramp’s desire to belong to a higher class, the emphasis on disguise focuses the viewer’s attention on Chaplin’s self-presentation as star performer. He hogs the camera, disrupting the filming of the races by interposing himself in various poses between the film-makers and the event. The Tramp and his costume become the spectacle.

Kid Auto Races (1914)

This is troublesome in several ways. In terms of class, the combination of vagrant and dandy in the Tramp’s costume lampoons the respectable appearance of the rest of the crowd. He overturns the logic of time by sporting clothes from different periods. In the story, the disorderly Tramp erupts into an orderly everyday occasion populated by ordinary middle-class folk on a day out; he is a social menace. He breaks the rules of documentary film-making by giving a theatrical comic turn in stylised gear and make-up that reveals the mechanisms of the staged set-up and drives the director to distraction. The anarchic nature of his garments is reflected in the apparent unpredictability of his actions. Genius. No wonder film-makers such as Sergei Eisenstein celebrated the Tramp’s revolutionary potential. 

© Pam Cook

Diabolical visions


Cobra Woman 1944

The Fashion in Film festival is one of the arms of an exhibition, research and education project based at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts London. This year’s festival runs between 1-12 December 2010 at Tate Modern, BFI Southbank, The Horse Hospital and Barbican. The brochure bills the event as ‘a major extravaganza in costume spectacle, dance and diabolical glamour’, promising ‘an intoxicating exploration … throughout European and American cinema’, with screenings of rare and unseen films, special commissions and related installations. Among the cornucopia of delights on offer are Robert Siodmak’s 1944 Maria Montez vehicle Cobra Woman, early colour-tinted films such as Pathé Frères La Peine du talion (1906) and Métempsycose (1907) (both part of the Tate Modern’s fabulous ‘Underground Opulence’ strand) and Germaine Dulac’s rarely screened La Princesse Mandane (1928). There’s also a panel discussion on ‘The gossamer wings of early cinema’ at the BFI Southbank on 9 December, and many screenings are introduced by experts. The programme is bursting with spectacle and exoticism, celebrating the importance of fashion and costume to early and underground cinema. Key themes are orientalism, fashion’s devilish appeal, fantasy and the recurrence of butterfly imagery.

Le Spectre rouge 1907

My review focuses on the ‘Dreams of Darkness and Colour’ screenings at the Barbican on Saturday 4 December 2010, which featured a programme of early colour-tinted shorts at 4 pm followed by La Princesse Mandane at 6 pm. The 4 pm show was well-attended and the audience was agog with anticipation — though some spirits were a little dampened by the 15-minute delay in starting, for which no explanation was given. All was forgiven once things kicked off with Anna Battista’s introduction to Nino Oxilia’s sumptuous melodrama Rapsodia satanica (1915/17). Anna’s stylish, eccentric outfit and her quirky approach were an appropriate accompaniment to Oxilia’s film and the early colour shorts: Le Spectre rouge (1907), La Danse du feu (1899), La creación de la serpentina (1909) and Le Farfalle (1907), which were shown in digital transfer. These ebullient trick films featured magicians conjuring up extraordinary visions of women dancers performing serpentine routines using their costumes to dazzle and seduce. The colour effects were dramatic, fragile and elusive by turn, while the robust live piano accompaniment by Lillian Henley added to the diabolical ambience.

Rapsodia satanica 1915/17

The shorts were suitable curtain-raisers to the sensuous main attraction, Rapsodia satanica, shown in a restored print from the Netherlands Filmmuseum that had English-language inter-titles. Featuring a diva performance by Lyda Borelli as Alba d’Oltrevita, who sells her soul to the devil in order to retrieve her lost youth, and the distinctive costumes of Spanish fashion designer Mariano Fortuny, this film is partly colour-tinted with some stencil printing. Combined with a stunning use of light on fabric, facilitated by highly melodramatic, histrionic acting and body movement, the colour helps to create an enclosed world of passion, seduction and intrigue that leads to a tragic outcome. The film’s play with costume is epitomised by Alba’s manipulation of veils that produce a ghostly effect, and the use of mirrors to fragment ‘real’ space. Both these strategies, influenced by Fortuny, contribute to the fantastical atmosphere. Rapsodia satanica is without doubt one of the festival’s must-sees.

Rapsodia satanica

Another is Germaine Dulac’s La Princesse Mandane, screened in a lovely 35 mm print with English translation of the French inter-titles streamed live. This is a witty, inventive feature that foregrounds fantasy (much of it is taken up by the hero’s dream) and the exoticism of sets and costume. Stephen Horne provided an equally inventive live musical accompaniment, perfectly attuned to the film, that was hugely appreciated by the audience. The focus on fantasy allowed Dulac to employ avant-garde techniques to great effect in a feature-film format. Creating a hybrid, imaginary world mixing orientalism with other styles, she comments on the deceptive nature of costume and glamour, making the naive hero the butt of her wicked humour. This screening was pure delight, and gave a taste of the festival’s overall approach.

La Princesse Mandane 1928

The Fashion in Film festival sets out to attract a wide audience and is not an academic event. Even so, it could have provided a little more context, in terms of film history, the relationship between fashion and film and the significance of spectacular costumes for early and silent cinema. For me, the Barbican screenings were both a revelation and left many questions unanswered. So, an afternoon and early evening very well spent, which left me yearning for more.

Fashion Film Festival

© Pam Cook