Like any good confirmed ghost story and horror film addict, I’ve watched Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining so many times throughout my life I’ve lost count. But every single time I return to the Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel, I am overwhelmed by the exact same sensation: a distinct mixture of familiarity and confounding mystery. It’s as if I’m saying to myself “I know I’ve roamed these halls before, but there’s something about this visit that feels new, even different, than the last.” It is both exciting and terrifying.
When I first watched The Shining as a horror-hungry tween, I was taken aback by how much I already knew about the film (here’s Johnny, the elevator bloodbath, REDRUM … the list goes on). When I watched it the second time, as a slightly more mature, but still ravenous teen, I couldn’t believe how much I hadn’t noticed the first go around (“Am I hearing voices wailing over the score, or is that just my imagination?”). When I watched it for the umpteenth time recently (on week whatever of isolation/quarantine/the new reality), I remained in awe of how scary and utterly stylish the film remains 40 years after its release, especially when it comes to its unfairly maligned heroine, Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall, an equally misunderstood icon).
“I remained in awe of how scary and utterly stylish the film remains 40 years after its release, especially when it comes to its unfairly maligned heroine, Wendy Torrance”
Whenever someone starts a conversation about Kubrick’s version of The Shining, they seem to focus on Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, the recovering alcoholic who becomes possessed by the homey, yet haunted Overlook after spending the winter looking after the place alongside his wife (the aforementioned Wendy) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd). In my mind, however, the film is really about Wendy and her truly telling wardrobe (an absolute masterwork by Oscar-winning costume designer Milena Canonero).
Surely the staunchest Shining fans are rolling their eyes right now, suddenly recalling the endless reinterpretations of the beloved text they’ve had to read and/or sit through over the past several decades (see: Room 237, not to mention the King’s sequel Doctor Sleep, recently adapted for the big screen by Mike Flanagan). But I dare you to rewatch the film after reading this and not see it in another new way. And that is that Kubrick’s The Shining is a film that confronts societal fears of femininity and female expression. This is communicated most clearly through the clothes Wendy chooses to wear for herself in comparison to the ones she wears for her slowly, but surely unravelling husband.
When we first meet Wendy, she is at home with her and Jack‘s quiet, yet supernaturally connected son. Donning a bright red blouse layered under a blue plaid sleeveless pinafore, she is colour-coordinated with Danny, as if to say they are a one, or at the very least, a united front against the world. She is also shockingly upbeat, even when speaking with doctor about her son’s strange “episodes” (which he’ll come to know as “shining”) and past abuse at the hands of a drunk Jack.
Some might call Wendy‘s first look, completed with matching red stockings, childish and even an indication of regression in the home. But the outfit itself is actually quite daring and fun, hinting at Wendy‘s creativity and sense of whimsy. She appears to be, as some might say, a cool mom, not to mention a fascinatingly complex woman. After that first impression, it’s hard not to feel disappointed when you see Wendy in her second outfit of the film: a professional, but dull brown blazer and off-white turtleneck. Then you realize she’s matching with Jack, following him and the heads of the Overlook on a hotel tour.
When you take note of Jack‘s unremarkable outfit (beige blazer, green sweater and jeans), it’s painfully clear that Wendy is playing the part of The Good Wife in this scene. She has covered every inch of her body with curated camouflage (more specifically, a midi skirt and boots that meet in the middle), tucking away any wisps of sensuality to impress, but not distract the men in her presence. She dims her personality a bit too, acting quietly agreeable so to appease an oddly delighted (and likely already haunted) Jack. Then, once she’s served her purpose, she’s introduced to the Overlook’s cook, Dick Hallorann (a perfectly cast Scatman Crothers) and told to tour the kitchen (a.k.a. the only “acceptable” place for women and racialized folks).
When Wendy is away from Jack—say, walking around the famous hedge maze, or playing in the snow with Danny—she returns to a more contemporary primary colour palette, including a bold red parka (paired with very blue jeans) and—my personal favourite—an embroidered yellow jacket (accessorized with a coordinated plaid scarf). Knowing she is no longer being watched, Wendy is free to express herself in whatever way she deems fit. Her mood changes to match her sunny wardrobe too, with her either leaning into play (i.e. in scenes with Danny) or fearlessly taking control (calling the police to inquire about the phone lines).
In these moments, we see that Wendy is not just a helpless victim. Rather, she is a survivor of circumstance, a woman who has learned to suppress herself, physically and emotionally, as a means of protection. Just as all work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, the very existence of Jack dulls Wendy‘s shine. While he never says it directly, you get the sense that Jack Torrance has issues with women. Just look at, for example, his reaction to the naked woman he meets in the infamous Room 237. Without much thought, Jack flocks to this stranger, kissing her with a passion he never shows for Wendy once over the course of the film. Then, when he realizes that he’s actually kissing a decaying corpse, a spectre of the hotel’s sordid past, he pulls back in disgust, almost as if he’s been betrayed.
While the previous caretakers family didn’t make it out of the Overlook alive, Wendy Torrance does. And all while wearing what is, arguably, her most iconic (and most modest) ensemble yet: a beige corduroy overall dress with a green plaid shirt, light brown turtleneck and long johns layered underneath. Wendy’s final outfit in The Shining may be underwhelming from a subjective standpoint, more practical than fashionable. However when you look a bit closer, the mismatching look is actually quite a fitting metaphor for Wendy‘s conflicted state of mind during the film’s chilling climax.
As signs keep pointing to her husband having completely lost touch with reality, Wendy becomes unsure of how to behave, and dress, around him. The green top she wears in the finale is a subtle nod to her true, expressive self. The rest of the outfit is purposefully dull in colour and shape, so as to not aggravate Jack. Danny is seen similarly muted tones at this point of the film, likely dressed strategically by his mother following another assumed incident of abuse at the hands of his father (or was it that dastardly naked woman in Room 237?).
Of course, Wendy’s homemade armour isn’t enough to stop her husband from attempting to make his nightmarish visions of murdering her and his son a horrific reality (cue the axe to the door and that infamous line). But it is what is under that sensible and faded blue housecoat when she and Danny finally escape the Overlook.
Aside from the loss of the heroic Dick Hallorann (RIP), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining ends on what I think is a generally happy note. With Jack dead and frozen (in time, perhaps), we can assume that Wendy and Danny find their way to eventual safety and (somewhat) happiness. Doctor Sleep even offers a peek into this new start, showing the duo living together in sunny Florida in the years before her more natural demise (lung cancer).
Wendy and Danny may forever be haunted by the Overlook and their past with Jack. But far away from the snowy landscapes that almost broke them apart for good, they at least get a chance to start fresh. A chance to act, and dress, as boldly and brightly as they please.
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