Welcome to Final Girl Fashion, a new column focused on fashion throughout horror movie history! With a specific focus on women and girls’ roles in horror, this column is meant to highlight the work of costume designers and wardrobe departments, while also analyzing the ways in which a killer outfit can seal the fate of a character and a film.
In the acclaimed documentary Grey Gardens (1975), subject Little Edie describes what she’s wearing as “the best costume for today.” This infinitely quotable scene is always on my mind when I rewatch the focus of this month’s Final Girl Fashion: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).
“A huge box office hit upon its release […] But it only earned one Oscar during the 1963 awards season: Best Costume Design, Black-and-White.”
Little Edie wasn’t in the Robert Aldrich horror flick (although I’m sure the aspiring actress wished she was). But, much like the fashion-forward Little Edie, the women of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? are forced to put on a “costume” in order to be given the attention they deserve from their respective audiences. Both films address how we view (really, judge) women and the ways they choose to visually present themselves as they age.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is one of the foremost (not to mention first) examples of hagsploitation, an oft-problematic subgenre meant to capitalize on society’s fear of Women of a Certain Age. The film, based on a novel of the same name, famously pit rumoured rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (aged 54 and 56, respectively) against one another as sisters and actresses (Baby) Jane Hudson and Blanche Hudson. The inciting incident of the film is the car accident that leaves Crawford’s sweet-natured Blanche, the more successful of the siblings, paralyzed from the waist down and left to the mercy of Davis’s devilish and jealous Jane (who may or may not have been driving that night).
A huge box office hit upon its release, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? remains a camp classic to this day, even inspiring a season of FX’s Feud starring Susan Sarandon (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Jessica Lange (American Horror Story). But it only earned one Oscar during the 1963 awards season: Best Costume Design, Black-and-White. And the fact is, the film would truly not be as successful without Norma Koch’s thoughtful costume work, which is both subtle and surprising in its statements about its characters and women in general.
Blanche and Jane‘s “costumes for the day” are in direct contrast, representing opposing sides of a sexist spectrum. The film’s prospective Final Girl, Blanche, is everything patriarchal society wants a woman over 50 to be, her body covered up by unoffensive styles that could be deemed “appropriate for her age”. Meanwhile, the brash and villainous Jane wears whatever she wants and as a result, is seen as unhinged (to be fair, she definitely is).
“…Norma Koch’s thoughtful costume work [is] both subtle and surprising in its statements about its characters and women in general.”
A former child star who was never able to find success post-puberty, Jane desperately craves attention of any kind. She has a bold personality and a sartorial sense to match. In a twist on early cinema’s image of villainy (a man in a black hat twirling a big mustache), she is always seen in bright colours. And, thanks to a brilliant idea by a very game Davis, she dons very dramatic, caked-on face makeup, embellished by a drawn-on beauty mark and big red lips (which come across positively gothic in black and white).
Even when Jane is seen in a simple day dress, Koch makes sure to add a garish detail (a big broach, a furry coat) that suggests she is really just a little girl lost play-pretending as an adult woman. And sometimes, Jane does just that, prancing around in a replica of the outfit she was known for in her Baby Jane days: a cutesy white dress with a blue sash around the waist.
When she is in full Baby Jane mode, complete with the aforementioned stage makeup and highly styled hair, Davis is truly chilling. The younger Baby Jane may have been cute and sweet, but the adult version is an icon of excess. A walking, talking, singing parody of stereotypical “femininity”, she is styled to be looked (and let’s face it, laughed) at.
While Baby Jane is permitted to play dress-up, Blanche is almost always seen in high-necked, long-sleeved dresses in dark, drab tones more suitable to a masked murderer than a potential survivor. These outfits were a definite departure for Crawford, an actress who was seen as sultry in her earlier years. However, they truly work for the character, giving us a clear picture of Jane‘s view of her sister and her fate.
“…Davis is truly chilling. The younger Baby Jane may have been cute and sweet, but the adult version is an icon of excess.”
Blanche, in a wheelchair following her accident, is confined to the top level of her purposefully inaccessible home by Jane. Cut off from the world, Blanche has to accept the options presented to her, from food to fashion. And of course, Jane, clouded by both jealousy and internalized misogyny, decides that her sister needs to literally be in physical opposition to her at all times, the dark shadow clouding her bright light. She turns Blanche, quite literally, into a villain of her own design.
Jane maintains this warped image all the way through the film’s finale in which she drags an emaciated, blanket-wrapped Blanche to the beach in an attempt to evade the police. Near death, Blanche attempts to save herself by telling Jane the truth about the accident (she was driving that night, not Jane). But after spending so much time in Baby Jane mode, Jane has become her signature character. Completely out of touch with reality, Jane reverts back to the more innocent (or is it ignorant?) version of herself, talking about how the two could “have been friends” before skipping off to get ice cream.
What Ever Happens to Baby Jane? ends with a delusional Baby Jane dancing around the beach in front of a crowd of on-lookers while a dying Blanche lies alone in the sand. In their costumes for the day (selected by Jane), they remain on the opposing ends of the spectrum, representing the two options for aging women in a patriarchal society: be bold and be gawked at, or be quiet and ignored.
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