How Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca Used Fashion to Display the Unseeable

Judith Anderson shows Joan Fontaine a fur coat in Rebecca
Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, 20th Century Fox.

It’s been eighty years since Daphne Du Maurier published her novel Rebecca, bringing the gothic genre back into vogue and inspiring Hitchcock’s film version in 1940. It’s been almost thirty years since I first encountered both the novel and the movie. I was the kind of teenager who loved both the brooding intensity of the Brontë sisters and old movies that were somehow simultaneously overwrought and restrained (i.e. anything starring Laurence Olivier). Rebecca delivered all of this. I was especially fascinated by the idea of a story seen through the eyes of a woman with no name, about a woman she can’t see: the elusive Rebecca De Winter.

Rewatching as an adult, it struck me that a film version of this story — about a woman who invisibly dominates every scene — should be impossible. I suspect Alfred Hitchcock would have agreed. The opening credits call the film a “picturization” of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, a designation Hitchcock didn’t normally use (1945’s Spellbound, for example, is just called an adaptation). In order to “picturize” what we can’t see, Hitchcock turned to fashion. But the film uses fashion in a surprising way: not to reveal Rebecca, but to keep her at a further distance. The most famous feminist critiques of the film use it to demonstrate the impossibility of female spectatorship and women’s inevitable self-objectification. In my view this is incomplete. Rebecca’s refusal to be seen secures her place as the real star of the film, revealing a strategy women have used for centuries to maintain some autonomy over their stories.

Screenshot from the opening credits of Rebecca, 20th Century Fox

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In the tradition of so many gothic romances, Rebecca begins with a pretty ingénue (an unnamed heroine played by Joan Fontaine) marrying a dashing, older man (Laurence Olivier as Maxim De Winter) and returning to his intimidating estate. There he promptly leaves her in the care of his creepy staff because he has business and personal demons to attend to. In this case, the young heroine is also haunted by the legacy of her husband’s much more glamorous, beautiful, chic, worldly first wife, Rebecca — who died under suspicious circumstances. Embroidered and embossed R’s show up in every nook, visitors won’t stop talking about her charm, and the housekeeper, in particular, takes every opportunity to describe how perfect the original Mrs. De Winter had been.

Eventually (because gothic husbands aren’t very good at using their words) Fontaine becomes certain that she isn’t measuring up and tries to be more Rebecca-like. She sees what she considers an elegant black dress in a fashion magazine and in the next scene she appears in the same gown. Maxim hates it. He ignores her and instead plays home movies from their honeymoon, clearly — as the classic feminist critique would put it —  preferring the heroine as she is fixed by her screen image to the woman sitting next to him. Maxim longs for an irretrievable past in which the woman didn’t care about fashion or appearing fashionable, and by the end of the evening the stability of their marriage is in question.

Joan Fontaine and the failed black dress. Still from Rebecca, 20th Century Fox.

It’s only after this that the unnamed heroine decides to try and gain firsthand knowledge of Rebecca by going to investigate her boudoir. Almost the moment Fontaine enters, the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (the wonderful Judith Anderson) appears, declaring that she’s been waiting to show off Rebecca’s things.

In this scene, Joan Fontaine’s character is wearing a prim white blouse, buttoned to the neck, a wool, knee-length skirt, and sensible shoes. Despite her updated hairdo (another attempt to be the kind of wife she imagines Maxim wants), she still looks more like a schoolgirl than a socialite. Mrs. Danvers’ clothing stands in striking contrast. Her dress is stark black, high-necked and floor-length. The “old” housekeeper is not just unfashionable, her clothes are anachronistic and socially illegible.

But the costumes actually worn and visible in this scene are not the ones that dominate it. Mrs. Danvers assumes (rightly we must suppose, given Fontaine’s reaction) that what the woman really wants to see are Rebecca’s clothes. A subjective tracking shot (the implied POV is Rebecca’s — a choice paralleled by the scene in which Maxim narrates his last confrontation with the first Mrs. De Winter) follows Danvers as she narrates a typical evening in Rebecca’s boudoir, and opens a large closet. The expectation is that we will be shown an array of gowns similar to the black dress worn earlier by the heroine.

Instead, Mrs. Danvers first shows her a thick fur coat and then moves along to Rebecca’s undergarments, finally holding up a sheer black negligee and marveling that she can see her hand through it. In this scene, during which we expect finally to get some physical sense of Rebecca through her clothing, we get instead glimpses of her outermost and innermost garments; glimpses that, despite the sheerness of the silk, are remarkably unrevealing.

In terms of overall narrative and as a means of externalizing the psychology of the characters, the costume in this scene serves several functions. Hitchcock has already established a world in which surfaces, especially in dress, reveal a great deal about a character’s internal world. In the world of Rebecca, a girl in a tweed skirt and sensible shoes, who looks awkward and gawky in a silk evening gown, really is an ingénue. And a dour woman in austere, Victorian-era black really is a dangerously obsessive man-hating spinster.

In this, Hitchcock is much more straightforward than the gothic tradition he draws from, in which the most visible aspects of a character – especially a female character – are often misleading. But this device serves a double purpose in the scene. First, what we see only makes us more aware of what we don’t have access to. On the other hand, while the fur coat and lingerie further obscure our image of Rebecca, they serve to reveal for the first time what is lurking beneath Mrs. Danvers’ black exterior. What we see through the nightgown is not a trace of Rebecca, but Mrs. Danvers’ hand. Put bluntly, it probably isn’t the ghost of Rebecca who is currently making life miserable for “the second Mrs. De Winter.”

“You can see my hand through it.” Still from Rebecca, 20th Century Fox.

Throughout the film, the physical traces of Rebecca — her “will” in the sense of both what she left behind after death and her ability to exert influence — work primarily to render others legible while she herself remains a mystery. Her clothing is the most potent example of this. Though we get constant references to her beauty and style, we get no direct view of it. The black silk gown shows us a working-class child’s approximation, drawn from a fashion magazine, of what a sophisticated woman like Rebecca might have been. While the fur coat and negligee show the highly subjective perception of an unstable devotee. The only item of Rebecca’s clothing that we come close to seeing is the dress Mrs. Danvers’ tricks the heroine into wearing: a replicated costume for a masquerade ball.

The failed masquerade gown. Still from Rebecca, 20th Century Fox

Re-envisioning Feminist Critiques of Rebecca

I’m not the first to note how important fashion is in Rebecca. One of the most famous analyses of the movie, Mary Ann Doane’s “Caught and Rebecca: The Inscription of Femininity as Absence,” includes an examination of the role of a particular costume. For Doane, when the nameless protagonist appears in the fashionable black satin dress on the evening that her husband projects home movies of their honeymoon, she illustrates the impossibility of female spectatorship.

As she argues, here the female subject inevitably collapses into object. The character moves from a desiring gaze — looking at an image of the dress in the fashion magazine —  to acquisition, but she never really possesses what she wants. Doane writes that, for the female (as represented by Joan Fontaine) “to possess an image through the gaze is to become it” (75). In other words, Fontaine’s character can only either become the thing she desires, or the version of herself desired/gazed at by her husband, Maxim, thus relinquishing her role as active spectator. All this Doane reads onto the performance of putting on a black silk dress while watching home movies.

As the title of Doane’s essay suggests, her argument is interested in how cinema “inscribes femininity as absence.” It interprets Rebecca as a prime example of the loss that comes from over-identifying with images of femininity. The trouble with this analysis is that, while ostensibly concerned with the “cinematic apparatus” (the way cinema as whole functions as an ideological institution) it focuses so closely on particular scenes that it fails to see the forest for the trees. The only possibilities it offers are subject or object, visibility or erasure. But Rebecca also offers a glimpse of how invisibility works (at least for a little while) as a strategy for subject formation.

Stepping back a bit, we can see how Doane’s argument is incomplete. Yes, at first what Joan Fontaine’s character wants most is to identify with Rebecca. She fails because she has no access to her mode of appearing, except in the mediated form of the fashion magazine. But when the dress doesn’t work, her desire shifts. She no longer wants to “be” Rebecca, she wants to know her, to possess knowledge of her. And the knowledge ultimately comes, not via visual proof, but narration: other people telling stories.  

To me, this speaks to an even more compelling invisible presence in the film, one that is conspicuously absent from Doane’s analysis, but of whom Hitchcock himself seemed keenly aware. In this film, as I suggested in the introduction, Hitchcock grapples with the question of how to tell a story about the unknowable, the unseeable, within the confines of a visual medium. Perhaps he does this so successfully because he was aware of a third female “voice” or ghost that haunts the narrative and from whom not even Hitchcock can fully wrest control in his “picturization.”

I refer, of course, to writer Daphne Du Maurier. And Du Maurier is in turn writing a novel that self-consciously and lovingly draws from a long tradition of female authors, most notably Charlotte Brontë, who used the structurally patriarchal form of the novel in ways that allowed her be simultaneously legible and invisible in a culture that has historically tied femininity to corporality; to exist psychologically and economically without making a spectacle of herself. It is possible that if Rebecca is a “double absence,” she is also, as a marker for Du Maurier, or the novel — the guiding force of the narrative — literally, a double presence.

Fashion, novels, and “women’s films” all share a history of being dismissed because of their associations with excessive femininity. In various ways, they all exist in a liminal space that narrates the female body while creating distance from it. They are all products of an exploitative commodity culture that privileges an individuality inherently defined as male (among other things), and yet, they are all forms that women have used creatively to form a kind subjectivity. Rebecca, who is the true subject of the film (that’s why it isn’t called The Second Mrs. De Winter), exists entirely in this liminal space. She is bound to the narrative of others, yet she remains elusive, to Maxim, her lover, even Mrs. Danvers.

Yes, Rebecca, secretly dying of cancer, is killed by her husband. Yes, Mrs. Danvers dies in a fire. And yes, as forms of resistance these modes of becoming through storytelling are contingent, temporary and often obscure the violent forces of capitalist production, but I’m not sure I’ve encountered a form of resistance to any hegemonic structure that isn’t all of these things. Du Maurier herself is reputed to have had a secret life that she couldn’t widely reveal during her lifetime — she loved women. The author also died with her secrets. But not entirely. The novel — her story — and its picturization still haunt us eighty years later.

Mrs. Danvers decides fire is preferable to working for the annoying second Mrs de Winter. Still from Rebecca, 20th Century Fox

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