The winter already seems long and we still have weeks and weeks to go. In Portland, Oregon, where I live, we rarely get snow. It’s just day after short day of gray skies and rain. Sometimes we mix it up with freezing rain. The lack of sun combined with a packed worked schedule and exhausting news cycle make me yearn for a Break. To me, it is incredibly relaxing to curl up on the couch with an old movie (like, 75 years ago old/black and white film old). And at this time of year there’s something pretty cozy about getting immersed in a time and place that is Not Now.
I never imagine that these classics depict a better world; and I know that the world they do depict, including the elisions and stereotypes, helped sustain power structures that we’re still grappling with. But pleasure in mass media is always ambivalent. And even though these films have the potential to be escapist and unhelpfully nostalgic, I find that as long as I keep my brain working, I can combat this.
As a fashion scholar, I’ve always watched films for the clothes. I care less about historical accuracy or verisimilitude than how this art form works to signify something on screen — about the world of the film and the time and place that made it. The list below is a sampling of some of my favorite “classic” winter fashion films. It isn’t comprehensive or especially profound. But they are all worth watching — with a cup of tea and a healthy spoonful of critical distance — if nothing else to get lost in a few soundstage winters, where the wind can turn off with a switch and the snow never melts into dirty grey puddles. And where the fashions are always perfect.
Shanghai Express (Von Sternberg 1932)
Yes, I’m starting this list with a film that isn’t necessarily set in the winter. It’s unclear what season we’re supposed to be looking at, actually. The setting is “China”…why would you want time and temperature too? It was the height of The Great Depression and realism wasn’t a major priority for movie costumes. The men in the film mostly wear white suits and pith helmets or military uniforms. And the women wear clothes that tell you something about the kind of person they are; a prissy old English woman is dressed fifty years out of date for example.
But for Marlene Dietrich, it’s always winter — wherever she is and whatever she’s doing. The premise for Shanghai Express allows plenty of room for the kind of surreal, stunning, sometimes terrifying fur and feather concoctions the 1930s did best. Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong are a pair of traveling courtesans, so obviously Dietrich has trunks filled with pointy black boas that look as cozy as barbed wire, and coats with giant fur collars. And Anna May Wong? No surprise here: the 3rd generation Californian is dressed entirely in “exotic” silk robes. She doesn’t get enough screen time, but it’s still fun to see these two great actresses play comrades — connected by their mutual outsider status and by being the only people on The Shanghai Express with any chutzpah when trouble comes.
Sun Valley Serenade (Humberstone 1941)
People don’t talk about Sonja Henie much anymore. Maybe it’s that whole “she might have been a little bit Nazi” thing or maybe we just don’t care as much about ice skating teen stars (wait…is that true? Why not?). Her fame hasn’t stood the test of time, but since she always had to have a reason to ice skate, her films are wonderful time capsules of mid-century winter activewear. Sun Valley Serenade is probably her best known film — and it isn’t very well-known— and whatever people do know is more because of the musical scenes with the Glenn Miller Orchestra (look out for Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers singing the Chattanooga-Choo-Choo!)
The plot is supposed to be typical “kooky rom-com hijinx,” but comes off more like “stalker sociopath manipulates man who is too stupid recognize that he’s being manipulated.” This strange film might go down as the only one in history where someone is seduced by dancing the polka.
Oh, but the costumes! The adorable pom-pom hats! The ski suit that looks like our 1940s hero is about to throw down some cardboard for an ’80s style breakdancing battle! The tight sweaters knitted with snowflakes and reindeer that were both decorative and yarn conserving (there was a war on remember…that Henie was totally not on the wrong side of…maybe. Ok, there was that one time she gave Hitler a Nazi salute at the Olympics, but it would have been rude not to!).
Spellbound (Hitchcock 1945)
The truth is, Spellbound is a silly movie but I love it forever anyway. It’s Alfred Hitchcock’s most literal foray into Freudlandia and the premise wouldn’t work if it weren’t for Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck being so utterly magnetic. You can have your Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. Personally, I never don’t want to be watching Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. And if they’re wearing dapper wool ski bloomers and tailored ski jackets, while tracking down the source of Peck’s mysterious *and deadly???* phobia, so much the better.
Anna Karenina (Duvivier 1948)
There is nothing like British actors performing a sweeping Russian tragedy to make the long winter nights fly by. I think I’ve watched every adaptation of Anna Karenina, and they’re all gorgeous. When I read the book as a teenager, I was surprised to discover that the Kitty and Levin story is a lot more interesting than Anna and Vronsky and her stick-in-the-mud hubs. But Anna always has the best costumes.
In 1935, Greta Garbo played her with a famous pout and high collars. Sophie Marceau’s blunt bangs and black fur hat were probably a major reason I chose Prague for my study abroad in the late ’90s (just send me somewhere cold and sad and beautiful where I can wear big fuzzy hats). And of course, Keira Knightley’s embroidered velvet and fur capes were worth the ticket price on their own. But for my money, the quintessential Anna Karenina is Vivian Leigh in 1948. Cecil Beaton’s designs — bejewelled muffs and overladen tilted hats — capture the contradictory rigidity and sensuousness that characterized late 19th century upper class fashion, and perfectly externalize Karenina’s unresolvable predicament.
Charade (Donen 1963)
Speaking of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant…Charade is a goofy, chic mystery slash romance slash comedy. And, in my opinion, the best part of it isn’t the Hepburn/Grant repartee, it’s the joyful, and by this time fully mature collaboration between Hepburn and fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy. Hepburn’s funnel-necked red coat and leopard fur pillbox hat are great (as others have noted, for a character who’s just discovered that her apartment has been stripped bare, Hepburn has So Many coats in this movie), but the star of the film is the ski ensemble she wears at the beginning of film. It somehow manages to convey in one prim and groovy, timeless and super ’60s outfit, the exact goofy chic tone the defines the whole caper.
Dr. Zhivago (Lean 1965)
I love this movie so much that for once I never watched the inevitable Keira Knightly led remake. I’m sure it’s great, but I don’t want anything to displace the image of Julie Christie and Omar Sharif cavorting in a frozen palace. Lara is the focus of the love story, but in the film Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) has the best winter-wear; my fave is her pink traveling suit with grey fur collar and oversized muff. If you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, this is the wrong film for you. My own favorite fashion eras are the late 1910s and the mid 1960s, so this is like a sartorial Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup — two great tastes that taste great together. I literally have dreams about Julie Christie’s bangs. But really, this whole film is packed with gorgeous people wearing gorgeous winter clothes — to the point that it sparked a craze for all things Old Russian-ish that lasted deep into the 1970s (or my middle name isn’t Tatyana).
Love Story (Hiller 1970)
Sometimes very bad movies have such great winter clothes, you watch them over and over. You keep hoping the ending will change…and this time you’ll get one extra glance of Ali McGraw’s peacoat or tights before she kicks the bucket. Sometimes the clothes have more charisma and chemistry than the stars wearing them. Would I notice if Ryan O’Neal was replaced with a sock puppet in a shearling jacket? I don’t know. But I do know this: under no circumstances, ever, does “love mean never having to say you’re sorry.”
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