Fashion and Femininity in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)

Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940) [Image sourced: IMDb]

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) is a film adaptation of the gothic novel by Daphne Du Maurier. The film explores the complexities of femininity — as well as its thematic relation to masculinity and dominance — through the abstract technique of ambiguity, which is instilled in the costume design and significant props. This article comments on numerous aspects of the film that depict those notions while making references to Shelley Stamp’s “Women and the Silent Screen” from The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film, Robert Dickason’s “Ambiguity and uncertainty in Rebecca” from Féminin/masculin: Littératures et cultures anglo-saxonnes, and Sara Tatyana Bernstein’s “How Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca Used Fashion To Display The Unseeable” from Dismantle Magazine. The complex, ambiguous depictions of gender and power dynamics are discussed in relation to authority by way of costume and prop design.

The original novel by Daphne Du Maurier, eponymously titled Rebecca, instilled a paradoxical sense of omnipresent distance in the narrator, who is only referred to as Mrs. De Winter and by no first name at any moment in the film. Alfred Hitchcock reestablishes this notion in the title sequence itself — the film is called a “picturization” of the novel rather than an “adaptation” as is popularly used. To “picturize” the very ambiguity of Mrs. De Winter’s persona in the novel, Hitchcock uses the means of visuals — specifically fashion or costume within its mise-en-scène — to “picturize” how unfitting Mrs. De Winter is for her environment. Despite her important position in the plot, her simplicity lends her to assume a certain kind of invisibility, and her portrayal significantly dwarfs her in comparison to a surrounding of grandeur and mystery. The use of such ambiguities is not unintentional, for the themes of “ambiguity” and “uncertainty” work to “do justice to the intricacies of the movie” (Dickason 1999, p. 95–105) and are related to the “themes of dominance, femininity and masculinity” (Dickason 1999, p. 95–105) in the film.

However, the character, or rather entity of “Rebecca” is an even more elusive one — for while she is not bodily present for most of the plot, her dark presence looms over Mrs. De Winter’s interactions and surroundings. Whilst her name dominates the plot, as it does the title of both the book and movie, her lack of physical presence astounds both audiences and Mrs. De Winters alike, who over the course of the story build up an anxious curiosity to delve into more details of her life before death. Her enigmatic portrayal might be justified and even purposive, for her “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” (Bernstein 2018).

However, this argument is also extremely contradictory to the role women played as creators, storytellers and visionaries in the early years of the cinema, much in prior to the production of Rebecca — which bears the question of devolvement and regression. Since this argument concerns maintaining “some autonomy over their stories” (Bernstein 2018), it is imperative to note that at a given point in time, women had ownership of more than just “some autonomy” of their work — they exhibited powerhouse roles in the production and development of the film industry. Not only were they dominating as “writers shaping film culture through the growing art of movie reviewing, celebrity profiles, and gossip items” (Stamp 2012, p. 1), the “top screenwriters were women; the highest-paid director at one point was a woman; and women held key leadership roles in the studios as executives and heads of departments like photography, editing, and screenwriting” (Stamp 2012, p. 1). As stated by Shelley Stamp, the “way women built that movie culture — helps us rethink conventional ideas about authorship and the archive, drawing in a broader range of players and sources” (Stamp 2012, p. 1). Therefore, this begs the question — is Rebecca’s portrayal simply a ploy to regain autonomy over female depiction, or would that be a reductive and dismissive assumption that fails to address the presence women once held in their own storytelling?

Hence, by juxtaposing Rebecca’s prominent name and lack of physical presence with Mrs. De Winter’s lack of first name and diminished importance, the film maintains an aura of ambiguity and uncertainty. While one may argue that Rebecca’s elusive nature serves to aid her in establishing authority over her own story as women must do at times, it is imperative to highlight that women were once able to openly and authoritatively claim ownership of their narratives in the film industry.

To develop this technique of picturization, Hitchcock relied strongly on fashion and stylistic choices to explore Mrs. De Winter’s identity and complex connection to Rebecca throughout the film. Every person and object that surrounds her constantly reminds the young, petulant Mrs. De Winter of Rebecca’s charm and glamour. Several objects, including handkerchiefs belonging to Mr. De Winters revealed an embroidered “R”, signifying that they were somehow reminiscent of Rebecca or that she possessed a kind of ownership of those objects long after her passing. Nearly every character and to a great extent the sinister housekeeper speaks at length of Rebecca and her charms longingly and with deep affection, almost disregarding Mrs. De Winter as the new bride of the house. Consequently, this results in a sense of inadequacy in Mrs. De Winters, and she decides to make an effort to enhance her looks — the result of which may have unconsciously been too imitative of Rebecca’s style. She purchases and adorns an elegant, fashionable black gown — completely unlike her usual self — and Maxim De Winter, her husband, is completely disappointed with her transformation. This reveals significant information about Maxim’s masculinity and his perception of femininity, for “as the classic feminist critique would put it — [Maxim prefers] 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” (Bernstein 2018), and this notion perpetuates the idea that women have a lack of autonomy over how they are both metaphorically and physically represented in film.

Maxim De Winter’s unreasonable reaction is perhaps quite representative of how women were perceived and responded to at a certain point in time in Hollywood too. As discussed before, while women had a strong presence on set and behind the scenes, they also provided a variety of roles on screen. This abundance of work created the concept of the “extra girl”, because they took up a great deal of extra work but with no extra wages. As repressive societal norms for women are generally constructed, concerns about “moral and sexual transgressions amongst “extra girls” were common. The long hours and “easy camaraderie” of movie sets, some felt, could lead to sexual exploitation” (Stamp 2012, p. 4). Just as society assumed that a woman might be susceptible to corruption and looked down upon her means of expression, so does Maxim in dismissing Mrs. De Winter’s desire to enhance her looks, with whatever intention that may be. She is subject to his authority, discretion and judgment, much as numerous “extra girls” were at the time when there was a shift in how society wished to perceive women in the industry. Not only is Maxim portrayed to hold that kind of authority, in contrast Mrs. De Winter is depicted as one who barely has any for “she is placed, from the beginning, in a position of inferiority, dependent on other characters whose motives and behavior are, to say the least, equivocal” (Dickason 1999, p. 95–105).

Hence, Mrs. De Winter’s weak attempt at mildly expressing her sexual maturity using fashion choices ultimately results in Maxim’s disappointment, for he stringently believes in a specific, regressive perception of women. This situation is comparable to the treatment of “extra girls” in Hollywood — for although once women had control over most creative, technical and executive aspects of filmmaking, they were now subject to strict scrutiny over their own bodies — and assumed almost no autonomy because of the stringent standards applied to them by societal norms.

As the nature of Mrs. De Winter’s relationship with Maxim De Winter has been discussed, it is important to note the connection she has with Rebecca, the original Mrs. De Winter. Their connection is almost enhanced with Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, acting as a form of barrier and medium simultaneously, and this connection is mostly visualized through stylistic choices. Mrs. De Winter’s appearance is that of a schoolgirl rather than of a newlywed young bride — she wears white blouses, wool skirts and prim shoes. Mrs. De Winter is insatiably curious about Rebecca and every aspect of her persona, which Mrs. Danvers recognizes and leads her into Rebecca’s boudoir for a showing. The result of this is at first glance very unrevealing to Mrs. De Winter for she is only shown a fur coat and some intimate undergarments. However, this reveals a deeper reality about the part Mrs. Danvers plays in Mrs. De Winter’s perception of Rebecca. If anything, this scene exposes more about Mrs. Danvers than it does about either Mrs. De Winter or Rebecca, and with purpose. As she reveals the aforementioned contents of Rebecca’s boudoir, Mrs. Danvers picks out a particular piece of a sheer black negligee, an item of clothing that signifies deep feminine intimacy and privacy. She places her hand beneath it to reveal how delicate and sheer it is. However, this action does not serve the mere purpose of informing Mrs. De Winter of the fabric’s physical quality — it is indicative of a certain message Mrs. Danvers is attempting to transmit. The message is that while Mrs. De Winters could have been assuming that the horrors of her household are being caused by the ghost of Rebecca, all the unfortunate incidents are but the outcome of Mrs. Danvers’ hand in a ploy that is elusive to Mrs. De Winters. In doing 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” (Bernstein 2018) and that “Hitchcock has already established a world in which surfaces, especially in dress, reveal a great deal about a character’s inner world” (Bernstein 2018).

Disregarding Maxim for the point of this argument, this moment in the film addresses the dynamic between the primary female characters — Mrs. De Winter, Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca. Here, the depiction of femininity is more complex than the straightforward, stereotypical relationship Mrs. De Winter has with Maxim De Winter when considering the male-female dynamic. However, contrary to what was discussed, there is also a strong presence of female dominance over masculinity in the film, for through her sexuality, Rebecca “dominated this domestic sphere also and after her death this feminine control of the house continues, for his dependence on the skills of Mrs. Danvers is only increased by his new wife’s inexperience and fragility and his own apparent indifference” (Dickason 1999, p. 95–105). Ultimately, no matter how overt Maxim De Winter’s masculine dominance may be, it is Rebecca’s looming presence and Mrs. Danver’s exploits which eventually dominate the workings of the household.

Hence, costume design — as well as clothes as individual items or props in general — help to reveal certain internal aspects of the characters in Rebecca. Upon doing this, they reveal that although Maxim De Winter exerts masculine dominance to some extent, it is arguably so that it is ephemeral and superficial as compared to the female dominance asserted by the combined forces of Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers in relation to Mrs. De Winter, Maxim, and the household.

The notion of ambiguity combined with stylistic choices involving costume design and the significance of certain props help to established multiple layers of themes and meanings of the film. Most importantly, it expresses a certain male-female power dynamic between Mrs. De Winter and Maxim De Winter, but dwarfs it in comparison to the greater power dynamic held by the film’s feminine presence — particularly by Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers and the kind of power they hold over the household and the other characters.

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