One of my favorite genres of classic cinema is film noir. The strong chiaroscuro lighting for gritty stories in the underbelly of cities dealing with murder, corruption and mystery took height around World War II. Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake are a duo from this film genre and their three strongest films were, This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946). Off screen Ladd and Lake were petit introverts but in films they exerted a cool allure and quiet confidence. Today’s post is going to focus on key elements of their wardrobe for the films, all designed by Edith Head. You’ll see how the costumes defined their characters and the world of this genre, as well as how timeless some of the costumes are for those who are looking for 1940s inspiration in their own style.
The Glass Key (1942)
During a political campaign Paul Madvig’s (Brian Donlevy) past comes back to him when he’s framed for murdering the brother of Janet (Veronica Lake). Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) discovers the body and attempts to find the real murderer before the election.
This costume becomes a staple for Alan Ladd (and other men in the genre), the trench coat and fedora combination. Trench coats were designed as an alternative to British troops’s wool greatcoats worn in the trenches during WWI. Intending to provide a lightweight water resistant coat, the silhouette of a trench coat was flattering and stylish while being casual and most importantly functional. So how did the trench coat become such a symbol in 1940s cinema? Considering the background of the trench coat, being worn by a solider entering civilian life there’s that indication of experiencing darker sides of life that makes one feel isolated at times. Director at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Valerie Steele said in a wonderful analysis on the history of trench coats,
“They’re private detectives or spies, they rely on themselves and their wits. [The trench coat] does have a sense of kind of world-weariness, like it’s seen all kinds of things. If you were asked ‘trench coat: naïve or knowing?’ You’d go ‘knowing’ of course.”
So we can infer about Ladd’s character with the trench coat and fedora that he’s very intuitive while finding out the murderer and the khaki color gives a sort of anonymity. Compare him to when he’s in the double breasted pin stripe suit giving that professional business look while with Madvig that reinforces Ladd’s character as the right hand man. Or the single breasted suit worn at the end of the film. Notice how the hat is pushed back, making him appear more approachable and open than before. This alone shows how Ladd’s character has developed over the course of the film.
Veronica Lake’s costumes reflect her role as the femme fatale, probably why Edith Head created mostly all black costumes. Black means independence, protection, strength, secrets and seduction. All of which a femme fatale can encompass. Film historians have defined a femme fatale as a glamorous woman who led the man into disaster or death. But not all historians agree with that and neither do I. Julie Grossman argues in her book Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close Up (featuring Veronica Lake on the cover) that femme fatales’s traits threatened the confined performance of society’s idea of gender. She believes femme fatales have been long misinterpreted and need to be studied by their narratives closer. Grossman says:
“It is the leading female’s commitment to fulfilling her own desires, whatever they may be…at any cost, that makes her the cynosure, the compelling point of interest for men and women. Film noir movies work to identify their tough women as victims whose strength, perverse by conventional standards, keep them from submitting to the gendered social institutions that oppress them.”
From far left: The black transparent long sleeved dress is what Lake has on when she takes off her black belted trench coat. The sleeves have a sort of seductive quality. This costume is worn during the scene where Ed is spying on Janet, suspecting her of withholding information and the costume fits that question of truth. This is also the scene where she kisses him for the first time but he thinks she’s Madvig’s girl. The negligee is as iconic as the fedora/trench coat for men. Many femme fatales are clad in these at some point because of the fit and lightweight material that billows in the backlight. This is during a key scene where Ed says Janet is the murderer but in fact she’s not. Head’s choice of white for the gown is a great contrast, the gown itself fits the allure a femme fatale is assumed to have but the color suggests innocence (of crime in this case), purity and freshness. The black dress suit with the veiled hat has a white flower on the side which also keeps the contradictory going. The veil could suggest a quality of secrets but it’s pulled back, possibly reflecting Janet beginning to trust Ed. The flower could mean a lot, and there’s a reason Head didn’t pair a brooch with it. Perhaps the flower means growth or partnership of sorts since the two flowers are intertwined at the stems together.
For hair and makeup, Ladd’s hair is combed in a small pompadour and Lake’s signature waves are almost like a brushed out finger wave or brushed out curls with the hair curling under at the ends. The [unknown] hairstylist kept both with well combed and sleek looks. Makeup was by Wally Westmore. Ladd’s character takes quite a beating which I featured because the makeup is excellent craftsmanship that has to be seen. Lake’s makeup is kept in the minimal 40s style of the natural arched brows, a light coat of mascara and a slightly overdrawn upper lip in a medium red color.
This Gun for Hire (1942)
Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) is a hitman paid counterfeit money by his employer who has ties with spies overseas. While on the run from the police Raven meets a nightclub singer, Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) who is spying on her boss, and tries to convince Raven to clear his interests and find evidence for the protection of the country.
Once again, Ladd’s staple is the trench coat. This time it’s wrinkled and without a belt but fitting Steele’s concept of a worn coat mirroring trust. In this case, Raven doesn’t trust authority. There’s a line where Ellen says, “Why don’t you go to the police?” And Raven says, “I’m my own police.” In The Glass Key, Ladd’s character wasn’t as experienced as he is in this film with crime. We’re not sure how long he’s been a hitman but it’s evident he lives cut off from the world yet knows how to blend in. You see that immediately in the opening scene where he wakes up in a run down and minimal apartment. Even when he leaves you can tell the way he flips the collar up, keeps his head down that he’s making himself unapproachable. Because of this he has developed a strong sense of awareness and ability to move and think fast. Also this is the suit he wears throughout the film, signs of the wrinkled collar, loose tie and simple cut reveal Ladd’s lifestyle isn’t rich. The suit lapels appear (correct me if I’m wrong) to be similar to the 1930s so perhaps his suit is a few years old.
Lake plays Ellen, the nightclub singer who incorporates magic tricks into her acts. For Lake’s costumes I chose the floor length shimmery gown that she wears during her first number at the nightclub and the below the knee A line sequin dress when she becomes tangled into the crime.The nightclub costume is form fitting and was hard to get a screen cap that wasn’t blurry but if you look closely while watching the film, you can see the platform heels Lake wore at times for height. (The equivalent of Ladd having to sometimes stand on an apple box.) I chose a detail of the gown to show the material that was probably rayon of some kind and the brooch as an example of Ellen’s character. It’s unclear how long she’s been a nightclub singer but I like that the gown is versatile, fitting the setting of a small club. For the sequin dress and turban, I chose it because this is the costume she wore for a large part of the film. The neckline and sequins purpose it for social function then as the hostage of Raven. The sequins’ light could tie into Ellen’s profession or her narrative as bringing context.
Unafraid of Raven when Ellen is his hostage, she tries to figure out his involvement and what’s at stake. She’s perceptive and compassionate and he’s sympathetic which forms a bridge of mutual understanding and attraction at times. Some critics argue that this damaged Ladd’s character by compromising him to have some kind of a heart due to censorship. Censorship could be blamed for a lot besides character motive, but I interpreted Raven’s “soft side” to show that he operates with a moral code (caring for kittens, kind to the little girl at the stairs) which adds a layer of complexity and contradictory because in real life no one is just one thing either.
For hair and makeup, Ladd’s hair was dyed dark to reflect the name of his character and the [unknown] hairstyle side parted his hair and combed it to the side, not quite a pompadour. Lake’s hair is kept in her waves for the most part, you can see by now how signature the hair was. Wally Westmore kept Lake’s lipstick darker, my guess it’s a very true red. Ladd’s wrist was heavily contoured for his character’s unique trait the police were using to locate him.
The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Back from the South Pacific, Johnny Morrison (Ladd) returns home to discover a dark truth from his wife the night they have a fight. Later she’s found dead and he’s suspected of murder when he leaves town. Picked up by Joyce Harwood (Veronica Lake) she is also on the run.
Yes, the trench coat is back but this time it’s a navy raincoat to fit with Ladd’s character as Johnny Morrison who was in the service. Recalling Steele’s comment on “world weariness”, you get an idea of the emergence of film noir if you consider how World War II brought up concerns of nuclear war, gender roles and so forth. In this film specifically, Ladd’s uncertainty and isolation comes from his struggle to reassume the life he left because he finds that there’s a lot he didn’t know about his wife…if he ever really knew her. Center is the suit underneath his coat from the left. This tailored suit is very much what we’d expect of the 40s with double breasted coat and wide peaked lapels indicating that Morrison prepared for his homecoming. On the far right this is after a fight about the murder, so notice how the suit reflects that in wrinkles, loose neck tie, disheveled hair. And doubling for makeup, you can see the bruise on the cheekbone.
When Johnny first meets Joyce that rainy night, she’s in this white trench coat with gloves. Lake isn’t the femme fatale but her character is mysterious because she replies with wit while talking to Johnny and unlike his wife, her relaxed manner causes him to begin to possibly halfway trust her before he has to leave again. Though neither reveal details of why they’re on the road, there’s a level of identifying with each other instantly. Center is the coastal costume of white slacks and a dark blazer, which I chose first because it’s not too often you see women in slacks in film noir but I also like the two colors together of white and dark. This is around the time Joyce is trying to figure out why Johnny left and yet she also wants to companion him on the beach. On the far right this is the black key holed evening gown at the end of the film, like the white gown in This Gun for Hire, it’s floor length and long sleeved. I think that this gown represents elegance considering the setting, confidence considering the way Joyce stays cool when Buzz (William Bendix) wants to know how she can be a friend of Johnny’s, and a new beginning after an end if you consider what the end of the film wraps up.
Film critics have speculated sexual objectification in this film. Johnny tells Joyce twice, “Every guys seen you before somewhere. The trick is to find you.” Sure there’s sexual attraction but I think that the way he says it and when (after thanking her for the ride and leaving, as well as when he stands by the car as she’s about to get in) shows that there’s more to what he means. The costumes’s revealing the characters’s traits show that they identify with each other on levels that others hadn’t. Lake has her own reasons for being on the road, similar to Johnny’s. I just want to note that though his wife is probably the femme fatale, her back story of waiting for Johnny for years reflected real life situations where many couples did have affairs at home and overseas or saw their spouse as a stranger after having been away for so long. So the conflict may be dramatically executed by the eyes of some modern audiences but the topic itself was very real for many couples in real life.
Leonora Sabine and Gertrude Reade, hair supervisor and hairstylist respectively, kept Ladd’s hair combed smoothly back for a majority of the film probably to reflect the grooming regulations of the military. Lake’s hair you’ll notice is shorter than in the two previous films probably because she had to modify her hairstyle during the war and participated in a PSA on how to style hair safely for the workforce. For the film though, her waves are still present particularly on the side at the top but the curls remain at the bottom. There were quite a few people said to be on the makeup team that Wally Westmore served as supervisor on so I have no idea who was the makeup artist for Ladd and Lake. However, for Ladd’s makeup it’s kept with the straight male groomed style we’re used to seeing and a few fresh bruises after his fight scene. Lake’s makeup remains with the groomed brows and a lighter lip color than the previous film..more of a light red or possibly a coral if you notice the slight sheerness.
Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake teamed for a total of 7 films, three of which they played themselves and then these films featured. Their seventh and final teaming was for Saigon (1948). Both are often recalled for their difference in height compared to their peers and personal struggles in their private lives. However I like to remember them best as two actors who got their break in the 1940s and proved to audiences and studio executives that size didn’t matter as much as chemistry, which couldn’t be measured in inches.