[Image Description: Photo of me dressed up and posed as Irma Vep (Musidora) from Les Vampires (1915-6). I’m wearing black from head to toe standing with a defiant posture in front a wall with floral wallpaper.]
Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915-6) serials were made at a time when the cinematic forms of genres were crystallizing into the conventions we know all too well today. Les Vampires is a macabre crime-drama serial, often retroactively labeled horror.
The film follows Philippe, a newspaper reporter, as he investigates a shadowy gang of criminals called The Vampires. Starting with a decapitated police inspector, each successive episode sees Philippe get closer to unraveling the labyrinthine world of The Vampires while alliances shift and the body count rises. Irma Vep (Musidora) is a member of the gang who moonlights as a cabaret singer. Over the course of the series, Irma emerges as the true lead, though she never repents or renounces her life of crime; a quintessential vamp.
Derided by contemporary critics, but beloved by audiences, Les Vampires is classic pulp. One film critic expressed his feelings toward Les Vampire thusly in a 1916 issue of Hebdo-Film:
“That a man of talent, an artist, as the director of most of the great films which have been the success and glory of Gaumont, starts again to deal with this unhealthy genre, obsolete and condemned by all people of taste, remains for me a real problem.”
It’s understandably divisive that Feuillade ignores accepted filmmaking “rules” here and there. But the reading that Feuillade’s rule-breaking is strategic is certainly valid. The viewing experience is destabilized to create tension but not in ways that sacrifice narrative clarity. Feuillade will subtly skirt the rules by making unexpected cuts or switch within a scene from sequences that follow (what would later be termed) “invisible editing” standards to flat tableaus. Taken together, the audience is unsettled without necessarily knowing why. (Yes, 1915 audiences were already accustomed to these standards of visual storytelling!) It’s a great companion to the macabre events depicted in the films. A century later, The Witch: A New England Folktale (2015), directed by Robert Eggers, employs some of the same strategies.
I know seven hours of silent-film viewing might seem daunting but, unlike other serials from the era, Les Vampires’ installments are fairly self-contained stories. (My favorite is the fifth episode “Dead Man’s Escape.”)
Musidora’s Irma Vep (yes, that is an anagram for vampire) is an archetypal vamp, in characterization and in aesthetic. Irma’s a master of disguise who can assume practically any role to further the aims of The Vampires and her loyalties change almost as often as her costumes.
The iconic Irma Vep look is her black catsuit, which is even referenced in a ballet about The Vampires within the film. Irma is a clear predecessor of Catwoman (not the only inspiration Batman pulls from Feuillade’s crime serials btw).
For the closet-cosplay (or work-appropriate version), I went for an all black outfit with lace-up dress shoes.
I don’t own a black catsuit, so I made do with black tights and a black turtleneck top. Planning ahead for the costume, black hoods are easily found on amazon. I, however, don’t have a hood in my closet, so I put another pair of (clean) black tights on my head and simply wrapped the legs around my neck and tucked the ends into the back of my sweater. Voila!
Musidora’s Irma makeup is only occasionally as dramatic as other film vamps. When Irma’s not performing on stage, her makeup is more muted, a great basis for a wearable closet-cosplay makeup look.
For the base, I applied an even layer of powder a shade slightly lighter than my skin tone and concealed under my eyes. (Obviously Musidora would’ve been wearing more face makeup and you can too! I stuck with powder to stay true to the era. ) I didn’t bother with blush or contouring since I didn’t find it necessary.
The eye makeup is dramatic and emphasizes the shape her eyes. Since this is meant to be a more wearable look, I used brown shadow create an elongated smoky eye, (1.) blending a light layer from the lashline to just below my eyebrows and smudging what’s left on the brush all along my lower lid. (2.) Then I built up the shading around the lashline by using a wet brush in the same shadow. (3.) Then I added a little extra darker brown shadow very close to the lashline. Since this look isn’t much about the lashes, I just painted on a layer of black mascara.
If you think this makes your eyes look too small, run liner in your lower waterline that’s either white (more striking) or a bit lighter than your skin-tone (more subtle).
Her eyebrows are slightly rounded without much of an arch, roughly mirroring the shape of her eyes. I used a brown pencil to get the shape and softened it a bit with a cooler brown powder.
As for lips, you may be tempted to go for a purple-y wine shade, but based on how contemporary cameras captured such detail around her lips, I’d wager Musidora used a medium shade. Just dark enough to create a definitive shape. Musidora’s lips are on the smaller side so, think underlining instead of overlining to make straight, sharp lines on both upper & lower lips. I carved out the lip shape with cream concealer then used a deep pink lipstick shade.
Shifting to the FULL COSTUME, you can follow the same basic steps but switch to dark gray and black for the eye makeup. I went into the waterline with black liner but, as with the daytime look, if you think it’s shrinks your eyes too much, line the waterline with white or a neutral shade just a bit lighter than your skin tone. Block the eyebrows out with a more solid line rather than keeping them natural. For the lips, I also went darker to match the high-contrast effect of the eye makeup.
Hope this inspires you all in putting together your costumes this year!