by coburns

“That’s right. I took LSD several years before it became popular and well known. There was a doctor who was experimenting with its effects, and I got involved as one of the subjects - this was before my acting career had even started to take off. I had a lot of trips. It was all very interesting … It was phenomenal. I loved it. LSD really woke me up to seeing the world with a depth of objectivity. Even though it was a subjective experience, it opened your mind to seeing things in new ways, in a new depth. One of the great things about LSD is that it does stimulate your imagination. And it frees you from fears of certain kinds.” - James Coburn

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A post wherein film writer Kimberly Luperi explores Edith Head’s costuming for THE LADY EVE (’41).

“Colonel” Harrington: Ah, there you are. Well, it certainly took you long enough to come back in the same outfit.

Jean Harrington: I’m lucky to have this on. Mr. Pike has been up the river for a year.

How Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck got away with those lines in THE LADY EVE (‘41) during the Production Code era is beyond me, but that’s beside the point. The dress the “Colonel” alludes to in this scene, a stunning black two piece, ranks as one of my favorite ensembles of all time. The glistening crop top and high slit skirt are exceedingly glamorous, sexy and revealing  - just the right combo for Jean to work her magic. It’s a flawless marriage of costume and character, officiated by Hollywood’s most famous designer, Edith Head.

Stanwyck assumes two very different identities and wardrobes in THE LADY EVE ('41). As Jean, a card shark out to con the wealthy on a South American ocean liner, her attire skews flirty and brash, with a global streak. As Lady Eve, a British socialite guise Jean dons to access the aristocracy in retaliation for Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) breaking up with her, her outfits appear refined and regal.

In 2014, designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis introduced THE LADY EVE (’41) as part of a UCLA Film and Television Archive series on Edith Head and quoted the celebrated designer as proclaiming the “basic test is if the clothes submerge the personality into the character… That is what the costume designer must do - disguise the actress.” While it’s obvious to viewers that Jean and Eve are one and the same, Charles is humorously blind to this fact, and without a doubt, Head’s styles played a sizable role in seducing and concealing the reality from him. “I had to keep Jean’s look as different from Eve’s as I possibly could,” Head affirmed, and that she did.

As color translated to the screen in THE LADY EVE (’41) in shades of black, gray and white, Head resorted to more particular methods to convey her multi-faceted leading lady’s intentions and personalities.  For one, she used contrast to great effect in early scenes. Shading disparity exists in Charles and Jean’s garments when they appear together, like her black dress and his light colored suit in the scene described above, which emphasizes the difference in their characters. Additionally, Head tended to outfit Jean in black, white or a combination of both to make her appear “a tad coarse.” The designer also brought the Latin look “out of resort life and into the everyday working world,” since Jean meets Charles on a boat coming from South America. Believing that Stanwyck looked terrific in serape and poncho cuts, Head added items likes capes and tie-front pieces to Jean’s wardrobe.  Finally, she made use of reflective materials such as sequins, crystals and beads as well. These objects injected a blithe, amorous touch to Jean’s attire. 

Head switched gears with Eve, often styling her in lavish fabrics and lighter, more modest colored gowns, which provided an aura of distinction. Head also designed with reflective items on Eve’s ensembles, as evident in the intricately beaded, illustrious white gown she first appears in. On this character, these classy objects serve to enhance Eve’s attempt at gentility. 

The designs certainly did the trick - for Jean, Eve and the leading man, too. According to columnist Hedda Hopper, when Fonda witnessed Stanwyck in Eve’s introductory outfit, he exclaimed: “Gosh! No wonder that script says I’m to fall in love with you. You’re making it mighty easy.”