Feud Style: “The Other Woman”

Posted on March 15, 2017

Grab your feather hats, break out the bathroom vodka and tell Sven he can take the rest of the day off, darlings! It’s time do some deep-diving on the costumes of Feud: Bette and Joan, episode two, “The Other Woman.” Our syllabus for this lesson in bitchy fabulosity and primo costume-driven storytelling? We’re glad you asked:

The Other Woman is a Lady in Red

Dead Animal Armor

The Bathrobes of Manipulation

Sounds juicy, yes? Let’s get started.

 

And we’re off. We’ve been doing this whole costume recap thing for a good while now and we can tell you, it’s very rare to come across a costume design motif as strong and as blatant as this one. All of the Other Women in this tale are Ladies in Red.

Too simplistic, you say, in the manner of imaginary critics offering strawman arguments that are easy for us to shoot down? Ha. Come walk with us, nonbelievers; through a landscape postively teeming with “Other Women,” all of whom are Ladies in Red.

Because to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, any woman is potentially an Other Woman – especially Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.

 

 

First, and most obviously, here’s B.D., eerily mimicking the ingenue Joan and Bette got fired, right down to her dress color and hairstyle, while serving as an example of all the younger, prettier  Other Women Bette and Joan find threatening. But it’s not as simple as that. In the context of this episode, a Lady in Red is a stand-in for any woman who threatens another woman’s power, whether that power is professional or sexual.

It may seem creepy and odd to classify this mother-daughter relationship in such terms, but there’s at least a little bit of evidence for it, based both on B.D.’s trashy (and much maligned) tell-all book and on what we know about her life.

 

It should be noted here that B.D. is dressed somewhat precociously. She’s about 15 years old and dressed more like a young woman in her twenties at this time. It’s not racy or shocking in the context of the times, but it does serve to underline that she’s barreling ahead into womanhood at a heightened pace (she will marry the next year at 16, with her mother’s permission).

It should also be noted, in a bit of costume design wittiness, that the conversation that spurred on the rather horrifyingly cruel diatribe against her mother started because the song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” was playing and Bette told her to turn it off.

 

This little “Lady in Red” getup (which foreshadows the coming blowup at the end of the episode) on the other hand, is more than just precocious for a 15-year-old in 1962. It’s a bit on the racy, eye-brow-raising side. Again, if a 21-year-old was wearing this, it might not have registered, but this really is a bit much for a girl this young at this time. There’s a story of Joan approaching B.D. on the set of WHTBJ? and basically telling her to stay away from her own daughters because she was too seamy to be associated with. Not that we’re taking Joan’s side in that situation; just that the costuming here reflects a girl some people would’ve considered a little too provocative for her age.

Note Bette’s uniform of pants, blouse and mink;  Yankee practicality with a slightly awkward tip of the hat to the kind of Hollywood glam that didn’t come easy to her.

Note that the mink is something of a security blanket for her:

 

As a side note, Sarandon’s really nailing Davis’ way with a cigarette. She wielded them like weapons.  And since we’ve found ourselves on this mink tangent, we may as well play it out before we get back to the Lady in Red thing. A couple of flashbacks show that Bette has always used a mink to finish off earth-toned day outfits:

 

 

It’s kind of her thing, apparently. She tends to throw on a mink when she’s about to have a confrontation with someone. Both of these looks are based on photos of Davis and several notable if not iconic outfits she’s worn, but that second one is as close as the show’s gotten yet to serving up pure Bette Davis drag.

Contrast this with Joan’s way with a fur, which is more refined and far less naturalistic:

As we noted last week, when Joan needs something professionally or needs to perform a form of professional drag, she puts on the full Joan Crawford costume; a vaguely intimidating ensemble complete with gloves, hat, fully coordinated jewelry and outfit, lacquered hair, tons of slap and a touch of fur to top it off. Both actresses use fur as a sort of armor, but Bette’s broad and obvious about it, throwing a huge coat or jacket over an incongruously casual outfit. Joan is all about the complete picture; the image not only of a movie star generally, but of JOAN CRAWFORD specifically.

Bette ditches the mink on Saturdays, when the crew isn’t around and she doesn’t need her armor so much, because she’s not expecting to have to confront anyone:

But that red sweater sure is some red-hot foreshadowing, no? Especially when paired with that unexpected bit of leopard in her shoe.

 

A Lady in Red, making her play – and a costuming callback to last week’s “Bette Davis seduces someone” scene. Apparently, red flowers on a black background get Bette hot. In all other domestic scenes – and in 90% of her scenes overall – Bette is dressed in natural colors and earth tones, but when she wants to get her Bette on, she shifts over to red and black.

Interesting to note that Bette is so often clothed in florals, earth tones, and animal skins. Given how much time is spent on the artifice behind Joan Crawford’s beauty (all the lemons and ice bowls and massages and facials), we could say that all of Bette’s costume motifs are meant to cast her as more natural, more in touch with her own feelings and the world around her. An artist vs. a movie star, which is exactly how Bette saw herself vs. Joan.

 

The artist in black with the Other Woman – the movie star – in red, threatening both her art and standing. Bette’s sporting both a flower AND a dead animal.

In fact, we should note that, while Joan wears her share of red in this episode, it’s not presented as a sexual color, the way it is for Bette and B.D., although it would be easy to make a case that she’s mimicking the ingenue who made her feel so old.  That’s possible, but for Joan, at this point in her life, after all the affairs and marriages, after decades as a goddess, she cares less for sex than she does for power and respect. Remember, she talked last episode about getting the respect of men, which she never wanted or craved, and waiting decades for her fellow women to show her some. Both actresses are presented as vain, but their vanity manifests in different ways. Davis feels attacked as an artist and is worried about attacks against her looks when the picture comes out. Crawford doesn’t want any other woman upstaging her, whether that’s a prettier, younger ingenue or whether that’s a hated co-star who’s “stealing the picture out from under her.”

It should also be noted, for accuracy’s sake, that this scene occurs before the detente between the two actresses breaks down, thanks to Bob Aldrich and Hedda Hopper. It’s a fragile, showy peace, but it’s a peace nonetheless.

Can you look at this and say this is a woman seeking sexual fulfillment? Hell no, that’s the Mid-Century version of a power suit. She’s wearing a cape, for crying out loud. Joan’s not screwing around here. She doesn’t need you to tell her she’s pretty. She needs your RESPECT – and right now, dammit.

 

Okay, maybe she wants you to tell her she’s pretty every now and then, too. Or maybe she just defaults to acting like she does when she needs something from a man.

Replay this scene and listen to Lange say the words “injurious to my ability to earn a living.” It’s exactly the kind of thing we noted in our review about how she’s modulating her voice to sound like an old-school actress; like a woman born in 1904 who got vocal training some time in the 20s or 30s. Seriously. It’s deep and round in a way that sounds like the practiced, studio-schooled tones of a movie goddess of that era. It’s also really notable in her confrontation last episode with Bob, where she mentions her father “running off with a stripper from Galveston.” It’s not mimicry so much as it’s a really smart choice by an actress to help paint a fuller picture of a person.

Here we see Bette’s nature motif in full bloom, pun intended. And it’s an example of something we pointed out last week. Costume designer Lou Eyrich is taking some of the more iconic looks of these actresses’ careers and referencing them in the costumes Lange and Sarandon wear to play their “real” lives. Jane Hudson’s dress aside, Bette actually did have a propensity for wearing flowers and minks, but the black dresses and pearls tend to play on our memories of Margo Channing just as the incessant floral motif in Sarandon’s costumes can be traced back to Davis’ costumes. Put a pin in that idea.

Okay, one more example of Joan as the Other Woman:

Here, the red operates on both levels of power and sex, as she watches control of the picture ebb away from her and her co-star flirt with the director she once had an affair with, who later rebuffed her. In this case, she’s not the threatening one, but the threatened one. This variation on the theme is The Lady in Red as victim.

And sometimes the variation on the theme of the Other Woman/Lady in Red…

 

… isn’t a woman, let alone a lady, at all. Just another ingenue in red, threatening Joan’s supremacy and needing to be recast because of it.

This makes a good launching point for the third major motif of the episode: Joan Crawford’s Bathrobes of Manipulation:

 

Joan schemes in a bathrobe.

 

Joan enacts schemes in a bathrobe.

 

Joan manipulates people in a bathrobe.

 

 

Joan ineffectually attempts a seduction in a bathrobe.

 

Joan reads scripts in a bathrobe.

Joan receives an Oscar in a bathrobe..

 

 

Joan declares war in a bathrobe.

All of this in a story about Joan playing an iconic character who is costumed almost entirely in bathrobes. Like Bette’s Margo Channing dresses and her real-life propensity for wearing flowers and minks, Lange’s costume is playing on two iconic Joan Crawford images: Blanche Hudson and Joan receiving her Oscar for Mildred Pierce.

Okay, two brief interludes before we get to the moment we have no doubt any of you who saw the episode have been waiting for.

First, Hedda doing Hedda:

Like last episode’s dinner party ambush, when Hedda is especially predatory, she’s rendered like a dark bird; all feathers and movement and clashing jewelry. She and Bob stand out for being such dark figures in such a colorful and brightly lit setting –  a flawless recreation of the long-demolished L.A. celeb hangout Perino’s, by the way.

Interestingly, Hedda’s propensity for bird hats is lightly referenced in a Joan flashback:

 

But we’re really only including this as a snapshot to show some fab period costume design. This contributes to the green-as-professional-color motif that was established last episode.

But honestly, the only true costume design that needs to be discussed here (after having spent 2000 words discussing all the others), is this eye-popping scenario:

 

This may just be our favorite costume design moment since Mad Men went off the air. This may even be one of our favorite costume design moments EVER. Just LOOK at these two drag queens. Despite the huge differences in their styles, their costumes are all about being allies. They’re both in brightly -almost gaudily colored dresses with extreme silhouettes (check out how ridiculous Hedda looks in that last shot); they’re both in wild florals, they’re both wearing something fabulous/ridiculous on their heads, and of course, the yellows in both costumes pop out like crazy. Birds and flowers. Artifice surrounded by the very things it mimics. Bette, that Yankee who doesn’t understand “this town” like these two broads, dresses in natural tones and dead animals, but these two Hollywood gals are all about the feathers and the bright colors.

Okay, dolls. We think we’ve wrung every last bit of meaning out of this one as we can.

 

 

 

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[Photo Credit: Suzanne Tenner/FX – Stills: Tom and Lorenzo]

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