Feud Style: “More or Less”

Posted on March 29, 2017

Let’s just go ahead and start with the above image, which makes a tidy little summation of the entire episode, in a lot of ways. First, it’s a beautifully composed shot, with a literal bright line running down the center, separating the two women on different sides of history. The future facing off against the past – and finding it lacking.

But almost all the costume motifs for this episode are found in the above shot as well. A woman in black, disappointed and rejected. Women in shades of green or orange or blue (all helpfully laid out on the bed) looking for ways to advance or protect her interests.

But it’s not all color story this week. There’s a formal vs. informal motif. A revisiting of Joan’s love of Chinoiserie-style lounge-wear. And a recurring parallelism between the costumes of the lead characters, as if they were having a constant unending conversation with each other.

Okay, first: The Disappointed Woman motif.

There’s a funereal tone to this scene, befitting the feelings underlying it; that Bette’s career is dead.

 

These back-to-back scenes are not the only time Bette and Joan will have a subconscious-level conversation with their clothing this episode. Put a pin in that.

There’s less of a defeated, funereal tone here; partially because Joan reacts to the news of her lack of prospects with fury instead of Bette’s resignation. Joan is wearing her full Joan Crawford armor of coordinated suit and hat with mink trim. This is something like the fifth or sixth time she’s worn a version of this outfit this series. And of course, it’s hard to cast a funereal pall over a scene that’s paying direct – and very obvious – homage to a crowd-pleaser from Mommie Dearest:

 

 

 

Honestly, half the gay male audience for this show (which is to say roughly one third of the audience overall, probably) was clapping their hands with glee at the sight of Lange in Dunaway drag. It was impossible to get sad about her career because we literally were holding our breath waiting for the fuck-bombs to start dropping. And Miss Jessica, she did not disappoint. This is of a piece with the fascinating way costume designer Lou Eyrich is costuming the two leads in a blend of historically accurate looks, nods to their own film costumes, and sometimes even nods to larger pop culture or Hollywood history iconography. It’s a treat to people who know their Hollywood history.

And then to jump ahead, and loop back to our original paragraph:

Note that there’s a business-like aspect to Pauline’s outfit. She’s in pants and a black blazer over a white shirt. We don’t spend much time Bob Aldrich’s (Alfred Molina) costumes, because there’s less of an interest in them, but both his scenes with Jack Warner, where Jack shot down his career dreams, had him dressed in a black suit with a white shirt. So technically, it’s not the Disappointed Woman motif as it is The Disappointed Person one. Everyone getting bad career news or expecting to get it is dressed in somber black.

Continuing:

Joan is once again armored up. The amount of fur in her closet must’ve been jawdropping, even by the standards of the day. Note that she and Mamacita are both dressed for the screening in black, because they are expecting the very worst reaction to the film. Everything about the dialogue in this scene was about the feeling of doom hanging over them.

But the script on this particular color story gets flipped:

And after this, both Joan and Bette sport a succession of brightly colored costumes , some of which give the impression that they’re conversing with each other.

First, Joan’s armor immediately goes bright and white:

Mamacita, of course, sticks to her somber blacks. It’s not her “practical, Teutonic way” to get all caught up in Miss Crawford’s daily drama. This angelic take on JoanWear will be shunted aside as quickly as her good feelings about the success of the film are. From here on out, the armor will be replaced with day wear, then lounge wear, then sleep wear as she climbs further and further into a bottle.

Bette, for her part, reacts to the good news by awkwardly living it up:

This is, of course, a direct recreation of the outfit Bette wore on the occasion:

 

 

 

Don’t click that video unless you want that song stuck in your head for the next 18 hours. Anyway, here’s Joan, responding to Bette’s bright blue with one of her own:

 

It serves to tie her to the blues of her home, but also to act as a response to Bette’s exuberance. The dialogue here was all about Davis’ rave reviews and Crawford’s lack of them. The print and the bold semi-clashing of the colors underline her rather worked-up mood.

As for Hedda, she’s Hedda-ing all over the place. The usual motifs of flowers – literal ones – and pastels, with a lot of jewelry. Much care was taken to photograph her and the giant pink tree in the same frame throughout this scene. Not so much tying her to the surroundings as pointing out how ludicrous her costume can be.

This exact motif – Davis in a historical recreation with Joan at home in a more casual response costume – plays out again:

Davis did wear this dress on the Jack Paar show:

 

 

 

 

As well as for several other promotional appearances around this time:

Jesus, the body language here. Davis is about to fall out of frame, partially because she’s leaning so far over and partially because Joan’s massive coat is about to push her out.

Unlike now, when every TV appearance and photograph is one google search away, stars could get away with wearing the same dress over and over again throughout their promotional tours. Note how Joan’s big fur armor isn’t just some costume motif dreamed up to look good. The woman walked around with the equivalent of an entire polar bear on her back.

Anyway, back to Bette’s big red dress and Joan’s response to it:

 

Miss Joan loves herself some Chinoiserie pajamas. Like the fur-trimmed motif, this is at least the fifth or 6th of these loungewear styles we’ve seen her wear. The irony here is found in Bette’s final line in this scene: “Pathetic old drunk,” as she sips her scotch. Joan is presented in increasingly disheveled looks as she gets more and more drunk, but while Bette is presented as enjoying herself and promoting the film like a pro, she’s also never seen without a drink at hand.

After this, Joan stumbles further down the ladder:

The irony of these costumes is how they’re all so brightly colored in response to the doom-laden blacks of the beginning of the episode. She’s literally swathed in the colors of success and yet she’s increasingly miserable about it.

Until finally, she’s stumbling about the house in a bright pink nightgown like the next victim in a slasher movie:

A downward spiral into bright colors and despair.

Also note how the phone shots are calling back to similar ones from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Yet another example of the show’s blurring of the lines between history and Hollywood fantasy.

And finally, Miss Pauline was off on her own little side journey, complete with her own form of armor and having her own conversations with Joan’s costumes, reflecting the disappointment both women feel regarding their career status. Like Joan, her color story incorporated red, orange and green. We don’t want to over-define the color motifs here (too late, we know), because we think Lou Eyrich just generally likes to work in limited palettes in order for there to be some visual cohesion.

But these oranges are reflected by the orange day dress Joan wears when she turns her down.

Note how proper Pauline can be. How coordinated her looks are, down to glove and hat. She’s Peggy Olsen, if Peggy worked a glitzy job in Hollywood. It’s a combination of bright style and professionalism.

To be honest, despite the forward-thinking nature of her character, her ensembles are not exactly where fashion was heading, however. She’s surprisingly traditional considering her job.

 

But like Joan, she tends toward bold colors, fully coordinated looks and touches of animal fur now and then. There’s a reason Pauline never even considered going to Bette with her script. She’s not a Bette. She’s a Joan. Or at least, she sees herself as one. Polished, professional, always hitting her mark, always giving the director exactly what he wants and needs.

Which is why so many of her suits and dresses match Joan’s lounge and daywear:

Joan can afford to get drunk in her mansion in her lime-green Chinoiserie robe at the prospect of men giving her shit for her career, but Pauline has got to stand there in work clothes and take it. She’s the young Joan, scratching her way to the top of a film set, putting up with a ton of crap along the way to get there.

 

Which is at least partially why her color story tends to follow Joan’s this episode, even as she remains perfectly, professionally buttoned-up at all times. There are two reasons, we think, as to why the side character of Pauline, who is fictional and hasn’t had much of a storyline outside this episode, has caught the eye of the audience. A big part is Alison Wright’s perky-with-an-agenda performance and another part of it comes down to how consistently well presented this character is. She’s as defined in her wardrobe choices as Joan and Bette are, giving her a narrative weight and focus that isn’t necessarily found in the script.

 

Check out more of our TV reviews, and for more discussion on your favorite shows, visit the Bitter Kittens TV & Film forum.

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

Please review our Community Guidelines before posting a comment. Thank you!