Feud Style: “Pilot”

Posted on March 09, 2017

Put on your gardening gloves and your clip-on earrings, darlings. It’s time to take a dive into the deliciousness of the Feud: Bette and Joan costume design.

This will be slightly different from many of other costume design recaps, like the ones for Outlander and Mad Men, if only because costume designer Lou Eyrich was tasked with recreating very specific looks for both its leads, based entirely on the real tastes and styles of the women they’re playing. In many instances throughout the series, specific, much-photographed outfits worn by both Crawford and Davis are painstakingly recreated. The Crown had a similar task and goal, and as we’ll see, both shows wound up going roughly the same route in using costume design to refine and define characters that came to them almost completely defined already.

In fact, let’s just jump ahead to a scene that encapsulates what we’re talking about here and how Eyrich is approaching this task.

This is the first scene with both leads interacting and it comes well into the episode. This is apparently based on a real interaction backstage at Davis’ run in Night of the Iguana. There are no pictures of the event, so it was free to be interpreted however anyone wished to. Crawford is dressed to illustrate her stardom and glamour, not to mention the highly practiced artifice of her persona. Everything about this look – hair, makeup, jewelry, coat, bag and dress – are all more or less faithful pastiches, if not an outright recreation of Joan Crawford’s public style at this time in her life. Stardom, glamour, artifice.

Davis, on the other hand, is still wearing her costume from the play. She doesn’t have to be depicted this way. She could be in a dressing gown or bathrobe. She could be dressed in some sort of casual wear or even in a slip when Crawford walks in, but instead, she’s dressed to highlight the differences between the women. Joan wears all the drag trappings of movie stardom, but Bette is not only stripped down and unglamorous, but with her hair bound and her costume on, she’s literally clothed in the trappings of the theater. Stripped-down artist vs. artificial movie queen.

And yet, in order to convey this aspect of Bette, Eyrich cleverly calls back to her most iconic role as Margo Channing in All About Eve, never letting us forget that she too is a movie star.

 


So Susan Sarandon is dressed to illustrate Bette Davis’ character by putting her in the costume she wore for Night of the Iguana while at the same time referencing one of the costumes she wore in All About Eve. Costume design using costume design within costume design to make some basic and easily understood points. This kind of sums up the entire referential aspect of the series and the ever-so-slight but unmistakeable sense of heightened reality in which it’s set. Not realism; Hollywood Realism.

So these are the major themes and the methods in which they’re being conveyed for most of the episode, if not the series. Two different women with similar goals and highly defined personal styles, with massive iconic histories behind them ready to be referenced. And that’s more or less the best possible way for a costume designer to approach iconic subjects; by finding the themes in the story and using them to pick and choose which parts of the iconography you want to use in order to back them up.

Jumping around again for another example of this sort of thing:

 

We could look at this and say, “What a perfect set of costume design decisions, allowing each woman’s character and personality to shine through; possibly even foreshadowing the darkness in Davis’ nature or even the more natural tendencies of her character, hence the use of the flowers.”

We could say that, but:

 

 

So this is an example of a couple of fairly faithful recreations instead. But note the removal of Joan’s polka dots and the change in her jewelry. The blue of the latter will be one of her signature colors going forward and the creamy, uncomplicated vibe of her dot-free, simplified ensemble is more in line with the elegance and bearing the show is trying to establish with her character. In other words, it’s toned down slightly to make her look a little less ridiculous to modern eyes and it uses the opportunity to call to a strong color motif. As for Sarandon, slight changes were made to probably make the look a little more flattering to her, but this real-life look was also used as a launching point for a few motifs; the pearls, the use of black, and yes, even a reference to nature – all of which will recur with her costumes.

Okay, let’s dive in. Crawford’s costume in the first scene above, which happens almost halfway through the episode, also references her costume in the opening scene, which also tends to be something of a mission statement for the character and her agenda:

 

Fading glamour with a bitter twist. Jewels, fur, sparkle and tons of slap.

Literally everything here is a dead-on Crawford drag, especially the makeup. The only reason it doesn’t come off too heavy-handed is probably because Lange doesn’t share many of her features. Much of the impact of Faye Dunaway’s Crawford came down to the rather astonishing resemblance, which only tended to heighten just how garish the Joan Crawford makeup style could look. Because Lange doesn’t look like her, if doesn’t necessarily distract as much. In other words, the lack of resemblance may actually work to her benefit.

 

We’ll get to Joan’s house in a second, but first, let’s establish Miss Hedda Hopper, who comes into the scene a flurry of  patterns, textures and motions. The ridiculous number of necklaces, the loud polka dots and even the fluttering feathers around her head all combine not only to produce perfect Hedda drag, but also to set her up as a dark, menacing irritation for both women.

 

The use of Joan’s Brentwood mansion as her home base is a perfect example of how you can pick and choose the iconography of these characters to make points about them. The fact is, Joan didn’t live there anymore in 1962. She was living in a penthouse in New York. But because the story wants to drive home the differences between these two women as much as possible, her more glamorous and Hollywood-inspired home worked better to make that point. In other words, even Joan’s address is done up in Joan drag for this story. And it has deep ties to her own costumes throughout.

Here’s Joan’s first major costume motif. When she’s at home – more importantly, when she’s tied to her home – she is always dressed in blue to match the decor. Here, she does not want to be bothered – and specifically mentions she doesn’t want to accept unannounced visitors. She’s in Home Mode.

 

And when Joan’s in Home Mode, she dresses in blue, which is echoed by Mamacita’s maid’s uniform. She also tends to wear flowers on her ears every time.

When Joan isn’t tending to her home or protecting her home; when she’s entirely focused on her career, she is dressed to stand out from her home:

Note that it’s very rare to see Joan in pants in this tale. The costume design hews pretty closely to a standard mid-Century femininity with Joan, but here, she’s all ambition, nothing domestic about her despite the surroundings. A bolt of bright orange in a sea of blueness.

Also, put a pin in this scene. This is Joan, alone in the bedroom.

 

But this is Joan, when there’s a man in the bedroom. It’s not high sexiness, but it’s grandiose and highly feminine. It’s also as blue as everything else in the surroundings.

Now let’s skip ahead again.

Bette in the bedroom without a man. Simple, practical, uncharacteristically bright color.

 

Bette in the bedroom with a man. Note how the reds tie her to her surroundings here the way the blues do in Joan’s bedroom.

These parallel scenes, interpreted differently for each woman (Joan as High Queen of the Bedroom vs. Bette’s overt come-on), are subtle ways to once again show their similarities as well as their different approaches. Joan’s got a man in bed and she smokes and frets and chews over old grudges and slights. Bette’s got a man in the bedroom and she more or less throws herself at him. Joan is less interested in sex and companionship than she is in professional respect at the moment. Bette is vulnerable, unsteady and watching her last chance at domestic happiness leave her.

 

Anyway, back to Joan in blue – and yet more pajamas, this time in a style that reflects the Chinoiserie-fueled tastes of her decor. Like virtually all costume motifs, it’s not rigidly consistent. This is clearly a domestic situation and Joan is clearly tied to the house in this scene in the sense that the dialogue concerns itself with matters of finance and domestic upkeep (“I told them that it is an honor to prune Ms. Crawford’s bush and to shut up.”), so from that perspective, it works. Sure, she’s poring over books to find material for her next picture, but it’s fueled by a need to protect her home “These are lean times, Mamacita, but we’ll get through them.”

If we had to tie together all the Domestic Blue instances – and you know us; we simply have to – then we think these scenes serve to illustrate its genesis:

 

Blue isn’t just Joan co-opting a maid’s uniform. It’s a symbol to her of domestic happiness and security, which is something she craves almost as desperately as professional standing.

 

And speaking of the latter…

When she’s in full career mode and away from her home, there’s a much different vibe to her looks. Stronger, more imposing, with fewer feminine details like little bows at the back of the neck or earrings shaped like flowers. No, she’s armored up and furred up to give the full Joan Crawford Effect. It’s a power play to show up in a mink hat like that; just as much as it is to plonk your Oscar down on the desk to start the meeting.

The green-as-career-color motif repeats:

Joan knits. Bette smokes. Joan’s attire is almost business-like, giving it a more professional air. Bette’s motifs are all here too. Just note the brown color and the leaf brooch, as well as the use of black, which she wears more often than Joan does.

Joan’s Professional Green appears again here:

Although there’s as much blue as green in this getup. This is Joan giving the full Joan Effect – fully accessorized and done up, not to mention wildly overdressed for a day’s work. But this is also Joan giving the Nurturing Joan the Co-Worker Effect, in which she lavishes attention on all the men in the crew, as was her tendency, in order to secure the best lighting, among other things. In other words, it’s both sides of Joan; the professional diva and the domestic faux-nurturer.

This episode spends slightly less time lavishly depicting Bette Davis’ wardrobe of the period, but that’s at least partially because she was never given to the kinds of public displays of glamour Joan thrived on.

But make no mistake, just as much is being said about Bette in these scenes as Joan in hers. Her house reveals her New England roots and has a woodsy, low-ceilinged, naturalistic tone in comparison to the palatial Hollywood Regency shine of Joan’s manse. Everything here, from the fire to the overstuffed chairs to the blues playing and the groceries, speaks of a much more relatable, down-to-earth persona in comparison to Joan’s grande dame posturing. Still, for all the authenticity on display, it’s a scene of a lonely woman, drinking and chain-smoking. There’s a restlessness and unhappiness at the core of all the coziness.

Bette wears pants way more often than Joan does in this tale. Again, it speaks to her as an artist and someone with far fewer pretensions than Joan. The sweater and blouse give her a humble and modest feel, even if we know she wasn’t really either of those things. And she tends to favor these natural tones and themes in a lot of her clothing.

She and B.D., her daughter, are dressed to match each other, but also to call back to all those woodsy yellows, greens and browns of Bette’s home. This is her color story, just as brilliant jewel tones tend to be Joan’s.

Note again the pants and the tied blouse, giving her that more modern, less pretentious, and far more practical feel when compared to Joan’s high drag.

 

Note how this flips the dynamic of the scene at the start of this post, with Joan seated in front of a mirror in her (relative) finery and Bette standing over her in more practical wear. Note also how it’s another scene that lightly references the actual costumes these women wear in their work, as the white blouse and pink bathrobe call back to Jane’s white dress and Blanche’s pink bathrobe in the scenes to come.

And finally, three black birds, pecking at each other:

 

Why would they all be in black? When do you ever see three women in a scene together wearing black dresses – and they’re not at a funeral? Or nuns? Let’s break this one down.

Bette favors black, as does Hedda, but even for them, these are unusually somber and funereal looks. In fact, all three of them are uncharacteristic in their style here. Hedda’s not usually so unified and pattern-free. Joan isn’t usually so business-like and never goes without color. Bette is a little boobier and fussier (gloves and netting) than her natural preferences. In short, and after every very strong motif established about each of them already, it’s clear that each of them are putting on a massive front for each other. None of them are dressed quite the way they normally do. Hedda has toned herself down so as to appear non-threatening. Joan has a suit of armor on so as to reveal nothing about her constant inner turmoil. Bette is doing her best version of Hollywood glam so as to appear comfortable in a setting like this one (which she is not). Costumes as lies personified. Putting them all in uniform black serves to highlight how false each of them are in this scene.

Much more to come, dolls! We’re just getting started on this one. Don’t miss our regular Feud review here.

 

 

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!