Feud Style: “Mommie Dearest”

Posted on March 22, 2017

Diving in once again, dolls! This week, the motifs were tight but the meanings behind them were nothing but vague.

Last week, we noted that Feud costume designer Lou Eyrich had opted to put many of the female characters (and one male) in a persistent red color motif. We gleefully took that and ran with it, because we love having fun divining and discussing costume design motifs; especially the ones revolving around the use of color. For most of last week’s episode, we were able to take the title, in that case “The Other Woman,” and apply it to the use of red in costuming.

This week, there was a rigidly applied theme of motherhood hanging over every conversation and interaction, all the way up to the title, “Mommie Dearest,” which refers to Christina Crawford’s scandalous autobiography and to which this episode is clearly intended to be a response. But unlike last week, when all the “other women” were Ladies in Red, this week, the color motif seems to be off doing its own thing, separate from the story.

We should probably stop being coy and just get to what we’re talking about.

It’s green. Olive, mint, forest, Kelly, loden and sage – if there was a shade of green to be found anywhere in the frame this week, a female character was wearing it. There was also a significant amount of teal in the costuming. It’s almost as if last week’s reds were all fire to the water tones of this week. Take note as we walk through the episode. It wasn’t the only thing going on, just the most persistent one.

 

First, there’s the green of the Cathy and Cynthia Crawford’s semi-matching outfits to consider, as well as the bright green of Joan’s dress. But B.D.’s costume is doing duty here as well. She won’t wear green at all this episode, making her the only female character other than Hedda who doesn’t.  She will, however stick to the motifs here: polka dot (which is becoming her signature), and black and white. Note how grownup she looks. She’s the same age as the twins, but she’s dressed like a woman eight to ten years older. To a mother as rigidly controlling as Joan, this precocious smoking teenager with the grownup tastes couldn’t be seen as anything but a huge threat.

Let’s jump ahead for a second. Note that B.D. is wearing her “bad girl” outfit above. Later, Davis agrees to let her be cast in a small part in the picture, partially to give the restless girl something to do, and partially to get back at Crawford for berating her. Note how she dresses to rehearse with her mother later:

“I wanna be good,” she whines to her dismissive mother, in a neat reversal of the outfit she wore when her mother’s rival all but called her bad. Clever. Note how much more demure and juvenile this polka dot dress is compared to the other one. A quintessential good-girl dress, in direct response to her bad-girl opposite.

Okay, back to those minty Crawford twins.

 

Just as B.D. is normally dressed a bit too maturely for her age, the Crawford girls are, as indicated by their obvious discomfort, dressed far too young for their age. This is not how any 15 year-old in 1962 wanted to look in public. Note the subtle differences in the girls’ necklines and skirts, making them just different enough to tell apart, but not so different as to have her own identity. As with the bows that she later relents and allows them to take off, it’s like Joan has to tease them with freedom and individuality, but only under the tightest restraints. Like refusing to sign a card, unless she could do it without her other children knowing, lest they expect such kindness from her in the future.

Joan wears green again, while pondering her empty home and the children who no longer need her:

Note that she takes her mourning-mother green off and changes into teal pajamas. We’ll get to that in a second. Note also the shot of her in the slip. Put a pin in that one too.

As for the weepy-mother=green motif, there’s another entry to consider:

 

Pretty consistent, right? Clearly, greens are representing Joan’s bond with her children somehow.

Except…

Bette wears it too, although in a typically earthy, woodsy green in response to Joan’s icy green suit. This scene is all about the wounds each woman bears from her childhood and the slings and arrows they’ve suffered as mothers themselves.

But there’s also at least some sense of jealousy on Joan’s part in this scene. “You’re lucky,” she says drily to Bette’s reference to her mother as her only female friend. Still, it’s a bit difficult to tell if she’s being sarcastic or not.  We’re not huge fans of applying universal color theory to any analysis. Red doesn’t always mean passion of anger. Blue doesn’t always mean sad or depressed. And certainly green doesn’t always mean envy or jealousy. It’s too pat and too broad for our tastes. Still, we suppose it’s safe to say at this point that all the green tones in the costumes are swirling around the twin concepts of motherhood and jealous, since both figure so prominently in this tale.

Not so fast.  Back on set, another green lady appears:

This isn’t the only green ensemble Pauline will wear (although it’s the cuter of the two). But it puts the lie to any theory that there’s an overt theme to be found in this motif. Pauline’s character has nothing to do with that motherhood or jealousy.

 

She wears it again here as Joan (in green again) and Bette throw down in front of everyone on set.  So what’s going on here? Why are all the women wearing green?

And for that matter…

 

What’s with all the teal?

But before we get to that, can we just have a Hedda Moment here? Her story is springtime pastels and increasingly absurd hats, but as always, she’s festooned in so much jewelry and her outfits tend to have so many embellishments that she comes across formidable and threatening at the same time she comes off silly.

As for the teal and the green, now that we’re well into the series and getting more of a handle on how Eyrich is doing things, we think she simply devises color stories for each episode for whatever reasons make sense to her. This week, the women are all in water colors. Last week, they were all on fire. Next week, they could all be in earth tones. Or yellows.

While the way Eyrich uses color doesn’t necessarily make for a perfectly semiotic motif to discuss and analyze on multiple levels, we think the way the teal is used here makes an interesting case study. Crawford went from wearing the teal pajamas of her loneliness directly to the next scene, where she’s in a sharp teal dress and feeding the pastel-colored Hedda a line of pure bullshit. Hedda turns around and shows up – in another pastel ensemble, this time complete with utterly absurd hydrangea hat – to berate Bette – in teal – for the lies that Joan told about her. The scene ends with Bette inadvertently insulting her own daughter.

She wears teal again later, when she tries in vain to connect with her developmentally disabled daughter Margot. So let’s track this. Joan wears teal pajamas and feels horrible about being left alone and without children. Then she puts on a teal dress and takes her revenge against Bette. Then Bette receives the news in teal, insults her daughter in teal and fails to connect with her other daughter in teal. Color story as conversation – or as a virus passed along from character to character.

 

Black was another color that showed up consistently this week. In the case of Joan’s slip and her rather hilarious workout gear, in both instances, the black, body-revealing outfits put on Jessica Lange are done so deliberately to highlight the maturity of her body, much in the same way Crawford and Davis were shot to emphasize their agedness in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Like motherhood and envy, aging is one of the major themes of the series.

Not that black itself tended to signify such things. Davis wore it for a very different kind of scene:

We can add this to the countless “Joan Crawford and/or Bette Davis in sleepwear” motif examples throughout the show so far. The pajama and bathrobe budget alone must have been astronomical.

Why depict both women in loungewear so often? Partially because they were probably prone to wearing it in the private lives, partially because the film deals with the more intimate details of their personalities, and partially to give each character a way to define herself against the other. Joan’s loungewear tends to be expensive and grandiose, whereas Bette’s is low-key and practical. You can’t make those direct comparisons unless you costume each character in similar levels of dress.

But Joan also wore it at a moment when she was looking and feeling pretty sharp:

Note again the way the girls’ outfits match, but are distinct enough to allow them each a little personality of their own. Note also that they continue the pastel theme of Hedda’s outfits. Again, not for any reason that we can tell. Eyrich just likes to establish a series of recurring colors and motifs in the costumes because that’s how she likes to work. This is a bit unlike, say Janie Bryant’s work on Mad Men, where the colors tended to be very character and situation-specific. But Mad Men prided itself on a realism so profound that it almost got boring at times. Feud is working a form heightened magical realism, which means the motifs and color stories can go all over the map. It’s about heightened visuals and consistent aesthetics, rather than a strictly imposed meaning.

Perfect example:

This is the scene where Joan’s aging and her motherhood all came crashing down on her as she finds out she’s too old to adopt another child. You would think, given how important this scene would be on a thematic level, that a costume designer would have her in some sort of motif that referenced motherhood or aging, but that’s not how Eyrich works. It is notable how she put Crawford in her typical fur-trimmed suit of armor; the “full Joan Crawford” drag. She must have thought she needed to show up like a movie star to get what she wanted. Contrast this with Bette, who showed up at the police station to bail out Victor Buono while wearing pajamas; only reluctantly removing her sunglasses to reveal who she was.

And finally, a bit of pure drag:

They may not resemble them exactly, but Lange and Sarandon are doing an amazing job of channeling Crawford and Davis. We don’t think these costumes have any further significance than to return both women to their semi-glam roots and their own distinctive styles. Joan’s in the blues that have defined her home and wardrobe throughout the series, and Bette’s in the fur and earth-tones she’s been favoring throughout. Just a couple of hard-assed dames returning to their lives, determined to be unchanged by the other.

 

 

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

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