Put on your fur turban one last time, darlings.
The finale of Feud: Bette and Joan was, as we noted in our next-day review, something of an elegy on aging and dying. This made it rather sharply different from the previous episodes, which were more about aging and misogyny. But the show decided to follow Joan Crawford to the end of her life in order to close out the story of her feud with Bette Davis, and since her last years weren’t nearly as full of glamour and power as her earlier ones, the feel of the episode from a costume perspective was a bit different from previous episodes. Not that the costumes themselves changed all that much. Quite the opposite, in fact. We got a finale loaded with furs and gowns and loungewear, just like the rest of the series, but we didn’t get much in the way of costume motifs. It took us a while to grapple with why we think that may be, when we decided it was simply because there was only one theme: decline. And it was very evident in the costume design, even if it doesn’t make for the most scintillating or uplifting commentary.
Very clearly, the episode is making a point about the public, stylish Joan Crawford…
And the more private part of her that is slowly finding it all too difficult to keep up with.
Joan stayed stylish all the way to the end of her public life, and was known for wearing very brightly colored, highly coordinated ensembles in the ’60s and early ’70s.
And there’s very much a sense of heightened effort in these costumes; an attempt to still look like an old-school movie star, while meeting an agent in a dirty New York diner to discuss her narrowing prospects.
She still has that sense of grandiosity and extreme coordination in her ensembles, to the point where it feels just a bit ramped up; just a bit more drag. Jessica Lange’s costumes throughout the series have been appropriately eye-popping, but there’s a sense, with this final burst of extremely bold and bright suits and day dresses, that this is the flare-up before it all extinguishes.
Note how there’s no consistent color story. Green, yellow, red, blue. Bold, simple, bright colors. Few prints or contrasting pieces. She’s locked into a look and selling it like her rent his due.
And of course for her final go-round as Joan Crawford, Movie Star, she had to break out the 1970 version of her go-to armor: a fur wrap or fur-trimmed coat and hat. This is at least the 7th or 8th such ensemble we’ve seen her wear in this series and every time, it’s at a moment when she feels she needs to bring the full weight of her stardom to bear, whether that’s demanding Madame Curie, demanding better scripts, demanding better representation or demanding a chance to show her rival up.
But all of this is, as we said, the last gasp of her stardom. The other motif in her costumes this episode was one that repeated throughout the series: loungewear and bathrobes.
This is of a piece with the type of woman she was, her age, and her lifestyle. But in this episode, there’s also very much a sense of decline in her loungewear. Gone are the fabulous caftans and muumuus of earlier episodes. For a while, she keeps up appearances in a ’70s sort of way:
Note the sparkle of the trim and how her head scarf perfectly matches. It’s the ’70s and Joan is in decline (in her eyes), which makes this as far as her home-based glamour is going to go.
After that, it’s pure “old lady” drag – costume design that underlines how shocked Bette is to hear Joan’s aged, weak voice. Note the tension between old lady florals and Bette’s animal print and more youthful style. We tend to think the decision here to dress Bette so young is a bit of a cheat, as she rarely demonstrated the sort of ’70s boho style skills she’s showing here.
Near the end, virtually all of Joan’s movie star glamour is gone, although we can’t help but note again the scarf/robe coordination. She can’t put the effort in and doesn’t have reason to, but she’s still Lucille LeSeur, the girl who was told all her worth was bound up in her ability to be glamorous.
But all things end, including Joan Crawford’s reign as one of the world’s great movie stars. This serves as her final “real” costume in the series and also serves to be as far as possible from the highly glamorous image of herself in the throes of her dementia:
Her final self-image is as perfectly coordinated and glamorous as she ever was. What’s immediately notable here is that she and Bette are in matching outfits, which is not a thing that occurred once during the series, as far as we can remember. We might have dinged this choice for being too on-the-nose if this wasn’t a form of fantasy for Joan. Note also that the red and pink color scheme of this scene of reconciliation mimics the color scheme of the scene with her daughter Cathy above.
As for the real-world Bette of this period:
Quite a bit of what we saw her wear this episode was based on her public style of the time.
Bette never stopped working or doing publicity for herself, so there’s much more to draw from when recreating her look for this period.
But you can faithfully recreate Bette Davis’s 1978 Oscars dress down to the thread, it’s still not going to make Susan Sarandon any more believable when she painfully refers to herself as an old bag. The resemblance could be uncanny at times, especially in this costume, with this wig and those glasses. But the character’s story hinged on believing she was insecure about her looks and about how she was aging, which is really tough to sell when you look like Susan Sarandon in 2017.
To sort of sell this image of her as an aged frump, Sarandon was dressed in a lot of dreary ’70s styles:
This serves to draw a comparison between her public and private image, just as Joan’s furs and bathrobes do. But it also serves to draw a comparison between Bette and Joan. As we noted at the start of this post, Joan was fairly stylish in the sixties. Bette, for her part, is being depicted as fairly up-to-date in a more ’70s way. It subtly underscores the idea that, while she may be aging, she’s more in touch with the outside world, which means she’s still a viable artist – and would remain so for a decade after Joan’s death.
There’s also a Boho feel to her style in this episode. We’re not entirely sure how accurate it is to Davis’s personal style at the time, but like the ’70s modernity of her looks, it tends to reinforce her as more of an artist than Joan Crawford, who only knew how to project high artifice and basically shriveled up and died when she could no longer do it – as per this version of their stories.
We found this scene a little odd, because when you re-watch the earlier episodes, it doesn’t quite fit into the emotional arc of the story, nor does it reveal anything particularly revelatory. Their first day on the set occurred after their meeting in Bette’s dressing room on Broadway, after the scene of them signing their contract and just before their confrontation in Joan’s dressing room. If you were to cut these scenes in chronological order, it wouldn’t make much sense, especially if you factor in even earlier scenes like the one where Joan referred to Bette as Queen Bitch.
Still, Murphy wanted a coda and these shots and costumes are based on a famous picture where the two stars look uncharacteristically at ease with each other, so “I hope we can be friends” is it, even if it doesn’t quite scan based on everything we know about these two. As we noted, these costumes are based on real dresses they wore, so deeper meanings have to be discussed with a grain of salt. We tend to see what the costumes have always depicted with these characters: Two women with similar experiences and vastly different outlooks; a glamour girl more interested in her looks and a volatile but earthy artist more interested in the work.
[Photo Credit: FX – Stills: Tom and Lorenzo, FX]