Tippi Hedren’s pale green wool sheath dress and matching jacket in Alfred Hitchock’s The Birds is probably one of the most iconic costumes for a female character in cinematic history. And like several of the most memorable film costumes, part of the reason it’s so easily pegged and often imitated is that it manages the trick of being both distinct and somehow generic at the same time. Some of this comes down to mid-Century, post-War fashion trends for women, which tended to focus on a streamlined, upper class restraint and chicness by the early 1960s. It’s an iconic look in part because it’s such a classic look.
It was designed by the legendary Edith Head (who is said to have lifted it from her book of designs for Grace Kelly’s Lisa Fremont in Rear Window, although it feels slightly off from Lisa’s slightly showier styles), who fulfilled Hitchcock’s wishes that it be green in order to set her apart from the rest of the cast.
As we noted in our first post in this series, about the green gown worn by Keira Knightley in Atonement, green is a slightly unusual color choice for cinematic costume design. Not necessarily because it has connotations to it the way black, white, red or pink might, but because onscreen, it’s the kind of color that constantly draws the eye toward it. Keira’s gown in Atonement underlined her status as a life-destroying figure of desirability. You couldn’t take your eyes off her in that gown. There’s a similar effect going on with Melanie’s green suit.
But this isn’t a richly verdant green that speaks of life and vitality or an affinity with the natural world. It’s not for us to say whether it’s an unsettling green or a poisonous green, because such reactions are so personal and distinct, depending on the viewer. But it’s definitely a green that floats around the screen, constantly drawing your eye to it.
Hitchcock kept the color palette slightly restricted in The Birds; the overwhelming grays, beiges, and light browns giving Bodega Bay and its inhabitants a slightly faded, sand-and-salt air-blasted appearance. In fact, everyone seems to stand apart from Melanie, either assessing her or keeping clear of her. And no one on screen comes close to matching her.
No one human, that is. Just as Hitchcock tends to linger too long on Tippi Hedren in certain scenes, the camera and script continually return to the love birds throughout the story. They are as inexplicably disruptive and eerily implacable a presence to Bodega Bay as Melanie is.
We tend to think it’s more than likely that someone like Melanie Daniels would choose her ensemble to match the two birds she was bringing with her. This trip had an agenda – not just to pursue Mitch, but to take away his “victory” of besting her upon meeting her. The film spends what seems at first like a ridiculously long and detailed amount of time watching Melanie plan and execute her trip and by the time she’s getting into a rented rowboat in heels and a fur coat, the audience fully gets the sense that there’s something a little off about this lady and her weirdly single-minded pursuit of this man.
She’s a disruptive presence in every one of her interactions; sometimes just by existing quietly so other characters can lay their fears and shortcomings on her. She vacillates between being breezily confident and commanding to sounding frivolous and self-absorbed. The way Hitchcock lingers on her silently for uncomfortably long stretches, like a suspicious townsperson or protective mother, gives the viewer the feeling that they’re seeing her through the eyes of the people she encounters.
And most of them seem to see the same thing: there’s a darkness in Melanie.
For the entire first half of the film, every one of her interactions with people is combative, dishonest or dictatorial. In Bodega Bay, she encounters a good number of townspeople and the only ones who don’t treat her with suspicion are Mitch and Cathy Brenner – although it’s hard not to see their immediate embrace of her as a bit strange.
Mitch thinks it’s charming that she stalked him for a hundred miles and broke into his mother’s house, while Cathy practically cries as she runs into a full hug upon seeing her for the first time, having heard literally nothing about her except that she showed up with some love birds. Some of this can be explained by Lydia Brenner, the stern yet insecure matriarch of the family, who finds it difficult to connect with her two children. Melanie is positioned as some sort of proxy or replacement for both Lydia and Annie, the schoolteacher who once dated Mitch, which is part of why each woman is so wary around her.
A surface read of the situation would posit the rest of the townspeople as small-minded xenophobes, but even in the earliest scenes in the film, when she’s in San Francisco, clerks and shopkeepers eye her warily and seem confused by most of her action and utterances. It’s a disconcerting thing to see in the context of the time and place, which would have held up beautiful blonde white women as either neutral figures or aspirational ones. Tippi Hedren’s perfectly symmetrical, mostly immobile face throughout the film is honestly kind of unsettling when you allow Hitchcock the space to portray her the way he wants.
There’s almost a minor conflict between the script and Hitchcock’s directing choices. It’s very hard to pin down why Melanie is so unsettling because her actions, while occasionally odd, are never truly sinister or villainous. It has to do with the expectations of the time. Women – beautiful, desirable, “perfect” women – don’t stalk the men they’re interested in. At least not in major Hollywood motion pictures of the early 1960s. The costume plays with those expectations and even undermines them a little. Why is this perfectly chic white woman acting this way?
First, there’s that very mid-Century aspirational sense of “just so” in Melanie’s costume. The belt matches the dress and jacket, the bag matches the shoes, the gloves, scarf and fur coat all coordinate perfectly. The hair is a helmet of perfection. The manicure is flawless and matches the lip. The earrings are tastefully low-key while the gold chain and fur coat signal that she has money.
Which may be why she tends to ditch those two items most often throughout the film. As a wealthy socialite with an international partying reputation, she’s not around people on her social level in Bodega Bay and almost everyone is treating her like an outsider. Best to put aside the envy-inducing parts of the wardrobe, like a smart rich girl would.
She wears this costume for almost the entire length of the film, changing up the particular as the situation requires. Removing the necklace to look more modest, removing the matching jacket to look more comfortable in her surroundings.
And popping the collar as a show of strength or defiance when someone starts asking her questions about her past.
As we noted with Princess Leia’s original costume, when a film doesn’t offer a character a chance to change their outfit, the costume can become an extended visual metaphor for her journey or her degradation. For Melanie, it signals a sense that she’s stuck in this situation, forced to wear the same outfit over the course of several days, through several uncomfortable or increasingly dangerous interactions, switching up the elements of the outfit as the situation calls for it.
And of course, keeping her in the same coolly chic if slightly unsettling look for the duration of the film allowed Hitchcock to shock the audience to the fullest effect by literally ripping that costume to shreds onscreen at the climax of the film – although there was quite a bit of visual foreshadowing that this final conflict was coming – and it all centered around Tippi Hedren’s flawless coiffure.
The camera lingers quite a bit over Melanie’s hairdo, whether by showing her actually tending to it or simply by framing it in such a way as to be impossible to ignore. Like the costume, it plays into the idea of her being coolly perfect, sophisticated and a bit of an outsider. After all, no one else sports hair that lacquered in Bodega Bay because it would be impractical to do so in a seaside town. Which is why, like the simple perfection of her suit, when it comes undone, it’s deeply unsettling to the audience:
Because Hitchcock spent so much time highlighting its perfection, Melanie’s hair is something of a visual metaphor for the increasing danger she finds herself in – and a bit of foreshadowing as to how specific that danger seems to be to her alone. The very first bird attack in the film happens when a gull attacks her hair and we spend the next two hours watching a series of bird attacks that almost seem designed to undo that perfect do.
Hitchcock keeps everything in the film maddeningly vague, from Melanie’s own inner life to the reactions of the people around her, it’s hard to pin down just why everyone is the way they are, acts the way they do. This extends to the birds themselves, whose actions are never explained or resolved in the film, but like everyone else in it, they can be interpreted as somehow focused on Melanie specifically; as if they were responding to the town’s dislike of her, attacking the outsider over and over again. When the final attack comes on the Brenner house, the mass’s single-minded intent to get inside the house at all costs feels specific to Melanie somehow, which explains her odd reaction to the attack. She can tell they’re coming for her. The whole film has been telling us this up till this point.
When the attack finally comes, it’s more vicious than anything we’ve seen in the film. Just as Hitchcock lingered on the perfection of Melanie’s outfit throughout the film, he lingers on its unraveling, from her hair down to her perfect manicure. Melanie Daniels, the implacable, over-confident, unsettlingly perfect woman, is torn to shreds as if the birds of Bodega Bay were acting on the will of its inhabitants — although they were really acting on the will of the film’s director, who had issues with all women, but serious issues with Tippi Hedren in particular (see the 2012 Sienna Miller-starring The Girl for all the details on that). Just as he loved to have the camera drink in all her flawless perfection, he seemingly took great delight in tearing it all apart.
She leaves Bodega Bay (and the film), a perfectly degraded figure; her flawless hair in bandages, her flawless couture in shreds, her formerly confident face utterly catatonic. If she’d worn a succession of showy ensembles (like Grace Kelly did in Rear Window), if she’d switched up her hair or worn a looser style in the film, if Hitch hadn’t spent so much time showing the perfection of her manicure, her shoes, her jewelry, none of this would have landed nearly as hard. Hitchcock was an inarguable master of the art of filmmaking, which meant he had a highly advanced sense of how to use costume design to support themes or fill in details.
Every shot of this costume was extremely deliberate and highly effective in making points that the script was sometimes vague about. That’s why it’s so memorable and so iconic. It may be one of the best examples of a single costume doing almost as much work as the script itself. It may even have outshone its wearer in terms of onscreen performance.
[Stills: Universal Pictures via Tom and Lorenzo]
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The Daily T LOunge for August 10, 2020