Bette Davis, Costume and the ‘Character Actress’. (As part of the Bette Davis Blogathon.)

I am finally participating in a blogathon (ahh!) From the April 5th-7th ‘In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood’ is hosting their third annual blogathon. On April 5th Bette Davis was born and this year would have been her 110th birthday.

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Character actress. If there was ever a word used to describe Bette Davis as an actor it would be that. She was never considered a ‘classical beauty’ like most of her contemporaries of the day but rather she was revered for her work, along with her infamous rivalry with Joan Crawford. She would always ‘transform’ herself into her roles, once stating that “through the work of a fine costume designer, an actor or actress can become the character … If we are not comfortable in those clothes, if they do not project the character, the costume designer has failed us.

Costume is a visual aspect that is usually overlooked as something to be aesthetically pleasing for the audience, and also something which must reveal information about the character itself. This is so true especially in relation to the Old Hollywood system and this ideal creation of the ‘star’. Costumes were usually photographed to be seen and not worn in an effort to make the said ‘beautiful star’. Designers were also used as a way to ‘make the star’, with notables examples like Audrey Hepburn and Hubert Givenchy, Joan Crawford and Adrian amongst others. Even though Davis worked extensively in her early career with Orry-Kelly and then Edith Head, she was never sold as ‘beautiful’.

Davis and her roles are usually categorised as the ‘independent’ woman, independence that’s defined within heteronormative structures. By this, I mean that the women characters are constrained from full independence as they eventually ‘fall for the man’ and restructure themselves as the ‘homebody woman’. Davis was also known as one of the ‘drama’ pioneers, earning most of her critical praise and Oscars for these roles. Drama was something she lived for as when she was 10 years old in the school Christmas pageant, Santa Claus’s robe caught on fire. She closed her eyes for maximum effect leaving the teacher to believe that she was blind. From then on, in that adrenaline fuelled moment, she knew she wanted to be an actor.

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On the left Bette Davis in ‘Fashions of 1934’ (1934) and on the right, in ‘Now, Voyager’ (1942.)

She arrived in Hollywood in 1930 and already Hollywood wanted to have their way with her. There were constant remarks about her appearance and even in ‘Fashions of 1934’ (1934) they supplied her with a Garbo wig, mouth and huge lashes to which she described as “I looked like somebody dressed up in mother’s clothes.” She used this experience as a learning curve so that she could never be ‘exploited’ in this way again.

During the early 30s she was always demanding for better roles, along with more and more creative control as her career developed. After her Academy Award winning role in Dangerous (1935) she then became more aware of the power she could execute over her image. In Western society there is usually this notion of prescribing to a ‘developmental view’ on history (that we, as a society, are developing all of the time). This notion is frequent to those of Hollywood, which is true and shouldn’t be side-lined, however they had some creative control over their image. This was expressed through the fact that everyone had to agree on a costume design which included: the actor, designer, seamstress and director amongst others. This meant that Davis could exert a power over the studio system, and in turn Jack Warner, which she desperately tried to do regarding her court case from 1936.

From the late thirties, like with ‘Dark Victory’ (1939), and all the way into many of her dramas for the 40s she worked with Orry-Kelly in designing her costumes. In some cases, like ‘Dark Victory’, there could have been a tendency to portray characters within an overdramatic and melancholic way. Davis however created and portrayed many of her characters as ‘bitches’. Within these many dramas, she was always defined through an iconic hat and fur-trimmings around her face. In the period drama ‘Little Foxes’ (1941) for example, Orry-Kelly chose to feature long sleeves upon her designs that extended beyond the hand in order to symbolise claws. Her hat too, with feathers which extended beyond the hat created her into a ‘bird of prey’. She once famously quipped during her ongoing feud with Crawford, “Why am I so good at playing bitches? I think it’s because I’m not a bitch. Maybe that’s why Miss Crawford always played ladies.” Despite the context of this quote, Davis was known to play the cold-hearted characters, as she was never afraid to appear as hideously unattractive or spiteful as she didn’t care what people thought of her. What is also interesting about Davis is that as she wasn’t depended upon to be voyeuristically looked at, the box-office audience and critics could then judge her acting, rather than her beauty.

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(Left) Bette Davis in ‘Little Foxes‘ (1941) and on the right, her transformation into Queen Elizabeth I in ‘The Virgin Queen’ (1955.)

During the 50s Davis was taking more control over creative choices in the studios as her choices proved right which showed through the critical praising of her work. When she went onto make ‘All About Eve’ (1950) Davis insisted that the costume designer Charles LeMaire should be, essentially, replaced by Edith Head. In this film one of her iconic and more well-known glamorous dresses were produced. Apparently the measurements weren’t taken properly for the dress which is why the dress appears off the shoulder. This mishap is believed to be the reason why the film delayed production for a few days. This dress became iconic and I noticed whilst watching Feud’ (2017) that the dresses design would appear frequently, outside of Susan Sarandon re-creating a scene from the film, re-affirming the cultural iconography of Davis.

In 1962, the anticipated release of Bette Davis’s picture was released into cinemas. It was seen to give her a comeback from her somewhat failing career and how else can you get people talking than through working with your ‘arch nemesis’. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis worked together in ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’, earning Davis another Oscar nomination. In this film, she is noted for ‘creating and transforming’ into Baby Jane through a wig Crawford supposedly worn in a 30s picture and make-up for the part. Transforming to the extreme for a part was something which was never new to Davis, in fact she revelled in it. When playing Queen Elizabeth I twice, in ‘The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex’ (1939) and ‘The Virgin Queen’ (1955), she shaved her hairline, eyebrows and plastered her face with powder. In most of her films her face was rouged, her costumes padded, prosthetics were sometimes deployed and she did all this whilst wearing sensible shoes. Transforming to large extents was something unheard of, unless you were Lon Chaney. That didn’t matter to Davis though as she relished in the transformation. This transforming however was not like that of the method actor trying to get into a role but rather that of a personification of herself. For her, the characters were ‘mixed’ into herself which had to adjust to the larger than life personality that was Bette Davis.

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On the left is Bette Davis as Margo Channing in ‘All About Eve’ (1950) and on the right, Susan Sarandon in ‘Feud’ (2017). Not exact replicas however they do seem similar which is enough to acknowledge the reference subconsciously.

In contrast to her everyday attire, rather than her costumes, Bette Davis never went to such a large extremes. Not to say that she never dressed glamorously or elegantly but in fact she relished in the simplicity of clothing. She favoured the block colours, simplistic patterns and/or the plain silhouettes of a dress, or t-shirt and trousers. Even within her ‘hipster phase’ of the 80’s she predominantly dressed in just black which was framed through her blue cat-eye glasses.

Bette may not have realised this but she was lucky. Why? Well compare her to Hedy Lamarr or Vivien Leigh for example. Leigh was always defined through Scarlett and a beauty she believed she didn’t possess and Lamarr was only framed through her beauty as she hardly ever changed her appearance throughout her career. Davis, on the other hand, could transform like a chameleon externally into roles and be praised for the work she’s doing. Instead of being photographed or filmed to be looked at voyeuristically as a ‘beautiful star’, she was afforded a luxury to ‘transform’ aesthetically into a role and be praised for it. Now I am not saying that Davis is ugly, because I for one believe she is beautiful, but the fact that she was never acknowledged as one during her time allowed her to be taken seriously by the public as an amazing actress. It certainly payed off, as she was rated by the AFI (American Film Institute) in the top five actresses of Old Hollywood and it earned her two Oscars. (It could have been three but that is another story.) Not only did she break down barriers by being the first woman on the Academy board in 1941 or as a producer, she also broke down the barrier and relationship that the body has to costume. Instead of being ‘looked at’, to be seen or photographed, Davis used costume to assist in creating her role and in turn transform herself into a serious character actress.




5 thoughts on “Bette Davis, Costume and the ‘Character Actress’. (As part of the Bette Davis Blogathon.)

  1. Pingback: THE THIRD ANNUAL BETTE DAVIS BLOGATHON IS HERE – In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

    • Thank you for reading my article! 🙂 I’m so grateful that you enjoyed my piece. In regards to your second sentence, I agree wholeheartedly especially as costume is something which is usually overlooked in performances.
      (P.S I’m so sorry my response is late but I forgot to respond before my hiatus. I had to take one to focus on my dissertation which actually looks at some of the things that I explore here.)


  2. What a fascinating article. I’ve recently started reading more about costume design and how it impacts the perception of film characters. It really is an interesting subject, because it is one the public is not generally aware of in terms of their view of the characters. I loved reading the details of how Bette used it to her advantage in creating a career judged by talent not beauty.


    • Thank you for reading! 🙂 I am also glad to hear that someone else enjoys reading and learning about the relationships between the actor and costume just as much as I. The reason my response has come late is because I had to take a hiatus in order to focus on my dissertation which looks into some of the things which I write about here. If you would like any recommendations of books regarding this subject then let me know.


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