In ‘Vertigo,’ Edith Head solved an identity crisis with fashion

For “Vertigo,” designer Edith Head dressed Kim Novak (with costar Jimmy Stewart) in a gray suit to play the blonde Madeleine.
paramount pictures
For “Vertigo,” designer Edith Head dressed Kim Novak (with costar Jimmy Stewart) in a gray suit to play the blonde Madeleine.

Barbara Bel Geddes took third billing in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” behind stars Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart. But watch the film carefully and it’s clear Bel Geddes’s character, the sweet-natured Midge Wood, actually ranks fourth, after a rather simple gray skirt suit.

“Vertigo” is a film about identity. Novak begins “Vertigo” playing the mysterious, chilly Madeleine Elster, and finishes portraying good-time shop girl Judy Barton. Madeleine is also possessed by the ghost of Carlotta Valdes, so technically Novak was playing two people, plus a suicidal spirit.

But Novak’s performance, nuanced as it was, would be flat without the vision of cinematic wardrobe doyenne Edith Head. Head’s sartorial interpretation of the characters of Madeleine and Judy was so convincing that it felt as if Novak was playing to her wardrobe as much as she was to Hitchcock.


“Vertigo” screens Dec. 31 as part of the Brattle Theatre’s retrospective The Queen of Seam: Edith Head in Hollywood .

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Novak’s Madeleine was the epitome of 1950s aloof chic. Her preferred palette is gray — from charcoal to rain cloud — along with black and white wool. The fabrics were sturdy, and exuded midcentury wealth and poise. It’s no wonder Jimmy Stewart’s acrophobia-rattled character, detective John (Scottie) Ferguson, jumped into San Francisco Bay to save Madeleine when the spirit of Carlotta drove the poor tormented soul to attempt suicide. He was in love with Madeleine, and probably Head’s wardrobe. Don’t let that posh wool coat get wet!

Head was a regular Hitchcock collaborator. She knew how to work with directors, and Hitchcock was quite specific in how he wanted his leading ladies to look, blond hair and all. When Novak told Head she didn’t want to wear gray, Hitchcock told Head to handle the situation.

“As soon as [Novak] left I was on the phone to Hitch asking if that damn suit had to be gray,” Head wrote in her posthumously released 1983 biography, “Edith Head’s Hollywood.” “He explained to me that the simple gray suit and plain hairstyle were very important and represented the character’s view of herself in the first half of the film. The character would go through a psychological change in the second half of the film and would then wear more colorful clothes to reflect the change.”

That change from Madeleine (spoiler alert: Madeleine was a fraud) to Judy was a masterpiece of character development through fashion. Judy was everything that Madeleine wasn’t: colorful, smiling, auburn-haired, and willing to let a strange man go through her wallet upon first meeting him. Her wardrobe of emerald and Easter egg violet, along with her spirit, were quickly crushed as John forced her to transition back to Madeleine. Enter the gray suit again, exit poor Midge Wood.


Given their strong working relationship (Head won an Oscar for her work on Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief’ in 1955), it’s unfathomable to imagine another costumer and director communicating as effectively as Head and Hitchcock to create the magic of “Vertigo.” What was most remarkable about Head was that she was often willing to put her ego aside and work with both actresses and directors. But the end result of those meetings was a vision that was entirely her own.


24head Paramount film "Vertigo" with Kim Novack and Jimmy Stewart.
Madeline (Novak), in the gray suit, shops for flowers in Vertigo.

Words can describe Kim Novak’s transformation in “Vertigo,” but photos can do the job much better. Here’s how Edith Head’s costumes helped Novak portray her dual role in the thriller.

Madeleine, a wealthy, distant woman possessed by the spirit of Carlotta, shops for flowers (above) in an early scene from “Vertigo.” The gray suit gives the audience cues that Madeleine is rich, aloof, and not necessarily the most fun-loving woman in San Francisco.

Kim Novak as Judy Barton.

After the staged death of Madeleine, the audience sees Novak’s true identity, workaday midwesterner Judy (above). While the character of Madeleine was an icy blond Hitchcock fantasy gal, Judy clearly shops off the rack at discount department stores. She favors patterns, colors, and flimsy fabrics.

Judy (Novak) hides the famous gray suit.

After running into Scottie , the patsy in a sinister plan, Judy quickly moves the tell-tale gray suit to the back of her closet. The close-up on the suit is another cue to the audience that Judy was really Madeleine. Or, perhaps, it was a nod to Novak’s dislike of wearing gray.

Judy (Novak) realizes that her Easter egg purple dress can’t complete with a blond in gray suit.

Stewart’s character only has eyes for blondes in gray suits, and when he spots one walking into Ernie’s restaurant over pre-makeover Judy’s shoulder (above), her self-esteem takes another hit. The scene gives Head and Hitchcock an opportunity to contrast Judy’s taste for diaphanous, colorful fabrics against yet another gray suit.

After enduring the most uncomfortable shopping spree and makeover ever recorded on film, Judy now looks exactly like Madeleine, right down to the black dinner dress. The ruby necklace lets John know that he’s been had. After spending all that money on clothes and new hair for Madeleine/spirit of Carlotta/Judy/Madeleine II, she falls off the bell tower. This time for real.

Judy (Novak) and the tell-tale necklace.
Judy (Novak) and the tell-tale necklace.

Christopher Muther can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.