Costume Party is a monthly column exploring fashion, personal style, and historical aesthetics in film.
Judy Holliday, with her distinctively sassy but sweet delivery, dimples, and ability to go from ditz to know it all in a single line, is one of the finest comedic actresses of the 1950s. This month and next, MoMA is showcasing her work, including her four films with George Cukor, Adam’s Rib (1949), Born Yesterday (1950), The Marrying Kind (1952), and It Should Happen to You (1954). With the exception of Adam’s Rib, the films feature costumes by Hollywood standby Jean Louis, and all four feature ideal late 1940s/early 1950s looks, the glamour tempered somewhat by Holliday’s humor. In her signature role in Born Yesterday, Holliday dresses fabulously, with a wink. She’s funny, and the spectacle of her sparkles plus her expert delivery makes for an appealing, self-aware presence. While she seems less comfortable in the gowns of It Should Happen to you, the way she fidgets and pouts is endearing, and we get the sense that while her character may not be in control of how she is seen, the performer certainly is.
Holliday’s part in Adam’s Rib is small, but she still makes an impression. As a wife who goes to shoot her unfaithful husband, we first see her clad in a fancy hat, reading the instruction manual that came with her gun. Clearly, a hat with a large spangled feather on top makes for a less than ideal crime uniform. Wearing a conspicuous accessory, Holliday commits the act that sets the film’s plot in motion.
It Should Happen to You, with its prescient plot of a brash young woman who becomes famous by putting her name on billboards, sees Holliday in a variety of hats, and ensembles ranging from casual to outré. Early on, she wears a simple button-down dress that wouldn’t be out of place as a waitresses’ uniform.
She decides to buy ad space with her name after losing what might be the most 1950s job ever: a girdle modelling gig. When she walks into the advertising company, steeling herself up, our eyes are immediately drawn to her hat, which has an aggressive quill-like appendage.
In another meeting, she wears a somewhat more demure hat that resembles a pin cushion crossed with a beret.
As she becomes famous, Holliday wears more and more glamorous outfits, and often looks somewhat uncomfortable. Her character is a woman who becomes famous for being ordinary, but one senses that she might miss more ordinary clothes as she fiddles with her dress and scowls.
When on a TV panel, her wide-brimmed hat, off the shoulder dress, and long gloves all give an impression of an elegance with which the character is not entirely comfortable, though the look is undeniably striking.
In The Marrying Kind, the most serious and low-key of the films offered here, small shifts in outfit correspond to emotional change. While at a cheerful but ultimately tragically fated family picnic, Holliday wears a pinup-ready polka dot halter dress with a prominent collar.
In her next scene after a major tragedy, her outfit is simple with the noticeable detail of an askew collar. The collar, sticking out on one side, shows us that she is at a point where she has more significant matters to worry about than her clothes.
Born Yesterday, in which Holliday plays a tycoon’s moll who becomes his intellectual and moral superior after receiving etiquette lessons from a charming journalist, features some of the actress’ most memorable looks. Early on, she wears a dress with an elegantly draped neckline. All of her elegant outfits here are at odds with her sassy voice and bemused laughs.
Her perfectly coordinated outfits stand out in a crowd, and she does business looks as well as she does over the top glamour.
The glamorous piece de resistance is a white sequined jumpsuit: completely impractical, but perfect for a woman who knows how to get what she wants.
As she tries to educate herself, she dresses the part with the requisite glasses. When she studies, she wears a long, renaissance maiden-like vest over pants. She dresses in a way that signifies smart, but we all know she’s been smart from the beginning.
Holliday is a woman who dresses for success, and would likely make a face at any outfit that tried too hard. Much of what she wears plays to her endearing humor. And really, if you’re wearing a giant hat or a white sequined jumpsuit, it helps to be able to laugh about it.