Costume Party is a monthly column exploring fashion, personal style, and historical aesthetics in film.
Film Forum’s Brit New Wave series, which began last week and runs through April 6th, offers a variety of looks, from scruffy working class, to tailored suits, to mod. Silvio Narizzano’s Georgy Girl (1966), playing on the final day of the series, is a tale of female rivalry that uses costume to clearly demarcate between two London roommates, one frumpy and one glamorous. Georgy (Lynn Redgrave, who isn’t nearly as homely as the films insists) is virginal and somewhat repressed while Meredith (Charlotte Rampling) is hedonistic and sylphlike. As is often the case in stories of competition between women, costume is a shorthand for clashing personalities. Georgy, described in the lyrics of the famous title song as “Always window-shopping but never stopping to buy,” mostly wears baggy sweaters, while Meredith has chic dresses by mod fashion designer Mary Quant.
Georgy is not a character who cares about fashion—unfortunately, good clothes weren’t often a privilege afforded to less conventionally attractive characters at this time. Early on, she holds up a dress given to her by her father, and ends up tossing it to side with disdain. At the end of the film, as relationships become increasingly tangled and bizarre (in a way critic Pauline Kael called “determinedly kinky”), Meredith gets married wearing what looks like the dress that Georgy shunned. Their love lives start to cross in a power play game, and so too do their wardrobes.
Before that point, Meredith wears slim black and white shift dresses that automatically mark her as a swinging 60s girl. Georgy, on the other hand, dresses like a hausfrau, though she does wear a classic and more flattering trench coat when going out.
Meredith’s insouciant polka dot Peter Pan collar minidress, which initially projects confidence, is later seen off to the side in her room when she wakes up with morning sickness early in an unwanted pregnancy. The dress in the corner is a frustrating allusion to her past self, and in Georgy Girl, costumes can start to make a mockery of their wearers.
In the film’s most outre fashion moment, at a party at the home of James (James Mason), a wealthy businessman, Georgy suddenly dons a sparkly showgirl dress and begins to ham it up. Costume is rebellion here. Georgy goes through her days feeling inelegant (her own father cruelly describes her as being like “some enormous lorry driver”) and decides to act out in a parody of seductive womanhood. Her crudely drawn makeup and sparkles recall a drag queen, and she projects cartoonish confidence, until James corners her uncomfortably.
Georgy is most comfortable in a sweater. The sparkles are unnatural, and represent a personality she doesn’t quite have the confidence to channel. In one of the film’s most telling moments, James gives Georgy the once over: “Good-god, girl what have you got on? A suit of armor?” Georgy curtly replies: “It protects my honor.” Clothing may mock, reminding the two very different women of better days or personalities they can’t have, but it also protects. Even if Georgy’s sweaters don’t look as fashionable as Meredith’s mini dresses, they offer her their own strange power.