Costume Party is a monthly column exploring fashion, personal style, and historical aesthetics in film.
Witches, sometimes seductive, sometimes scary, have long been an intriguing onscreen force. BAM’s “Witch’s Brew” series, running through the end of this month, pays tribute to some of cinema’s most memorable witches. The series presents witches from a variety of decades, at a variety of ages, using their powers in any number of ways (often for love, but also, often, to punish). Everyone knows the old cliché of how witches dress: black pointy hats and long, shapeless black robes. While there’s no shortage of black in the films in this series, witch fashion seems to adapt to its time and can be quite glamorous. After all, glamour itself can cast a spell. I Married a Witch; Bell, Book and Candle; Suspiria; and The Craft are just a few of the films featured, and each of them offer witches clad in memorable ensembles (striped pajamas here, a leopard print coat there) with nary a pointy hat in sight.
I Married a Witch (René Clair, 1942) is a comedic trifle that makes fine use of Veronica Lake’s impish charms. Lake plays Jennifer, a 17th century witch who returns to contemporary times to get revenge on Wallace Wooley, a descendant of the Puritan who killed her. Jennifer is not aggressive, but playful: witchcraft is a game to her. Early on, we see her wearing Wooley’s pajamas, eyebrows raised and arms crossed protectively. She doesn’t try to look like a witch, which may add to her power. She’s more like a sprite, joking around and mostly wearing light-colored clothes.
Compare this to Bell, Book and Candle (Richard Quine, 1958) where Kim Novak, as Gillian Holroyd, a modern-day witch in New York City, wears sleek black turtlenecks and cropped pants. The all-black ensembles nod to the classic witch, but the proportions and louche posture are pure 50s beatnik.
Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) features witches that aesthetically conform the most to our mythological conceptions. The witches who run an elegant ballet academy look at first like stern older women, but as the plot becomes increasingly sinister and violent, the contrast between their outfits and the filmy frocks and flowing scarves worn by the young women who attend the academy become all the more apparent.
The young protagonists of The Craft (Andrew Fleming, 1996) want to look like witches, and looking the part seems integral to being able to cast spells. The girls initially gain power in the high school hallways simply by scaring people and looking goth. The witch look here is enhanced by the girls always being in a group, seeming like a force of weaponized femininity.
It comes as no surprise when the gothest one of all, Nancy (Fairuza Balk) ends up being the evilest. Her black lipstick, black ensembles, and subversive crucifix jewelry go further than the tamer sundresses and button-downs of her fellow witches. All the girls, though, have a bad girl attitude that makes even 90s catalog staples look somewhat fashionable.
The sexuality of the witch, of course, is often a subject of fascination. In Bell, Book and Candle, Gillian is seen wearing a dark velvet dress with a surprisingly revealing back.
At one point she wears a dramatic leopard print cape over a red cowl neck and gloves. She’s dressed here as an extremely stylish and urbane predator.
I Married a Witch features costumes by the legendary Edith Head, and her signature here is the black gown with a sheer overlay that Jennifer wears late in the film. While Jennifer is not fearsome the way The Craft’s Nancy or the witches in Suspiria are, this long decadent ensemble gives her power, and the sheer, billowing sleeves reveal more than those impish pajamas did.
There’s no uniform look for a witch. A witch may wear black with confidence, but she can just as easily swan about in red or white. No matter what, she’ll cast a spell on someone.