Costume Party is a monthly column exploring fashion, personal style, and historical aesthetics in film.
Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) is a constant on any list of the most fashionable films, but the women in his 1970s output are just as well-dressed. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), playing at Film Forum as part of their double feature series, both showcase a variety of chic ensembles in the midst of narrative weirdness.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is essentially a film about a group of six people all dressed up with nowhere to go. The protagonists spend the film trying to have a meal together and are consistently interrupted by gunshots, dreams, loud noises, strangers who expound about their pasts, and other surreal moments. Despite all this, the women (played by Stéphane Audran, Delphine Seyrig, and Bulle Ogier) remain chic. A recurring image shows the six characters walking, always in the same outfits.
In the confusing worlds Buñuel creates, clothing provides a point of recognition. We see the repeated outfits in the walking motif, and recognize that the characters are trapped in a cycle. In That Obscure Object of Desire, the power of clothing as an identifier is particularly potent, as two actresses (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) play the same character, Conchita, at different intervals. Conchita is a maid turned tricky potential lover for Mathieu (Fernando Rey), an older and wealthier man, and we first see Bouquet in the maid’s uniform (an outfit rife with fetishistic connotations) and then, a few minutes later, Molina.
The story is highly subjective, based on Mathieu’s remembrances. Repeated costumes add to the sense of the uncanny here. The women don’t really look the same, but dressing the same seals the deal of them both representing Conchita. Later, both actresses wear the same nightgown in different scenes. We see Molina in the flowing white garment, standing in the bathroom and holding what appears to be a girdle.
Shortly after, we see Bouquet wearing the nightgown.
Mathieu tries and fails to have sex with Conchita. It turns out Bouquet is wearing the girdle (really more like a combination of bike shorts and chastity belt) which we previously saw Molina holding. Clothing seduces, but it can also be a barrier. Here, a garment bridges the transition between two actresses, and allows them to embody the same person.
Late in the film uncanny repeated outfits appear again, this time featuring a signature Buñuel accessory—the elegant scarf tied loosely around the neck with European aplomb. All of the costumes have a drapey late 1970s gracefulness, and were designed by Chloe, the famed French fashion house.
The woman in a scarf might just be one of Buñuel’s signatures. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie features many suitably bougie dinner party outfits. Ogier frequently wears pastels, and in one scene dons a long pink scarf that looks soft and easygoing.
Earlier, she wore that same outfit—button-down, cardigan, and trousers—but without the scarf. In this scene, Seyrig wears a black dress with sheer white sleeves and a large bow around the neck. It’s the same outfit she wears in the walking scene, but note that Ogier is not, in fact, wearing the same outfit she wears in the walking scene. Her outfit repetition comes later in the film. In this particular scene, the women attempt to order drinks only to learn that the restaurant is out of everything they might want. It’s an absurd scenario, yet the inconsistent mixing and matching of outfits grounds it in something that we might recognize. Buñuel’s films operate on surreal dream logic, but the way he uses clothing ties his heady narratives to some form of reality. The proceedings are confusing, but always compelling, and the characters consistently look divine.
Clothing is one of the few consistent elements in both of these films. Buñuel, with his understanding of clothing as something both fetishistic and practical, uses these outfits to mark identity and time. With scarves and nightgowns and pastels, we can attempt to make sense of narratives that seem to unravel before our very eyes.