Costume Party is a monthly column exploring fashion, personal style, and historical aesthetics in film.
Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), has become a cinephile Christmas classic, playing in repertory theaters around the city and bringing little in the way of yuletide cheer. (You can catch it in 35mm at Moving Image, Lincoln Center and Metrograph this holiday season.) There’s much to explore regarding the film—the depiction of sexuality, its place in Kubrick’s oeuvre, the Jewish director’s decision to adapt a 1926 novella written by a Jew and place it an explicitly Christmassy setting, the nature of dreams—but here we’re taking a look at one specific and very memorable element: the wardrobe of star and metatextual celebrity provocateur Nicole Kidman as Alice Harford, the glamorous, sexually fantasizing wife of Tom Cruise’s Bill.
One of the chief pleasures of the film is its enveloping look into the sumptuous lifestyles of the wealthy (lifestyles made all the more aesthetically pleasing when bedecked with twinkling Christmas lights). The very first shot shows Alice from the back as she takes off a filmy black dress.
While the image is voyeuristic, showing Kidman’s superlative figure before her face, it immediately telegraphs elegance, with the classic dress and a composition recalling a painting. She and Bill prepare to go to a holiday party. At home, Alice often wears the kind of wire-rimmed oval glasses that might be called bookish. Preparing to go to the party, she wears the glasses and a long, sleek black gown with a semi-sheer sweetheart neckline. Hiking her expensive dress up, she sits on the toilet—peeing has never looked quite so fashionable as it does here.
The couple look ready to walk the red carpet like the celebrities they are in real life. The black dress has a slit and low back that suggest a trace of the femme fatale.
At the party, she saunters in the black dress, surrounded by lights. “How do I look?” she asked Bill earlier. “Perfect.”
Of course, the film isn’t all glamorous dresses. It’s hard to discuss Eyes Wide Shut without mentioning the centerpiece masked orgy scene. An orgy feels like such a strange event, so filled with naked bodies, that we might end up asking what is its opposite. The answer is Alice at home in her underwear—simple in dress but not in her character, and unselfconscious of being only partially clothed in a way that fits the domestic scene.
The use of dreamlike colored lighting throughout the film calls attention to what Alice is wearing. Her black gown contrasts with Christmas lights, and the shock of blue behind her as she stands in a white camisole and underwear makes her plainspoken outfit stand out. Alice here isn’t just a spectacle of a celebrity in underwear, but an anchor of white in a dreamy blue underworld, as she and her husband descend into the darker parts of their psyches.
Many of Kubrick’s films have memorable fashions, from the 1950s girlishness of Lolita to the creepy mod looks of A Clockwork Orange, to the ruffled period garb of Barry Lyndon. Kubrick is the type of director whose every onscreen image seems entirely purposeful, and fashion is no exception here. The holidays, especially as they are presented here, are a study in contrasts: dressing up for parties, and then relaxing at home. Kubrick often shows his star in repose, and Kidman’s charisma makes a nondescript robe somehow chic.
While it’s easy to talk about Eyes Wide Shut in terms of what isn’t worn, the clothes we do see become more significant by virtue of being framed by nudity. The film’s famous, perfect final line, Alice’s utterance of the word “fuck,” becomes even more subversive when we consider that she’s wearing a classic, well-tailored camel coat (that matches all the teddy bears around her, no less) when she says it.