Larry McQueen: Notes from Alfred Hitchcock’s film - Vertigo


Originally Alfred Hitchcock cast actress, Vera Mila in the original role of Judy Barton, but because of an unexpected pregnancy, Kim Novak was offered the role without a screen test. 

Kim Novak, who resentfully allowed the Hollywood machine to change her image into who it thought she should be, related to the character.  It mirrored the plot point of the film in which the character of James Stewart develops an obsession and falls in love with the beauty and grace of a woman, Madeleine, who apparently dies.  Later on, he meets another woman, Judy, who uncannily reminds him of her and tries to make her over and change her into Madeleine.  Even though the film was not a critical success when it originally came out, it has become considered one of Hitchcock’s finest films.  Novak, herself, left Hollywood in 1965 because of the tepid response to her acting skills, but in the years since, her skills have been re-evaluated and she has gotten the respect that she deserved.

Vertigo - Madeleine

Photo of costume and pin

Costume designer, Edith Head collaborated brilliantly with Director Alfred Hitchcock, who had very specific ideas on how to dress the women in his films and in his attempt to “dismantle the apparently perfect woman.”  There was to be a contrast in the costumes of the two characters of Madeleine and Judy; one suggesting luxury and elegant simplicity and one suggesting a cheap, down to earth unsophisticated look.  Much to the dismay of Novak, Hitchcock insisted in dressing the character of Madeleine in a pale grey tailored suit for much of the action in the film.  The color tends to be too harsh and wash out blonds, but that was part of his physiological purpose.  The buttoned up rigid and unsexual tailoring of the suit added to Novak’s ability to find the illusive character.  However, the costumes for the character of Judy were the complete opposite; constructed in warmer tones with body hugging tailoring over her braless body, thus suggesting a more natural, real and sexual appearance.  Hitchcock liked the color green and the green sweater set with polka dot collar and cuffs and scarf was so fitted it left little to the imagination.  Edith Head’s costumes for the film demonstrate the power of costumes to physiologically create a character and to support the story line.

We decided to re-create the bunny pin Kim Novak wore with this costume for the exhibit at the Academy
— Larry McQueen

Intial concept sketch from Larry McQueen

Kim Novak, "Vertigo," Paramount, 1958, Designed by Edith Head, The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design: Larry McQueen

Jewelry in the film, however subtle was a plot point in the film.  Judy’s jewelry was definitely intended to be less refined.  Attempting to re-create the pin for the green sweater outfit for an upcoming exhibition, was a difficult process. From all photos and screen grabs, you could see a shape but could not see the detail of what that shape was.  It wasn’t until someone suggested it was a rabbit that everything fell into place.  By following the curves and shapes of what could be seen in the reflections, a sketch was made.  Merry Rosenberg, who owns a jewelry manufacturing company “The Magic Zoo” and deals with the creation of animal jewelry, was commissioned to make the pin.  A clay model was made and altered until the form appeared exactly like the reflections seen in the photos.  It was then cast in sterling silver and set with a jade stone.

The end result was a subtle enhancement of a beautiful costume and represents the exciting process of re-creating Hollywood jewelry and trying to understand what was going on in the heads of its creators.

Shirley wearing the costume in the TV series - Laverne & Shirley