#NOIRVEMBER: The Big Sleep, Sex and The Suit

Following the success of To Have and Have Not (1944), Bogart and Bacall are reunited in Howard Hawk’s film noir classic The Big Sleep (1946).  The film adaption of the Raymond Chandler novel glosses over the majority of seedier content laced throughout, instead replaced by whip-cracking dialogue and heavily stylised cinematography. The sexual under current running throughout The Big Sleep was apparent both on and off stage with Bogart and Bacall in the middle of a tempestuous affair that finally ended Bogart’s rocky seven-year marriage to Mayo Metho shortly after filming wrapped.

In The Big Sleep, Bacall offers us a different kind of femme fatale in the definitive role of Vivian Rutledge. Vivian is sardonic, quick-witted and possesses the same acid-tongue and cynicism to rival Humphrey Bogart’s archetypal hard boiled private investigator, Phillip Marlowe. Unlike her younger sister, Carmen, played by Martha Vickers, Vivian’s sexuality smoulders under buttoned-up blouses; something previously unseen in the wardrobe of the atypical femme fatale.

Bacall’s wardrobe in The Big Sleep is both restrained and chic, elegant yet practical and visually it represents the headstrong, pragmatic nature of Vivian Rutledge. Throughout the film Vivian’s outfits are fashionable but practical with an apparent lack of femme fatale vamp.  Costumes appear timeless in simple silhouettes and muted patterns, basic separates in understated fabrics, and even her evening gown (full coverage, loose fitting with modest striped embellishment) is sober in contrast to similar well femme-fatales ensembles. Accessories are kept to a minimum with the exception of a delicate wrist watch and rings worn throughout.

The restraint shown in Vivian’s character echoes throughout the film in her costumes. When Philip Marlowe first meets Vivian Rutledge she is dressed in a fashionably oversized lounge jacket, trousers and casual loafers. Underneath the jacket she wears a long sleeve top, perhaps a polo neck with sleeves that neatly frame her elegant hands. She is fully covered up from head to toe – a direct contrast to the thigh skimming polka dot tap pants worn by her younger sister Carmen in the previous scene. Although casual, the jacket does have distinctive design details like the over-sized buttons and seam splits at the bottom of the garment. The look is very similar to styles worn by Bacall’s contemporary Katherine Hepburn at the time. Vivian’s clothes tell us that she is a refined young women and although her garments are relatively simple in their embellishments, the audience can tell Vivian’s expertly tailored wardrobe would come with a hefty price tag.

Like many film noir, The Big Sleep has an iconic femme fatale outfit that has resonated throughout cinematic history – the gingham suit and beret. Did Bacall need elaborate clothing when she had ‘The Look’? Perhaps dressing the star in the widely accessible and inexpensive gingham in films such as To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Dark Passenger was a way to humanise her striking beauty. The austerity of the wardrobe in the film also mimics the rations that would be in place after WW2, Hollywood wishing to show solidarity to the troops fighting off seas.

Visually simple in construction the suit appears anything but ordinary on screen. It was in homage to a similar style outfit worn in To Have and Have Not by Bacall two years prior. The suit was a nod to Howard Hawk’s wife, Slim, who brought Bacall to the attention of her husband after seeing her on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar as a young model. Vivian wears the suit to discuss her sister’s blackmailing with Philip Marlowe – perhaps opting for the formal attire in reflection to the nature of the meeting. Bacall is perched poised upon the detective table. As the meeting dissolves into a wise-cracking prank call with the police we understand that Vivian and Philip are equal sparring partners. The suit, with its distinctive gingham pattern reads extremely well in black and white, particularly with the stylised shooting of the scene. Bacall’s profile is elevated with the perfectly precise beret and her hunched, casual body language begins to show the emergence of familiarity between her and Bogart.

Vivian’s clothing remains tightly fastened throughout the film, even when we see her glide across her boudoir in a sumptuous silk dressing gown. She still appears modest and respectable with the gown shut tight. The restraint shown in her wardrobe, the exact, precise detailing such as full coverage buttons, neat pressed collars and prim lengths is in contrast to the overt sexualised dialogue shared between Philip and herself. The element of concealment in her clothing is symbolic of the concealment of desire, much like the use of clever double entendres throughout.

When tensions between the two characters flare in the infamous horse racing scene it is the first time we see Bacall’s character in clothing that could be deemed as extravagant – a plunge neck, puffed sleeved suit jacket in lamé. This type of outfit is more in-keeping with the high octane glamour often worn by femme-fatales in other films, but still the jacket does not appear ostentatious. In comparison to the archetype, Vivian’s wardrobe is neither dangerously sexy nor coquettishly innocent. She is a new breed of femme fatale. Even in loud lamé the clothes do not wear her.

Away from the studio Bacall’s wardrobe did not stray far away from that of her character’s in The Big Sleep. Bacall’s liberal, effortless style developed into both the iconic representation of a studio starlet but also one of Hollywood’s iconic femme fatales.


by Casci Ritchie

Casci Ritchie is an independent dress historian specialising in fashion, film and consumer cultures. Her true great loves – film and fashion – began when she watched her first film noir, The Big Sleep, as a teenager and fell in love Bacall and Bogie hook line and sinker. Some of her favourite films include Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Beetlejuice, Double Indemnity and Cry Baby. You can find her over on Twitter at @CasciTRitchie & her blog www.casciritchie.com.

2 replies »

  1. Great article.
    What I enjoy the most about film noir is that it never outright shows, but always suggests. It’s almost a game of wits between the film and the viewer and you demostrate it here.
    Really enjoyed this.


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