WIHM The Countess and Ilona: Contemporary costume design in Daughters of Darkness

The Countess Daughters of Darkness

Daughters of Darkness is a heavily stylised and erotically charged film based on Sheridan le Fanu’s novel Carmilla, the classic tale of a lesbian vampire. This film was released in 1971 amongst an onslaught of other vampire features inspired by Carmilla such as The Vampire Lovers (1970), Countess Dracula (1971) and Vampyros Lesbos (1971). Fortunately, Daughters of Darkness handled the subject matter more eloquently and presented a well-developed female cast, in particular the hypnotising Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory (Delphine Seyrig).

The film takes place in a grand hotel situated on the blustery seafront of Ostend, Belgium. The illusive Countess and her lover Ilona arrive at the hotel and are instantly enamoured with hip, young newlyweds Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet). Interest quickly turns into infatuation and the film follows the sadistic and tormented unravelling of both relationships through psychological manipulation, blood lust and ultimately murder.

Visually the Countess and Ilona are one of the most captivating representations of vampires on screen, both in acting and costume design.

We are first introduced to the Countess stepping out of a blood red Bristol car driven by her faithful and much younger companion Ilona. She strides out, clad in inky black PVC and the camera focuses on her wet, cherry red lips curled up in a smile, shrouded by black merry-widow netting. This scene reminds me instantly of the infamous opening credits to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). We don’t see fangs; we don’t see strings of garlic or crucifixes sizzling skin. The absence of these familiar tropes make the Countess even more frightening with her velvet rich voice, incessant smiles and couture gowns.  The representation of vampires on screen are subtle; brief empty mirror gazes, an uninvited guest at the window and the looming fear for daylight. The film is mostly shot at night with beautifully lit scenes in blues and reds creating an otherworldly atmosphere after dark.

The Countess’ beauty is devastating. As a viewer you are entranced by her warm voice, perfectly encased by her glossy cherry red lips, set within alabaster skin so clear it looks translucent. Her persistent charm and transcendental presence radiate through the screen. Her elegant wardrobe signifies high society but when the Countess purrs, ‘a woman would do anything to stay young’ you instantly realise she is not your average aristocrat. Furthermore, we learn that The Countess may not be all that she appears to be when the hotel concierge recognising her as a former guest…40 years ago. The Countess’ secret to staying young? A strict diet, plenty of sleep and an old family tradition- drinking blood, of course.

Visually stunning, the film showcases contemporary costume design that helps redefine the female vampire. The undead are often dressed in historical clothing, perhaps the outfit they were wearing when they were first bitten centuries ago. These garments are indicative of their former lives and often the vampires are trapped for eternity in decaying clothes. Costumes for both the Countess and Ilona are refreshingly fresh, with Ilona’s mod looks particularly fashion forward. Ilona wears a series of shift dresses, go go boots, Mary-Janes and late 1960s tailoring designed by Malborough van Gelder. Similarities can be drawn between Ilona and provocative actress Louise Brooks with her wide eyes and pout. Both her wardrobe and fashionable pudding bowl haircut mimicked contemporary British Youth-Quake designer Mary Quant, highlighting the age differences between her and the Countess.

Ilona Daughters of Darkness

It is clear Delphine Seyrig was heavily influenced by Marlene Dietrich in her portrayal of the Countess especially in her mannerisms and makeup. Her face was painted exquisitely, with pencil thin eyebrows and skin so pale it almost shone blue, a juxtaposing contrast to her blood red lips. This hark back to Old Hollywood was a strategic choice by director Harry Kümel who wanted the Countess and her lover to have a lasting impact on the screen. It is interesting to note that both Brooks and Dietrich were renowned for their sexual appetites for both sexes. Both women appear to have lost control of their darker side of human sexuality.

Costumes for the Countess were designed by French designer Bernard Perris in a startling palette of red, white and black. Kümel noted this was to reflect her role of dictator within the group, the colours being closely affiliated with German uniforms during WW2. Furs were designed by Benoit of Brussels. Garments range from bias cut accordion pleated gowns, two toned body conscious sequin gowns and contemporary casual tailoring. Seyrig borrows a lot stylistically from Bela Lugosi’s debonair portrayal of Count Dracula in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931). The Countess presents herself as a lady of leisure, dressed in the finest couture and meticulously preened, much like Lugosi’s vampire. Her manipulation of Stefan, Valeria and Ilona is seamless in execution and is akin to the seduction of a femme fatale. Towards the end of the film we come full circle with a contemporary nod to Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. The Countess wears a liquid black PVC exquisitely tailored cape and as she raises her arms, mimicking the stance of the late Lugosi, she envelopes Valerie in a fatal embrace.

The contemporary costumes of the Countess and Ilona were important precursors to how we envision vampires today. Following the film there was an onslaught of high fashion vamps in popular culture such as The Hunger’s Miriam Blaylock played by Catherine Deneuve. In fact the Countess (Lady Gaga) in American Horror Story: Hotel is a near replica of Seyrig’s vamp.

Daughter of Darkness is a descent into the divine ecstasy of the darker side of human pleasures and continues to leave its mark on the horror genre to this day.


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.

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