Films for the Fashion Adventurer: #29 ‘Imitation of Life’

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Imitation of Life

Directed by Douglas Sirk

1959, USA

Costume Designer: Bill Thomas

Sirk’s legacy of aesthetic influence has become increasingly apparent in the last few years as being chief influences for films like Far From Heaven and television series like Mad Men. The popularity of the latter series in particular has inspired a revival in fashion from the early 1960s. Choosing just one Sirk film to represent fashion is a struggle and his affinity for symbolic scene dressing often means that costumes are not just functional but carry implications and ideas relating to character personality or ideology in his films.

Imitation of Life is probably the most interesting film in this regard, and the diversity in ages, social backgrounds and class status makes for an extremely diverse fashion landscape. Though for most of the film, Lana Turner’s excessive and posh style seems unattainable, her paired down outfit in the opening sequence is evidence enough of the film’s effortless style. She is at the beach with her children and is wearing a white summer dress with tiny blue polka dots. Her hair is held in place with a tangerine kerchief that perfectly matches her lipstick. The outfit’s simplicity is punctuated by animal print sunglasses with dark blue lens’, which become the selling point of the whole “look”. This outfit eventually comes to represent an emotional freedom, which will later evaporate, represented by the increasingly constrictive and garish gowns as Lana Turner’s fame transforms her into an ice queen.

The clothing style of the two young women of the film is equally applicable to most modern wardrobes and as contrasting figures, offer diversity in colour and cut. Sandra Dee’s style is predictably chaste, and she is often bathed in white and pastels. Her pants’ suits and sweater combinations are the epitome of country club prep chic. Her gowns feel like glamorous communion dresses blessed with the perfect edge of princess. She consistently reflects a youthful vitality, one that is completely untainted by the horrors of the outside world.

In contrast, Susan Kohner is often steaming in earthy colours and tight outfits that emphasize her physical and sexual presence. Even the outfits, like her yellow dress, which are by no means revealing or racy, are punctuated with trimmings and embellishments that set her apart as a force of nature. The embroidered flowers clash stylistically with the simplicity of Sandra Dee’s outfits, but seem to represent burgeoning female sexuality. Her style is perhaps the most modern of the cast and even her night-club outfits seem to be bursting with a retro-burlesque pride that fashionistas of today can look to emulate.

Along with images from the film, I am including several photographs by fashion photographer Alex Prager. She lists Sirk as a major influence on her work and her fashion editorials are some of my favourites.

Alex Prager’s photography


-Justine Smith

The fashion adventurer is someone who takes risks and is not afraid to draw upon a variety of influences and cultures in order to create the perfect style. This list is designed for those who have already seenBreakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967), those who are ready to move into the depths of the under appreciated and obscure world of filmic fashion. This list will focus largely on the 20th century, with maybe a dip or two into post-modern fashion adaptations of the distant past.

Please note that this list is not in any particular order.


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