The Secret of Kim


An arresting and unusual credit from THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY.

The first thing one asks, I imagine, is how much is concealed within that simple phrase “executed by.” And of course we can’t know without seeing the drawings.

Let it be admitted, however, that many professional costume designers really ought to have similar sub-credits. Some famous names will scribble a few indecipherable lines on a bit of card, skim it at an underling, and say words to the effect of “Execute that.” The assistant must interpret, design and realize the squiggly  “concept” with no real credit at all. At least la Novak admits she had help.

(And in those days of costume department heads, somebody like Edith Head [the Head of heads] could get a credit and pick up an Oscar for something she might not have worked on at all, except possibly in some kind of abstract supervisory role. We’re also told that Head got her first movie job by walking into the studio with a portfolio full of her students’ drawings. Such versatility!)

The next question is, are the costumes designed for Kim Novak by Kim Novak as good as the ones designed for Kim Novak by, say, Adrian? The answer would have to be NO, they are not. But some of them are very good. They lack consistency, and that may be because the job was split between Novak and Courtney or because some are mainly KN and some are mainly EC, or because Novak lacks consistency.

So if they’re not as good as what you can get by employing Columbia’s regular man, what is the point, beyond a little ego-boost for a top box office star who ought to be getting all the flattery she needs?


I note with amusement that Courtney’s only non-Novak credit is for LADY SINGS THE BLUES, again with a star (Diana Ross this time) who liked knocking together her own frocks. Fiona actually remarked that the strange triangular sleeves sported by Novak reminded her of those disfiguring Diana Ross’s arms in MAHOGANY. My theory on this preference for isosceles sleeves: a triangle has one line less than a rectangle, and so is easier and quicker to draw. A valuable labour-saver if you also have a movie to act in.

On the other hand, it must be said — this is nice —


Am anxious to hear of any other cases of movie stars designing their own gowns.


21 Responses to “The Secret of Kim”

  1. In her autobiography Ginger Rogers took the credit for designing the famous feather dress she wore dancing “Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat… or at least telling Bernard Newman exactly what she wanted. But it should be noted that in the previous Astaire/Rogers movie, her buddy Lucille Ball wears what might be a rough sketch of the same dress.

  2. Ha! So her design input consisted probably of saying “Make me something like THAT.”

    Though I’m sure many stars have had their say in the KIND of costumes they wanted, we have to draw a line between that and actual design.

  3. In her version of A Star is Born lies the immortal credit “Barbra Streisand’s clothes from her closet”

  4. Divine?

  5. Jenny Eardley Says:

    And then the movie poster of the ’76 Star is Born has her in the nip! What’s that all about?

  6. david wingrove Says:

    According to her daughter’s memoir, Marlene Dietrich used to design her own costumes in active collaboration with Sternberg and Paramount design ace Travis Banton.

    Of course, Marlene was a lady with natural flair, taste and style – which many screen goddesses are not! I haven’t actually seen THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY, but I’ve always thought Kim looked rather odd in still photos. Her insistence on designing her own clothes would explain a lot!

    As for Barbra Streisand’s closet…let’s just say it gets very crowded on a Saturday night!

  7. Jenny Eardley Says:

    Kim also did her costumes on BOYS’ NIGHT OUT, and they look like quite everyday outfits for the time. Not that I want to take away from her achievement. No sign that Liz Taylor ever designed her own kaftan, disappointingly.

  8. david wingrove Says:

    Off screen, poor Liz was a walking disaster area when it came to fashion. As her career slipped out from under MGM’s control, her dubious taste began to effect her on-screen outfits.

    Her atrocious ensembles in BOOM! and THE DRIVER’S SEAT (to name only two) are the stuff of camp legend. In both films, the hideous clothes make a valid dramatic point – but they were also an uncomfortable echo of Liz’s real-life image.

    It was all a great pity! When she was directed by someone with a keen eye for wardrobe, Liz could look several decades younger and more glamorous than she normally did. Just see her in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1988 film YOUNG TOSCANINI. Suddenly, she’s as stunning as she was in her MGM heyday!

  9. Everyday clothes for Boys Night Out would make perfect sense. Someone, somewhere, just made the point that as Quine’s Novak obsession reached a head, letting her design her own wardrobe was a way of freeing her — kind of like the opposite of her sinister makeover scene in Vertigo.

  10. David Boxwell Says:

    Spark’s novel THE DRIVER’S SEAT lavishes much attention to the female protagonist’s intentionally clashy-clashy ensembles.

    After Hitchcock’s obsessive control of her VERTIGO wardrobe (which she complains about now) Novak just wanted to wrest a little back, I guess.

  11. Of course she looks better in Vertigo than in The Notorious Landlady, but no doubt she felt better in TNL.

    Dietrich knew exactly what suited her, and was an active collaborator with Sternberg and Banton, but nothing should deprive Travis B of the credit that is rightfully his. Anybody can have excellent taste, not anybody can be a costume designer.

  12. judydean Says:

    Strange, I was thinking about Charlotte Greenwood while watching that. Now there’s a woman who wore somre great thirties clothes, and had the frame to show them to their best advantage.

  13. Fashion drawings do tend to exaggerate the beanpole shape…

  14. I wonder how many costume designers “insisted” on sharing the credit with the actress after she ruined the larger part of the designer’s original intention for the film with her “improvements”. Heard rumors of a few theatrical designers threaten to disassociate themselves from a project, but makes you wonder how often it actually happens…definitely keep the cash, though…combat pay.

  15. It seems to be very rare for movie designers to share credit with stars — I think there were contractual arrangements to prevent it. But there are probably plenty of poorly designed movies where the blame lies with the star.

  16. On the recent TCM interview, Novak mentioned Hitchcock insisting she wear an outfit that just felt wrong to her — and then realizing her character was supposed to be uncomfortable in her own skin at that point, and using it as a tool Hitch had intentionally provided.

    I’m always a little leery of star credits for things outside their more famous specialty. Was surprised to learn that Chaplin was a very capable musician; always had a mental image of him tapping out tunes on a piano and leaving an arranger to make it work.

  17. Well, Chaplin has a very distinctive style of melody — but the arrangements change in feeling enormously between David Raksin and, say, Eric Rogers. The Rogers scores sound like Carry On films, which is what Rogers is known for.

    Chaplin couldn’t read music but I’ve seen film of him conducting and it looks impressive.

  18. david wingrove Says:

    Compared to his treatment of Tippi Hedren and others, old Hitch’s behaviour to Kim Novak was fairly benign, as far as we know! She may or may not have liked the dress…but I’d say she got off lightly.

  19. Hitch generally seems to have treated his stars with due deference, apart from some instances in the early days (Sylvia Sydney). Tippi being Hitch’s creation, he evidently felt he could treat her as he liked.

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