Says Ms. Head of the movie in an interview for The Saturday Evening Post, "If you ran the picture without sound, [Shirley MacLaine's] clothes would tell you the story." Today we take up this challenge and view Ms. MacLaine's protagonist -Louisa Mae Foster- through her clothing.
In addition to handling the costumes and personal wardrobes of glamorous film stars, this designer understood the fashion concerns of what she deems"the average woman." This works perfectly with the heroine Louisa, a small-town girl with simple tastes whose life and fashion choices are gradually enriched as the story unfolds.
How does Louisa's life change? All her husbands die after increasing their fortunes. Thus, after every reading of the will, she skips town to forget her sorrows, marries another man and alters her wardrobe. Rinse. Repeat.
What will Louisa wear next?
We meet Louisa when she's still living at home with the parents on the impoverished side of a small town. Her mother insists she date the wealthiest jerk in Crawleyville -Leonard- because "...you've got something to sell. Take a mother's advice- sell it now!" Louisa has other ideas.
But for now, she goes on a date with the creep. Her date outfit is a red and white dotted dress with a full skirt and a cascade of red-trimmed, white ruffles down the front. She pairs it with patent leather shoes, belt, headband, purse -all bright red- and white gloves. It's all a bit fussy.
This free and easy shirtwaist with puffed sleeves seems to convey naivete in fashion and innocence of the character. And it's uber cute, conveying a character who is very young.
Here, her dress matches Leonard's car and button hole. This is her first attempt to fit into her guy's sphere. (We'll see that a lot!)
Louisa's "going to town" outfit is a beautiful, short-sleeved peasant blouse with blue a-line skirt. It is a simple outfit that she might have sewn herself. Note that she walks to town.
As Edgar spends more time at work and less time with Louisa, his fortune builds and they both gain a serious upgrade in threads.
Louisa now wears fur-lined coats and drives to town. In their new home, she no longer wears jeans, but a series of nightgowns and lounging suits.
Her new, expensive, red and white dressing gown mimics the earlier red and white dress. She's still a small-town girl.
When Edgar keels over from exhaustion ("A little hard work never killed anybody!," he says), Louisa runs to Paris, marries a starving artist named Larry (Paul Newman) and lives on his income. Her first outfit as a married lady in Paris is a burgundy mini dress with a decolletage down to there and a split up to here.
When Louisa has finally had enough of the eccentric clothing, she dresses herself again. This time donning a very wearable over-sized, dark orange, cowl-necked sweater with matching tights and flats as she tries to break away husband #2 from his work long enough to take a picnic lunch with her.
Who wouldn't wear this outfit at home? It looks so comfy!
NEW YORK CITY
Larry dies as he lives - in a weird way. Thus, we're on to husband #3 -Rod (Robert Mitchum), a businessman who jet sets, and has headquarters in New York City. When Rod and Louisa meet, Louisa is wearing an oatmeal-colored, wool sheath with matching, wing-back, mink-lined jacket and hat while walking down a Paris runway.
That's not as glamorous as it may sound. She is walking down an airport runway because she has missed her flight to the States.
Rod offers her a ride to New York on his private jet. It is in this jet -passing from the Old World to the New World- that Rod teases her about the fuzzy, dead animal on her head.("...is that your hair?") After he leaves the room to take over piloting the plane, she takes off the hat, and with it she takes off the old and enters the new, a different world and a different style of fashion.
Louisa's wardrobe begins to reflect her new city and the man who will become new husband. The painted dresses which her late husband designed -de rigueur among the hip, artist crowd with whom she once lived- would be out of place with this patrician, East Coast businessman. Now Louisa wears more suits, more pencil skirts, more Jacqueline Kennedy-esque clothing with a bit of flair.
Red plays a part here as it does in all her marriages for some reason. This time, Louisa comes home from shopping in a bright red ensemble. A red coat, red sheath or pencil skirt with matching scarf and over-sized hat. Though this outfit was made in the 1960s, it would not have been out of place on many fashionable women in the 1990s. Designer Edith Head calls this, simply, "the red, red look."
There is a dream sequence where the New York garments get a bit more outlandish and high fashion.
After Rod kicks the bucket, our lady of perpetual mourning flees the Big Apple and drives west.
Stopping at a grungy cafe, Louisa, in a demure look of blood orange sheath and velvet overcoat, is slightly out of place in the tacky restaurant. The red and white, checkered table cloths around her remind you of her earlier gingham blouses. She's come a long way, fashion-wise.
This is where she meets her next husband - a struggling dancer named Pinky (Gene Kelly). To fit in with this husband's world, she never wears lots of layers, or jewels or any other sign of opulence. Here she wears a bright yellow dress with wide black belt.
But just when you think her high fashion days are over, Pinky makes it big in Hollywood movies, and she not only wears a heavy coat in a place that never gets cold, it's her most outlandish outfit yet.
Louisa has worn red dots with Leonard and a more expensive version of the same with Edgar. She has worn a deeper red, a saturated burgundy outfit with Larry and bright red with Rod. Now married to Pinky, she moves to a softer tint of red or magenta and wears the color of her husband's name - pink... from head to toe.
Once Pinky pushes up daisies, it's back to black and some of the most fabulous widow's weeds anywhere.
We've only scratched the surface of the seventy-three varied outfits that Edith Head designed for Shirley MacLaine in this movie. Each ensemble gives you a bit of insight into the heroine of the film: how she adapts to her environment, how she matures in fashion as she steps outside of her isolated world.
The actress does a remarkable comedic and dramatic job in every stage of the character.
Ms. Head says it best about Ms. MacLaine and fashion, "She's a fine clothes chameleon who can look like a little girl, a beatnik, a hoofer or a high-fashion model." You can see all of those iterations of the Louisa character -and more- in What a Way to Go! (1964).
For further discussion of Edith Head's costumes on Java's Journey, see
- Film Fashion: Elizabeth Taylor in Elephant Walk (1954)
- Film Fashion: Anne Baxter in All About Eve (1950)
To buy the movie, click here: What a Way to Go! (1964)