What murderous, slyly sexy, double-entendre-dropping woman hasn’t stood in front of her closet and muttered: “What to wear?” Lucky for femme fatales everywhere, designers are currently intoxicated by the anti-heroines of 1940s film noir. Lanvin recently showed slit-to-the-navel silk blouses nipped at the waist and paired with pencil skirts, sent down the runway on models obscured in dark shadows. An hourglass silhouette and soft shoulders dominated the Prada and Gucci collections, with below-knee modesty undercut by a vast expanse of skin up top, showcasing the neck and ever-erogenous clavicle.
Contradiction is key to the femme fatale look, which sees the best parts judiciously hidden, revealing just enough to set off danger signals – think Lauren Bacall in a conservative houndstooth jacket cut close for simmering sexiness in The Big Sleep (two key noir accessories: a deep, scratchy voice and a discreet, gun-sized purse). Noir flourished in an anxious, post-Second World War moment that seems to be resonating all over again, in line with our contemporary jitters about sex, the shaky global economy and, as ever, women’s power.
Although noir is a slippery term, it generally refers to 1940s-era books and movies involving a private investigator and a duplicitous woman (also: cigarettes). The players are usually ordinary people committing evil acts to get ahead, like the bitter working-class wife played by Lana Turner (always in ironic white) seducing a luckless drifter (John Garfield) into killing her husband in the 1946 movie The Postman Always Rings Twice.
In the book The Noir Forties: The American People from Victory to Cold War, author Richard Lingeman links noir’s rise to postwar cynicism. Stories of avarice and deceit on screen reflected a larger cultural psychic trauma off-screen. The line from the 1948 film Night Has a Thousand Eyes sums up the dark world-view of every gumshoe and femme fatale making their wicked way: “The world was dead and I was living.”
At the time, Hollywood was flooded with German émigrés and exiles, scarred by war and skilled at German expressionism. The plots may vary, but noir’s constant is a cold, high-contrast look from canted camera angles, faces caught in the slats of blinds. Characters are hidden in shadows, their morality hard to see (or non-existent). City streets are dark and foreboding, all rooms claustrophobic. In Double Indemnity (1946), the femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) tries to shoot her lover (Fred MacMurray) in a drawing room with no light except a flickering fireplace. Just before she is killed, Stanwyck declares: “I’m rotten to the heart.” Maybe, but she has the outside figured out: a draped, white siren gown with cinched bell sleeves, cut down to there. How could he have resisted?
And, above all, the femme fatale must be irresistible. The men she is manipulating – like everyone in the theatre – want to grab her; her fabrics, even in black and white, are shimmery and tactile. Seduction is the first step toward her goal, be it freedom or money, neither of which were readily available to women at the time. But the femme fatale uses the currency she does have – sex – to get what she wants, and it starts with clothes that demand to be touched. In the same vein, Ralph Lauren, paying tribute to forties fashion this season, showed a modest indigo velvet dress with a ruched front that demands stroking, while Carolina Herrera dotted her satin gowns with fur collars and cuffs.
But the femme fatale loves a mixed signal, and if her clothes invite touch, her makeup is a warning: She relishes the violent slash of red lipstick against pale corpse-like skin. Miu Miu recently paraded this face down the runway, paired with cinched, calf-length suits in bright yellow with polka dots.
Suits matter to the femme fatale. With the men at war, women in the forties stepped into the working world, and noir played with the resulting anxiety over this massive cultural shift: What were women going to do with all that freedom? What other manly pastimes besides work were they engaged in? Sex? Murder? The rise of women didn’t look good for the guys, as psychoanalytic critic Barbara Hales points out: “The threat posed by the oversexualized woman symbolizes her weakened male counterpart.”
We are, almost 70 years later, once again in a supposed “crisis of masculinity.” Hanna Rosin, in her bestseller The End of Men, writes about rampant male unemployment and men’s diminished power in the post-industrial age (though they’re still doing pretty well at the top levels of most power structures). In Canada, more women are graduating from university than men, and more women work outside the home than ever before.
But the femme fatale of film noir usually got killed – or at least sent off to the big house – for daring to take her place among the men or escape her limited feminine destiny. Today, women’s ascent is, hopefully, less of a threat, more of a societal boon. In any case, the clothes of those strong, unapologetic women have been reinvented for today into something undeniably beautiful. All women should feel the power of silk pyjamas and wasp-waist jackets and well-set lipstick. This is the season for everyone’s inner femme fatale to step out of the shadows, and get what she wants.