Edith Head- Kim Novak Style in Vertigo

If we are talking about cinema we are talking about everything we see, hear and feel. A good director has a sense to make all these three categories equally good. 

In this blog entry I would like to talk about the importance of Kim Novak`s appearance in Vertigo!

Edith Head was the costume designer in Vertigo who had a long career in Hollywood more than any other woman in history. (Her 35 Oscar nominations and 8 awards make her both the most honored costume designer and woman in Academy Award)


Edith Head in 1976

(The character Edna Mode in Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004)  was modeled on her.)

“She shared Hitchcock’s fondness for the use of color to heighten the emotion.”

June Van Dyke – Edith Head Collection (Vertigo DVD)


Kim Novak wears 3 different type of dresses as Madeleine.

Kim Novak`s first entry:

Kim Novak entry

Edith Head and Hitchcock wanted to be very, very dramatic gown when she’s seen at Ernie’s. Even the red background stresses the danger of looking.

Jimmy Stewart’s  apartment and the beach:


White coat and a black chiffon scarf that drapes down the back. (The wind can catch this and mysteriously whip around her)

She designed Kim Novak`s gray dress. What the scene shows us is :a gray semi-long dress, gloves and black shoes. Everything she wears is common, nothing individual. The dress expresses elegance, secrecy, beauty, a touch of aging but just one color. Black shoes is always a smart choice: it matches to everything. The gloves also have a meaning for secrecy and mystery.

Grey dress

Interview with Kim Novak

Costume designer Edith Head was quoted as saying that you arrived on the set with all sorts of preconceived notions about what you would and wouldn’t wear.

KN:  I was always opinionated.  Once we were making Vertigo, Hitchcock never questioned anything about what I was doing character-wise.  Before shooting started, he sent me over to Edith Head, who showed me a set of drawings.  When I saw them, the very first thing I said was, ‘I’m sorry.  I don’t wear black shoes.’  When she said, ‘Alfred Hitchcock wants you to wear these shoes,’ I said, ‘I’m sure he doesn’t mind.’  I didn’t think it would matter to him what kind of shoes I wore.  I had never had a director who was particular about the costumes, the way they were designed, the specific colors.  The two things he wanted the most were those shoes and that gray suit.  When Edith Head showed me that gray suit, I said, “Oh, my god, that looks like it would be very hard to act in.  It’s very confining.’  Then, when we had the first fitting of the dress, it was even worse and I said, ‘This is so restrictive.’   She said, ‘Well, maybe you’d better talk to Alfred Hitchcock about this.’

How did that conversation go?

KN: I went in and he said, ‘I understand you don’t like these black shoes.’  He asked me why and I said, ‘I tell you, black shoes always sort of make me feel I’m pulled down.  I’ve always felt that your feet should be the same as the top of your head, so that you’re connected.  Wearing the black shoes would make me feel as if I were disconnected.’  He heard me out.  And then he said, ‘Fine.  When you play the role of Judy, you will not have to wear black shoes.  When you are playing Madeleine, you will wear them.’  When he put it like that  — after all, he’s the director – I said, ‘OK.’

How did being opinionated lead to any other disagreements between you and Hitchcock?

KN: I really wanted the chance to express myself and he allowed me that chance.  It felt OK because he had heard me out.  He felt my reasons weren’t good enough, they weren’t right.  I just wanted to be heard as far as what I felt. So, I thought, ‘I’ll live with the grey suit.’  I also thought, ‘I’m going to use this.  I can make this work for me.  Because it bothers me, I’ll use it and it can help me feel like I’m having to be Madeleine, that I’m being forced to be her.  I’ll have it as my energy to play against.’  It worked.  That suit and those shoes were a blessing.  I was constantly reminded that I was not being myself, which made it right for Madeleine.  When I went out of Alfred Hitchcock’s office, I remember his wonderful smile when he said, ‘I’m so glad we had this talk.’  I think he saw that this was going to be good.  He didn’t say to me, ‘Now use that,’ he allowed me to arrive at that myself.

 Was it your idea not to wear a bra when you played Judy?


KN: That’s right, when I played Judy, I never wore a bra.  It killed me having to wear a bra as Madeleine but you had to because they had built the suit so that you had to stand very erect or you suddenly were not ‘in position.’  They made that suit very stiff.   You constantly had to hold your shoulders back and stand erect.  But, oh that was so perfect.  That suit helped me find the tools for playing the role.  It was wonderful for Judy because then I got to be without a bra and felt so good again.  I just felt natural.  I had on my own beige shoes and that felt good.  Hitchcock said, ‘Does that feel better?’  I said, ‘Oh, yes, thank you so much.’  But then, I had to play ‘Madeleine’ again when Judy had to be made over again by Scottie into what she didn’t want to be.  I could use that, again, totally for me, not just being made over into Madeleine but into Madeleine who wore that ghastly gray suit.  The clothes alone were so perfect, they were everything I could want as an actress.

The short haircut you usually wore in your films was copied by women all around the world.  Why did Hitchcock make you wear wigs in Vertigo?

KN: That’s right, my hair was short at that time in my career and Hitchcock wanted that perfect pulled-back hair.  I already hated that gray suit and then having to go through putting on that wig with a false front — again made me feel so trapped inside this person who was desperately wanting to break out of it but she was so caught up in the web of deception that she couldn’t.  The fear of not being loved if she didn’t have on these clothes or wore her hair in a certain way — oh, god, she had nothing left but to kill herself in the bell tower.

In order for that suit, or any similarly styled grey suit in a curve-accentating classic vintage style to really work on Novak in such a way, Novak had to be a blonde. But not just any blonde. Neither a brassy yellow or a bright and bold platinum would work; Novak’s hair would have to be a lovely ashy-blonde.

Kim Novak's Spiral Coil French Twist

Kim Novak’s Spiral Coil French Twist


Women could get away with a more dramatic look, particularly for evening. Eyeliner was liquid, making a sharp, highly defined contour. It was used primarily on the upper lid.



Although, in Vertigo DVD/Production Notes Kim Novak said:

“They do your hair and makeup and it was always like I was fighting to show some of my real self. So I related to the resentment of being made over and to the need for approval and the desire to be loved. I really identified with the story because to me it was saying, ‘Please, see who I am. Fall in love with me, not a fantasy.”












“Kim did not want to wear grey, but Hitch was absolutely definite about that. She had to wear grey. Grey is not a blond’s color and there was something off-putting about it, but that was the psychology of the whole thing.”

June Van Dyke – Edith Head Collection (Vertigo DVD)

(Edith Head on Kim Novak) “I don’t usually get into battles, but dressing Kim Novak for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” put to the test all my training in psychology.”

The little grey suit has it’s own story which explains why the ensemble was so suit-ed to Novak’s role as Madeleine Elster. Director Alfred Hitchcock wanted to give Madeleine’s clothing — and therefore herself — an eerie appearance. So costume designer Edith Head selected the grey suit, saying it would be “odd” for a blonde woman to be wearing all grey, as it can tend to wash a fair woman’s complexion. This, along with some other details, would have the desired, “eerie” and haunting effects.



11 Responses to “Edith Head- Kim Novak Style in Vertigo”

  1. Al Says:

    Very nice page here on parts of Vertigo. Would that we could have, today, the essence of those days when this film was made. Hitch got the best back up artistic talents in the way of Edith Head, and in music, Bernard Herrmann, whose music is astoundingly beautiful and dramatic. These classics are only done once! The remake of Rear Window, for example, did not approach the original, even though the actors did well.

  2. Dave Crosby Says:

    Kim Novak seemed utterly convincing to me in both “Vertigo” roles. It is fascinating to learn that she used her opposition to the grey suit as a motivation for her character. This was not adequately dealt with in either of the major biographies of Hitchcock. He was attempting to portray an ideal of beauty that the Stewart character pursued— and perhaps the director imaginatively pursued the very same ideal. The white coat represented Edith Head’s finest achievement as a designer, I think. I believe it’s been auctioned off for a considerable sum. Another point about this film is my theory that Hitchcock, who was decidedly an artist who understood he was working in a popular medium, identified deeply with the concept of an ideal of beauty and femininity and found himself drawn to this material in order to work out imaginatively this identification he had displayed for so many decades and, more importantly, to involve himself in the middle of the artistic argument that the romantic ideal is essentially a fraud. I am certain none of this was present in his conscious mind, but an artist often works with subjects that have boiled within for a long time and reach conscious expression for unknown reasons. Among other themes, “Vertigo” is an immersion in a concept of romanticism that was first developed during the medieval period and persists to the present. Kim Novak is the ultimate example of the blonde beauty, an ideal in the classical mode, a profound ideal as demonstrated so beautifully in the film, and we and, I think, Hitchcock become completely bewitched by this image during the progress of plot elements and experience a very complex bewilderment near the end of the story when Novak asks for help in putting on the old necklace she had kept from the days when she had masqueraded as Madeleine. Stewart’s recognition of his betrayal resonates so deeply within us that our emotions register very strongly. Shock, bewilderment, anger, fury and ultimately the realization of the reality behind our fascination with an ideal. “Vertigo” surely counts as an example of classical tragedy in the film medium, tragedy in the sense that a hero loses everything when he risks everything to know the ultimate truth.

  3. Robin Says:

    They grey suit worked! I’ve loved it from the first time I saw it in the film. Wish I could find the same for myself.

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  8. Denis Levesque Says:

    Kim Novak gave that interview to author-screenwriter Stephen Rebello. Why do you think it is OK not to credit the person who did the interview, especially because it was a one on one Q & A?

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