Costumes Create Symbolism for Characters

     I know for a girl, costumes are one of the first things one notices in a movie. Over the years I have been taken with elaborate dresses and suits and have tried to fix my hair the way the stars did. I have also found that costumes give the audience an automatic impression of how wealthy a character is and what their personality is like. Hairstyles, dresses, make-up, and suits represent many aspects of the characters' qualities in the 1949 movie The Heiress, directed by William Wyler and based on Henry James's 1880 novel, Washington Square.

     Catherine's plainness and no sense of style, as presented by Olivia de Havilland, were shown through her dresses and hair. Her dresses were too big for her and did not flatter her chest or waist. In addition, her hair was parted down the middle and hung down on the sides of her face, which was very unflattering during those days. In addition, the make-up artist had to play down the beautiful features of Catherine by using very little make-up. They wanted her to appear ordinary and plain. However, after she came back from Europe, her hair was pulled all the way back and made her look very much more mature and attractive. Also, at the end of the movie, after Morris, Montgomery Clift, had deserted her, she looked the most beautiful. The white dress that she wore the night Morris returned to her home represented strength and maturity.

     Morris wore a nice tailored suit the entire movie that represented how he longed for nice things. However, he wore the same suit, which also showed that he didn't have a lot of money. Morris's hair was longer for those days and wavy, which represented a sexy, dark appearance that helped the audience fall in love with him.

     Ralph Richardson's Dr. Sloper wore long jackets and had a very neatly trimmed beard that automatically represented his intelligence and his desire to be a perfectionist. His costume, hair, beard, and make-up perfectly portrayed a doctor of his time.

     Lavina's dresses, as worn by Miriam Hopkins, fit her very nicely and her hair was always perfectly pulled back away from her face, which showed how conscious she was about her appearance. Lavina was much more of a social person than Catherine was, and this is the reason I feel the costume designer decided to make Lavina look so attractive. Lavina represented how a woman was supposed to dress and act during that time period. She was almost a model for Catherine.

     The costumes and hairstyles captivated my interest during the entire movie. I felt the designers did a very good job with choosing the clothes for the appropriate time period and by choosing the clothes to represent the characters' qualities.

Tony L. Crum

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