Riding the Wagon to a Better-Dressed Future

     The 1964 film My Fair Lady, directed by George Cukor and based on George Bernard Shaw's 1913 Pygmalion, and Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1956 play, is full of many examples of symbolism that relate to Eliza's metamorphosis from "a squashed cabbage leaf" to a "lady in a flower shop."

     Dressed in slovenly ragged clothes in the beginning, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) is singing with Marni Nixon's voice about the life that she wants to be leading. She walks to the top of a wagon selling flowers; and, as the song comes to an end, the wagon tips back down, as if she were being returned back to her ordinary life from her fantasy world. She then sits on the back of another wagon, that carries her off as she is waving to the other people on the street, as if she is being carried off to a better life, in which she will be better dressed.

     As the movie goes on, Eliza becomes more and more elegant and more like the upper-class people she is among. But there are still reminders of the place she came from. At the Ascot races, all of the women at the races are dressed in fancy, almost too opulent dresses and hats. The fancy hats represent the busy, complicated lives that the people lead. Eliza, too, is dressed as one of these fancy ladies. All of the men wear morning attire; and women are dressed in black and white except for older women, who are wearing light lavender. In striking contrast, Eliza and Henry are wearing noticeably different colors. Henry has on a brown suit and soft hat, while Eliza is wearing a bright red flower on her black and white dress, Hence, it is obvious that these two main characters do not really fit in with this stuffy, uptight crowd. We are thus reminded that Henry's manners differentiate him from the rest of the crowd and that, even though Henry parades her around as a lady, she is still a flower girl deep down. Even though we may be in awe of her seemingly amazing transformation, her true self shines through when she gets swept up in the races, using socially unacceptable language such as "arse."

     Later in the movie, there is a flower worn by Henry when they go to the ball. At the beginning of the night, the flower is fresh and perky like her hopes and excitement. However, later in the night, when Henry insults her and upsets her, the flower becomes wilted, as her hopes and excitement have been crushed. She is dressed in a dark overcoat and is shadowed by dark lighting. Eliza has on a peach outfit when she leaves the house and meets Freddy (Jeremy Brett), symbolizing her happiness to be free of Higgins.

     When Henry goes to see her at his mother's (Gladys Cooper), Eliza is dressed in a bright and cheerful pink dress because she is confident and knows she does not need him anymore. We notice that the dress has a large flower on it, almost to remind him of the "squashed cabbage leaf" from which she transformed.

     The director, Cukor, and costume director, Cecil Beaton, have done an excellent job of using costuming and visual aspects to help the viewer understand each character's moods and mannerisms. The symbolism allows the story of the transformation of a guttersnipe into a lady to be told, without letting us forget where she has come from.

Julie Hallemeier

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