Movie & Fashion: The Lady From Shanghai

Intrigues, suspense and amazing fashion constumes, for the movie, directed by Orson Welles, in which, for the first and only time, Rita Hayworth flaunts platinum blonde hair.

Central Park: Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) attempts an awkward approach with the algid Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), who, as she is riding her horse-drawn coach through the park, bestows a perfunctory smile. O’Hara, the movie’s narrative voice and main character, has a premonition: “Some people can smell danger, not me”. This is the beginning of “The Lady from Shanghai” one of the most controversial film noir in the history of cinema. The movie was filmed in 1946, its release delayed for almost two years and once it hit the big screen, it was a flop. Part of the blame goes to the abrupt change of image by the co-protagonist Rita Hayworth, Hollywood’s most explosive redhead. Orson Welles, the director (and back then her divorcing husband), made her cut her hair and bleach it blonde, turning her into a cynical and unscrupulous femme fatale. The haircut was a highly advertised event, known as “The Million Dollar Haircut”. More than a dozen photographers were summed up to shoot pictures of Rita with her hair-stylist. Harry Cohn, back then president of the studios for which the actress was under contract and main investor in the movie, was kept in the dark about the change and this sent him into a rage. Despite the bitter objections following the release of the movie, Hayworth would always mention it as her favorite role. “Orson was trying something new with me, but Harry Cohn wanted ‘the image’, that had to stuck with me until I turned 90 years old”. The movie revolves around the great love of the sailor Michael O’Hara for Elsa Bannister, wife of a much older and wealthy disabled attorney, who drags him into a mortal game, with endless coups de theatre. On the surface, Hayworth’s character is quite far from being a dark lady, thanks also to her understated and subtle wardrobe, that, along with her delicate and gloomy attitude, makes her look like a victim (a Madonna) voted to martyrdom. Let’s start from the dress of their fortuitous first encounter: a polka-dot dress, no jewels and on top of that, a shy good-girl smile. What about the bustier evening gown, which seals their first kiss, overlaid by a pristine chiffon cape with college-girl collar? As the plot unravels, the dresses follow the character’s evolution, as in the white, also in a blue version, pea-coat with sailor hat, that makes her resemble a captain, aka the one in control. Then it’s a crescendo of severe lady-like suits, culminating in the super minimal fur bolero, in place of the jacket. The prettiest accessories pop up: for example, a veil hat and very lavish jewels. Up to the famous final scene in the hall of mirrors where she flaunts a classic femme fatale ensemble: mink fur and diamonds. The metaphor of the mirror – highlighting how characters might have an ulterior motif or ambivalent emotions – has always been a classic feature in film noir. But Orson Welles uses it in a radically different way: multiple mirrors reflect on different levels the characters’ deception and withdrawal, until we loose the trail of what’s real and what’s false. Several directors were inspired by this scene over the years, including Woody Allen in “Manhattan Murder Mystery”, not counting that it was also revived in many fashion photo shootings and advertising campaigns. Behind Hayworth’s sophisticated and timeless wardrobe, Jean Louis Berthault, who had already worked with the actress. The French-born but United States-based costume designer, who received 14 Oscar nominations, created, among the others, the black satin evening gown of the movie ‘Gilda’ and the one worn by Marilyn Monroe at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party.

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