I had an "a ha" movie moment when I was in high school. I was watching Splendor in the Grass on TV while doing my homework. As the movie drew to a close, naturally I was sad for the young lovers. But for the first time ever, I really noticed the wardrobe. The white ensemble Natalie Wood wore in the final scenes as Deanie helped tell the story, helped reveal the evolution of her character, and I got it.
I've paid attention to wardrobe ever since. Not just because I enjoy the clothes, but because when they're done right, the clothes enhance the storytelling. I love how Nora Charles' backless evening dresses establish her as the most sophisticated woman in any Thin Man film, how Mary Poppins' layer upon organized layer (coat and hat and scarf and vest and blouse and skirt) immediately let us know that this buttoned-down nanny is in control, how at the end of The Country Girl, we know Georgie is finally feeling like a confident woman again because exchanges those dowdy duds for an LBD she can really rock. I recently did a Fashion in Film blogathon post about Valley of the Dolls, and how the clothes are the best thing in that truly wretched movie.
So as TCM honors the irreplaceable Natalie Wood with her own day on Summer Under the Stars, I want to memorialize her and the white ensemble that opened another dimension of film appreciation for me.
Deanie lived in the same small Kansas town her whole life. Always doing as expected and trying to live up to the ideal set for her very nearly destroyed her. It literally took a nervous breakdown to take her away and introduce her to a world of greater possibilities.
When she comes back home and prepares to see her high school sweetheart, Bud, one more time, Deanie changes into an all-white ensemble -- hat, pearls, dress, gloves, bag, bracelet (Nat's always wearing a bracelet) and shoes. She's letting the world know she was reborn when she was away, and now she is ready for her fresh start.
The dress has a womanly silhouette. The shoulders, neckline and waist are designed to flatter, not conceal. The color signals that she no longer believes that celebrating her sexuality means she's "spoiled" (her mother's word from earlier in the film). Deanie has learned that enjoying her body is natural and comfortable and as clean as her white ensemble.
As she walks with Bud through his farmhouse, listening about his life and telling him her plan to go to Cincinnati and marry someone else, her bright new outfit stands out in stark contrast. It helps put the end of their romance in perspective: Bud has finally found serenity (if not happiness) in the simple life, but Deanie doesn't belong here. So yes, their parting is sad but it's also inevitable.
Props to costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone for creating the perfect visual coda to this classic love story.