Retro chic aficianado Stevi Costa takes a second look at Far From Heaven on its tenth anniversary, and she has some words of advice for 1950s housewives and a lust for everything Julianne Moore’s character wears.
I agreed to re-view Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven for one simple reason: this movie is intensely pornographic for vintage clothing and furniture lovers.
What was an interest of mine 10 years ago in retro chic has in the interim, especially in the past four years, become a large part of my life. I have a collection of vintage gowns that I wear as a burlesque show hostess (and sometimes I strip out of them), and every year at BurlyCon I purchase some indescribably special vintage cocktail dress from Melissa Flynn that I swear must have been transported through history just for me. Last year, I purchased a black crepe satin cocktail dress with one gathered hip and a spectacular boatneck collar decorated with triangles and a black mesh overlay. This year, a white fringed shimmy dress with a little white bow on the chest. I bought them because they fit me like a glove – and at 34-26-38, I’m not the easiest size to fit off the rack. What fits my hips is almost always too big in the chest, and what fits my chest often won’t go over my hips. While this is frustrating when shopping for contemporary clothing, it’s a problem I find I have much less frequently with vintage. The thing I love most about vintage clothing is knowing that someone from long ago was exactly your size, with you exact measurements, and when you find that one piece that belonged to that man or woman who was your historical body double, you’d be doing a disservice to them and to their impeccable taste in clothing not to buy that dress. Or that jacket. Or that hat. Whatever it may be. Everyone seems to have problems finding clothes that fit in our contemporary mass-produced, off-the-rack clothing market. These items are produced for a normative, idealized body type that is hardly the norm. Although the vintage that I buy now was produced in much the same way (although with better quality for the final product and the workers who produced it: in a unionized American factory rather than some nameless factory/sweatshop overseas), the amount of an item produced was more limited and always came with the expectation that it would be tailored to fit you. We rarely value a good tailor anymore – and why should we? Most of the things we buy are so expendable that there’s no reason to invest in tailoring a garment that will be replaced next season. So when I buy something old that fits me impeccably and was well-cared for, that feels pretty special. And it doesn’t surprise me at all that I get so many more compliments on my well-tailored vintage pieces than I do on most of my contemporary clothing.
I proclaim my love of vintage clothing as an epigraph for this re-view because Sandy Powell’s costume choices are evocative of shift from the New Look of the immediate post-war era to the sleek modernity of the early 1960s, and this tension between the old and the new in clothing maps onto the intense social changes emerging in Post-War America. Todd Haynes’s film locates these changes in personal and social style on the person of Julianne Moore’s Cathy Whitaker – the perfect suburban housewife and mother in 1957 Connecticut. She’s regularly featured in society papers for her spotless home (which features one of the most beautiful fireplaces I’ve seen on film), her devotion to her husband (she models by his side in an ad for the TV company he works for!), and her impeccable style (she loves to accent her full-skirted New Look daywear with a lavender silk scarf, which somehow works for both her palate of periwinkle blues and rusty fall reds).
Far From Heaven places Cathy at the center of a domestic melodrama in which her perfect life is disrupted when she discovers her husband is having a homosexual affair with a colleague. (Hot tip for 1950s housewives: if your husband is late for dinner, do not deliver a plate to his office. He is not working late. He is getting his dick sucked.) While her husband undergoes behavioral corrective therapy for his “disease”, Kathy conceals this fact from her neighbors and friends. In many ways, it’s the clothing and the set pieces which enable this concealment to take place. Beneath crisp net crinolines and matching glassware, it’s so easy for Cathy to pretend everything is fine when she invites the girls over for brunch, where she laughs politely as they – egged on by Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), who obviously has more modern attitudes towards everything because she wears pencil skirts – discuss how much their husbands require them to have sex, covering the fact that Cathy’s answer to the question is probably “never.”
But there are things that even perfect self-styling cannot conceal because they are always on display, and Cathy encounters a much larger problem as she develops a friendship with her black gardener, Raymond Deagan. Raymond’s presence in the film continually highlights the apparentness of race. His blackness intrudes into Cathy’s world unexpectedly. Unaware that the younger Raymond had taken over his father’s gardening business, the sight of a black man in her backyard registers to Cathy as something wrong, something out-of-place. Raymond certainly shouldn’t be seen in her white suburban neighborhood, and especially not in her backyard without her permission. But once she is seen conversing with Raymond and correcting the misunderstanding, his presence in her home legitimates her perfection. The article published about her takes care to note how kind she is to Negroes.
While this kind of public display of charity is fine for Cathy, it’s entirely another thing to speak with Raymond in public. At an art gallery, the two have an in-depth discussion of the works of Miro that causes stares and whispers throughout the room. Their conversation becomes spectacle, and rumors begin to spread throughout the town that Cathy’s kindness to Negroes might be more than the kindness a white woman should afford. (Hot tip for 1950s housewives: never talk to the help in public places.) While the Whitakers are able to stifle Frank’s homosexual dalliances through the calculated display of white, middle-class domesticity, they are unable to conceal the spectre of racial miscegenation.
This reminds me of the opening line of a monologue I used to see performed in competition in high school: “What’s the difference between a black man and a fag? One don’t got to tell his mama.” Indeed, Raymond’s otherness is always apparent: communicated by his skin before he can open his mouth. But Frank’s otherness is underground: perpetrated in green-lit bars from an Edward Hopper painting, in dark offices long after the office has closed, in hotel bathrooms on vacation in Miami – as far away from the apparentness of the everyday as possible. And Cathy is the keystone of mid-century American style (re: hegemony) around which these logics of racial/sexual display and concealment are built. The miscegenation taboo and the homosexual taboo are constructed to protect the white woman, and by triangulating Cathy’s relationships with Frank and Raymond, Haynes’s film picks away at the value of these taboos by demonstrating what happens beneath the surface to the subjects that are affected by them. And in the end, no one is really happy: Raymond and Cathy can’t be together because it’s illegal, and due to the scandal of their non-existent affair, Raymond can’t even stay in town. Frank does get something of a happy ending in that he gets to leave his shell of a marriage to be with his lover, but where and how are not discussed in the film. One can only assume that he would continue the life of concealment he’d already been so good at cultivating, but that’s not an ending that enables Frank’s life to be any better. What we’re left with is a sense that Cathy has been fundamentally changed by this experience. Although she remains in the same home, she’s now somehow freer, and certainly more modern, for the experience. Gone are the full-skirted day dresses of earlier in the film. Now, Cathy goes about her day in slimmer a-line shapes. No longer participating in the display and concealment of mid-century masculinities, Cathy gets to re-style herself to better reflect her worldview – one which is implied to be more tolerant of difference than at the film’s beginning.
As beautiful as Sandy Powell’s costumes are, and as beautiful as every lamp in this film is, I think I may like Far From Heaven a little less than I did ten years ago. I remembering finding it challenging and sad and beautiful, but this time around I didn’t find it to hold up in any of those categories but for beauty. In the wake of Mad Men and Revolutionary Road, I find the style of the mid-century melodrama to be an odd way to tell this story. The other touchstones I point to abandon the structure of the melodrama in favor of something closer to realism. The melodrama is supposed to deliver an emotional wallop, to make you feel especially bad for Cathy (and Raymond and Frank), but somehow that genre doesn’t hold up for me. It’s certainly not a style we’re used to seeing anymore – but we weren’t used it seeing it in 2002, either. But I was 17 then. And I was genuinely more melodramatic than I am now – in spite of what my rhapsodic musings on clothing might imply. But what the melodrama does allow Haynes to do here is to highlight the drama of display and concealment by surrounding Frank in dark green lighting whenever he’s having a gay affair, conveying the seediness of an Edward Hopper painting, while Raymond’s dark skin is constantly offset by lush green foliage and bright golden leaves. What is constantly on display is constantly on display, and what is concealed by darkness is concealed by darkness. Realism doesn’t get to play with color so well, and although I find the genre of the melodrama emotionally distancing, it certainly makes the film look as beautiful as possible.
And if I were the same size as Julianne Moore, I’d want to wear every single one of the dresses Sandy Powell designed for her.