In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous. – Elsa Schiaparelli
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Edgar G. Ulmer’s Her Sister’s Secret was released to theaters the same year as Mitchell Leisen’s To Each His Own (1946). Later relegated to the category of “woman’s films,” they are both depictions of what single motherhood was like in the midst of puritanical Americana, where we witness both unmarried mothers wading through the sludge of sexist oppression in sartorial style.
Unlike so many glam comedies of the 1930s, fashion doesn’t represent frivolity in this pair of socially conscious wartime weepies. Here, fashion becomes downright mysterious.
The incessantly employed and most awarded of all costume designers, Edith Head, is responsible for the apparel in To Each His Own. This quintessential single-mama drama features an Oscar-winning performance by Olivia de Havilland as Miss Jody Norris. Interacting with life to create her own narrative is Jody’s style, which rivals her evolving fashion sense. Set during the Second World War, the film has her operating a munitions factory in bombed-out London. Dressed in drab overcoat and fedora, she gets word that an airman from her hometown of Pierson Falls will be arriving by rail that night. Jody drifts into reverie as she sits alone at the station, awaiting this young American. The ensuing flashbacks make up the majority of the film, meaning that Jody’s wardrobe spans the three decades from WWI to WWII.
Taking inventory in her father’s drugstore (c. 1917), we see her precariously perched on a ladder in a high-waisted hobble skirt. Always the working girl, over her turndown blouse and floppy bow tie, she dons a glen plaid apron. On this day, she encounters a handsome flyboy named Bart Cosgrove (John Lund), passing through Pierson Falls on a war bond campaign.
At the formal rally that night, Bart makes a pass at Jody, now in a Venetian lace party dress. Below a probably pink cummerbund, the dress is tiered like a wedding cake, and bright white, like the bow in her hair and the glow in her eye. Dissatisfied with her townie suitors, she turns the tables on Bart and sweeps the soldier off his feet, resituating the randy Cosgrove as her object of infatuation.
Back in her father’s store, guzzling milk to signify she’s become pregnant, Jody embodies innocence in one of her shopgirl dresses, scalloped lace popping at the collar, half sleeves and pockets.
Then, wearing a gingham number that contrasts wide lapels with a skinny belt that looks like a wristwatch around her waist, her delight turns to devastation. Jody overhears that Bart has been killed in battle. And so, without the seemingly-paltry-though-paramount provision of a marriage license, she must save face by leaving town to birth her illegitimate child in, where else, New York City. In these scenes, Edith Head gets a breather, as Jody stays tucked in her hospital bed.
Returning home, she’s arranged for her infant son to be deposited on the doorstep of a couple who already have too many mouths to feed. For all that, Jody’s scheme to step in, offering to raise the child as her own (as if it’s not), suddenly backfires when her rival (a married woman) experiences a miscarriage. In an effort to remedy this tragedy, the child is immediately poached, effectively exchanging one heartache for another.
Letting her widowed father in on her secret, he recommends she relinquish the child, explaining that Jody’s bastard son would be reasonably ridiculed by their community because his mother is a fallen woman, having broken her promise to God and all. Isolated by the idiocy of her surroundings, her clothing takes a turn for the sophisticated. She trades her white ruffles for black translucence.
When her father dies in short order, she flees Pierson Falls and returns to New York, where, thanks to her homespun ingenuity, she fast becomes a cold cream entrepreneur. During this period of prosperity and proprietorship, her style has been urbanized. Sporting a cigarette holder, her hair in a perfect finger-wave bob, she assumes a deco flapper look. She works from home in a billowy satin gown with silk-embroidered bell sleeves, ending in vast circles of sable.
On one of the preplanned run-ins with her child, sitting beside him at a rodeo, she wears a two-piece knit dress with ermine fur along the collar. A realistic hummingbird pinned to a slouchy beret is the topper. These period getups demonstrate how the costume designer helps to orient the film in time, wordlessly reminding us, here, that we’re well into the Roaring Twenties.
Then, as the adoptive parents of Jody’s child fall on hard times, she arrives at their door in a black cloche hat, looking devilish, covered in dangling fox legs and tails, components of a shoulder shrug that illustrates her abundance. A bribe is accepted by her rival, which allows Jody to regain her little boy, now nicknamed Griggsy. But her possession of the tot is brief, because Griggsy, understandably and not without the sting of irony, misses his mommy.
This last-ditch disappointment resigns Jody to loving her son from afar, thus ending the flashbacks and returning us to the London train station. This is where the film gets weird. Spotting an adult Griggsy on the platform, Jody is awestruck by his appearance, as he’s the spitting image of her ill-fated aviator. The odd choice to cast actor John Lund as both father and son elicits an uncanny pang and, through Jody’s swooning, an Oedipal energy unintended.
As she readies herself for a long-awaited evening out with her boy, she ditches her lackluster look for its opposite. Jody has chosen a midi cocktail dress in apparently gold lamé. Draped, pleated, and plunging, it is partially covered by an evening jacket constructed from almost certainly silver sequins, cropped and cut on the bias. This jacket is understated sans lapels or buttons, yet overstated with black chinchilla at the cuffs. A matching clutch is later glimpsed, as are suede elbow gloves and the obligatory mink coat.
Edith Head’s costumes represent a logical depiction of how de Havilland’s character would be expected to look, to epitomize the reality of each situation she’s in. Too, it’s worth mentioning that the director, Mitchell Leisen, began his industry career as a costumer himself, so a clubhouse discourse can be assumed between him and Head.
A decidedly different approach is seen in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Her Sister’s Secret, a film that harbors the peculiarities associated with Ulmer’s work, here revolving around the truly inconceivable raiment worn by the sisters. Recalling the director’s off-kilter collaboration with both fog machine and saxophone in Detour (1945), this film’s atmosphere seems to have been substantially surrendered to the wardrobe.
The opening credits announce “gowns by Donn,” but who is this Donn? Considering the paucity of particulars about costume designers from the first 50 years of the Hollywood system, research suggests that this is the only film credit under this moniker. And perhaps the enigmatic Donn expected this outcome, this single shot at movie immortality, and so enthusiastically went for it, and to such a dazzling degree that Ulmer couldn’t say no.
The short-lived “poverty row” movie company responsible for Her Sister’s Secret, PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), allotted the picture the unusually big budget of a million dollars (Detour having been earmarked for a measly $30,000). And even though the sets here are above average, it appears that the lion’s share of this uncommon capital went directly to the collection of on-screen apparel. Between the two women that Donn dressed (with the assistance of PRC’s costume supervisor, Karlice), we are shown a total of 21 looks. We’re talking 14 dresses, 7 skirt-blouse combos, 4 jackets, 5 coats, 9 hats, not to mention shoes, jewels, and gloves galore.
In a sense unintended, the sisters’ secret seems to be how they manage to look so remarkably put together at every turn. Fans of this director know that Ulmer’s films are rife with such mesmerizing incongruity, encouraging their subsequent veneration, the advantage of historical perspective and an acquired taste for his wonderfully wonky way. And Donn’s outrageous couture similarly benefits, as it emphatically punctuates the end of the Utility Wear era, adhering to the strong silhouettes that had become women’s fashion in the 1940s (as that industry was practically on hold during those years) and just prior to Dior’s postwar launch of the New Look, debuted in 1947, ushering in more feminine silhouettes and a surfeit of fabric. Gone were the broad shoulders, short hemlines, and natural waistlines that had defined the decade heretofore, and that distinguish Donn’s designs.
Nancy Coleman helms Her Sister’s Secret as Miss Toni Dubois. In the opening scenes, set during Mardi Gras in her hometown of New Orleans, she meets a furloughed soldier named Dick (Phillip Reed) at a café. Toni is in an eighteenth-century period gown, her Marie Antoinette masquerade, for this fairy tale fling with Dick, which, of course, leaves her “in the family way.”
Becoming pregnant out of wedlock was something that girls from good families just didn’t do. Thankfully, though, Toni and Dick, not having exchanged contact info, have prearranged a rendezvous at the café, six weeks on. This meeting will allow her to deliver the exciting news before she delivers their baby. And since Dick proposed marriage on that first night together, Toni feels certain that they can (immediately) declare their devotion (legally) to preclude her shame (locally).
Before she leaves the house, her father remarks on her gown by Donn. “What a lovely frock. Perfectly beautiful.” He then goes on to suggest that it’s about time for her to be married, so that she, or her already married sister in New York, may provide for him a grandchild to cherish in his last days.
At the café, Toni sits alone. The dress admired by her father is a dreamy confection in pale Georgette, featuring a high neck, contiguous button-back, and bubble sleeves over a sweetheart bodice. Embellished with cord-bows, it also boasts two rounded-off rectangles of fabric flopped over each shoulder, like twin burping towels. Without her knowledge, as Toni twiddles her thumbs, a letter is delivered to the proprietor, who happens to be plastered, as this is wine-tasting day. Therefore this message from a hastily deployed Dick remains unread, treated as so much incidental paper. The result is that Toni erroneously presumes herself jilted.
Distraught yet devoted, she heads to New York before her father and community discovers she is “with child.” Arriving at Penn Station, Toni can’t be missed in a caped coat with leopard fur at the waistline and collar, and a hat to match. This hat looks like a large salad bowl perched on her head after having been wrapped in the spoils of a safari. Standing behind her, a porter holds a single piece of luggage, but absent from the frame is the reserve of hat boxes that her millinery habit would seemingly require. (Note: Women’s hats in the 1940s were weird on purpose, pronounced and out of proportion, like some kooky exclamation point, providing levity in troubling times.)
As if making a turn on the catwalk, Toni is revealed sans coat and hat when she is next seen in her sister’s apartment. A dark skirt plays second fiddle to a diagonally buttoned, two-toned top with turtleneck, its design mirrored on the back. Big sis Renee (Margaret Lindsay) appears rather regal in a two-piece champagne dress with metallic edging along the winged collar and up the front. Stepping out for a bon voyage dinner with her husband, Bill, before he returns to his naval post, on goes Renee’s sable coat.
That night, the sisters’ bedtime attire is inordinately dramatic. Toni’s gown has pleated Spanish sleeves and is accessorized with two brooches that form a monogram: “T” on her right lapel and “D” on the left, as if to assert her identity. These brooches are a few inches in height and encrusted with trencadís mosaic, à la Antoni Gaudí. (Note: The objets de bijoux on view here were likely provided by Eugene Joseff, Hollywood’s go-to jeweler of the period, having contributed his wares to no less than 125 films released in 1946 alone.) Meanwhile, Renee’s geometric nightdress is graphically reminiscent of the unforgettable Kalloch suit worn by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940). Pinstriped black over white, its hem gently kisses the floor. As Renee busies herself in the bathroom, Toni hides outside the doorway.
In this scene, the sisters actually seem like sisters. Their kindred coziness is palpable as Toni admits that she has a troubling secret. “Don’t laugh,” she says, “but I’m going to have a child.” Taken aback, her big sis listens with warm concern. Just before climbing into bed, Renee releases the single-button closure on the deceptively delicate nightdress and is exposed in a black negligee with a white turndown collar that conjures a vampire’s fangs. She reclines as Toni continues from the adjoining room, detailing her Mardi Gras indiscretion with Dick, the absentee father-to-be.
The next day, on a crowded trolley, Renee proposes a solution. Being conveniently infertile, she offers to adopt her sister’s illegitimate child as her own, to which Toni consents. Toni looks every inch the ingénue in a top hat with upturned stingy brim and a puffy yet angular jacket. Renee’s chiffon dress is festooned with a two-part chained brooch smiling below a soft cowl neck, her look literally elevated by a nubby Nefertiti hat with veil. Tête-à-tête on the sidewalk, the sisters resemble opposing chess pieces: queens, of course. A presumption could be made that their clotheshorse mentality is some sort of psychological game existing as a tacit understanding, or competition, between only them. (But really they are just pawns in Donn’s game.)
Back at the apartment, the sisters make a plan to go shopping. At last, our chance to see the mavens in action. The promise of this peek into their extravagance, however, is marred by Toni’s nagging uncertainty. As Renee selects baby clothes and paraphernalia from catalogs, Toni dejectedly auditions more headgear. A counter girl hoists a black cartwheel hat from her hair, and Toni replaces it with a straw skimmer of similar circumference. Each sporting an alligator handbag, Renee is enthusiastic in a bolero jacket over pencil dress, half-banded hat (with another veil), and cartoonish gauntlet gloves, while Toni appears positively paranoid in a prairie dress with scalloped bib. The outing ends prematurely when Toni admits she’s having a panic attack.
Arizona is next, where we arrive late, because Toni has already given birth, averting the intrusion of maternity garb. For this desert locale, both women are outfitted in regional designs. Renee’s two-toned western blouse has knotted half-sleeves and neckerchief collar, and Toni’s bizarre blouse is emblazoned with sundry stitched insignias, resembling those used by cattle ranchers, perhaps a wry insinuation that she’s a branded woman.
Both sisters have forsworn themselves to Bill, who is seen reading a telegram on the deck of a battleship. It announces that Renee has given birth to his and her first child. On the day of Renee’s departure, the desert air must be cool, as she’s accommodated in a double-breasted striped coat with large collar and cuffs in black lambswool, matching her Kuban Cossack hat. The sisters have a heart-to-heart about the swaddled infant that Toni is cradling for the last time. Renee requests that her sister not visit New York, or otherwise see Bill Jr., for at least three years.
Back in New Orleans, another Mardi Gras has rolled around. This time, Toni stays at home with her ailing father. She is not dressed casually for this audience of one, but remains runway-ready in a black mousseline number with layered ruffles of white organza spilling forth from the open collar and cascading to her waistline.
Before long, her father dies. Saying goodbye to the empty house and wearing a cashmere pillbox beret and velveteen coat (with pumps and purse in patent leather), Toni steals away for New York with nothing to lose.
Lurking on sidewalks and park benches in order to glimpse little Bill, she is rather conspicuous in a shako hat with ribbon-shaped brooch above her starkly edged walking dress. On another day, possessed by regret, in a two-button, structured business suit, she snatches the child and begins to abscond with him, only to be stopped by Billy’s nanny on the edge of the park.
Finally, Dick is done killing Nazis and has tracked Toni to New York. Appearing at Renee’s door, he tells her he’s been pining for her sister for years, that there must have been a mix-up concerning his love letter. Then, unbeknownst to him, Dick encounters his own son in the living room. Any conflict Renee might be feeling at this point is reflected more in her frock than in her face. She is now decked out in a full-length, split-sleeve stunner, its collar at odds with gravity, as one leaf-edge is in the orthodox down position while the other is flicked up and stiff, a variation occurring at the cuffs. When she wrings her hands, the white silk that lines this black velvet gown flares around her exposed elbows. At her hip glistens a starburst brooch, clasping the corner of a sequined scarf that trails to the floor.
Not long after Dick departs, Toni turns up. Signifying she’s here for business, her vicuña coat, with abstract stitching and insets of vertically piped fabric, remains buttoned for the duration. She tells Renee that she must have her baby back. Renee explains that there are no backsies in adoption. They each threaten to expose the other before Renee comes clean about her previous visitor, informing Toni that her Dick has come for her. Toni reacts by screaming, “Billy is ours!” and racing to the child’s bedroom, only to find Bill Sr. giving a toy piano clinic to the toddler. Toni is so touched by this that she suddenly proclaims Billy fortunate to have such generic parents. And, as she exits the building, she is, of course, reunited with Dick.
However constrained, the second chance that is afforded Toni appears to have eluded Donn, at least in Hollywood, though the designer’s singular collection presents a staggering time capsule of maximalist Utility Wear.
Edith Head’s fate was quite the opposite, as she would rack up something like 450 movie credits, securing a record 8 Academy Awards in her field. Although neither she nor Donn was in Oscar contention for these 1946 efforts, as the Academy had yet to include costume design as a category. (It wasn’t until 1949, honoring films from 1948.)
Thanks to their costume designers, To Each His Own is considered a classic—well known and palatable—while Her Sister’s Secret is more like a cult classic—obscure and peculiar. Still, both films manage to refuse the mawkish in their presentation of human experience that transcends categories, like (1) romantic love is painful and often results in consequences unjust, (2) there is nothing so forgiving, save on the emotions, as a mother’s love, and (3) individual style, as expressed through clothing, affirms a culture that rises above the circumstances in which it exists.