In The Shawshank Redemption there’s a scene where the inmates are watching a film screening of Gilda in 1946. They all start cheering when Rita Hayworth makes her first dramatic entrance – bare shouldered, whipping up her head and then not so innocently suggesting, ‘Me? Sure, I’m decent.’ It was a film that was laden with sexual innuendo, and her hair was unashamedly used as a sexual metaphor.
Rita Hayworth embodies the femme fatale to perfection. On the posters she stands there, a figure clad in black satin, seductively smoking a cigarette, and with the tag line ‘There never was a woman like Gilda.’
In the most famous scene, Hayworth, dressed in a strapless black satin gown designed by Jean Louis, suggests a strip tease to Put the Blame on Mame as she playfully peels off a glove and throws it into the appreciative crowd. Audiences wondered how the dress stayed up as she raised her arms above her head, and cavorted in an energetic, burlesque routine.
This dress was a pinnacle of the working relationship between the Columbia pictures star and the Parisian born designer, who designed for ten of her movies. He was the designer responsible for Marilyn Monroe’s barely there gown when she breathed Happy Birthday, Mr President, and he was known for creating luxurious, sensual evening gowns.
Typical of post-war Film Noir, Gilda is the bad girl who is slapped, abused and kissed by the male protagonist, a reflection of the paranoia felt by men as they came home from war to find women had coped quite well without them. Films that went into production at the end of 1945 reflected this change, including Notorious and The Killers, with Ava Gardner as another femme fatale in black satin.
The plot was convoluted at times –we are led to believe Gilda is the good bad girl who is really only pretending to be a heartless seductress, but with the presence of Hayworth dressed in shimmering, tactile gowns, all would be forgiven. Variety wrote: “When things get trite and frequently far-fetched, somehow at the drop of a shoulder strap, there is always Rita Hayworth to excite the filmgoer.”
Hayworth got some good dialogue too. She quips “Didn’t you hear about me Gabe? If I’d been a ranch they’d have named me ‘The Bar Nothing.” And in a particularly overwrought scene she hams it up – “I hate you too Johnny, I hate you so much I think I’m going to die from it.”
The luxurious wardrobe that Hayworth wears is fabulous and reportedly cost $60,000. Gowns are shimmering and split to the thigh, there are sheer negligees, embellished coats and a satin pyjama suit. But of course the most iconic is the strapless black satin gown for the Put the Blame on Mame number, which was inspired by the painting Madame X.
Rita had just given birth to her first daughter, Rebecca, and the dress was designed to disguise her belly with the use of the large bow at the hip. By exposing her shoulders and arms he created a complete illusion of slenderness despite the extra baby weight. The gown also had harness –style hidden support to prevent it from slipping while she danced.
“Rita had a good body,” said Louis.“It wasn’t difficult to dress her. She was very thin-limbed, the legs were thin, the arms long and thin and she had beautiful hands. But the body was thick. She also had a belly then, but we could hide that.”
The ‘clothed’ striptease may have become one of the most iconic cinematic moments, But for Rita Hayworth her turn as the ultimate femme fatale was an image of female sexuality that the shy star felt she could never live up to. “No one can be Gilda twenty four hours a day” she said, lamenting that every man she knew fell in love with Gilda, but woke up with her.