The Metropolitan #18: Irma La Douce wears green stockings
The first in an occasional series about art, film and fashion
When I was 13 I badgered my mum into getting me a pair of bright-green tights. It was the ’80s, so such things as brightly coloured hose were not totally unheard of, although usually in a bubblegum-pop, kooky-girl-weirdo kind of way: Cyndi Lauper romping it home with Girls, or Winona’s disruptive presence in the high-school girl-gang in Heathers.
My inspiration was slightly different. I planned to pair mine with a black pencil skirt, a pair of Mary-Jane heels – if I could even locate such a thing – and a black scoop-neck top. In short, I wanted to dress like Shirley MacLaine in Billy Wilder’s 1963 film Irma La Douce.
That’s not too unusual. Generations of filmgoers have copied the iconic looks of their screen idols. If James Dean had worn a double-breasted blazer with gold buttons in Rebel Without a Cause, probably so would generations of biker gangs, while also doing quite nicely on the FTSE 100.
What made this particular request so potentially problematic in retrospect, however, was that MacLaine played the eponymous Irma La Douce (which translates as ‘Irma the soft’ or ‘Irma the sweet’). And Irma is – albeit extremely stylised and stylish – a Parisian comfort girl: a sex worker.
In the film, a romantic comedy set in an idealised City of Light, gendarme Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon) falls in love with Irma and tries to ‘rescue’ her from her life of prostitution by disguising himself as an English aristocrat and buying up all her available time. Based on a French stage musical from 1956, there’s a curiously manic momentum to the proceedings, combined with a hyper-artificiality that permeates both the set and the script. It takes a while to realise that as a viewer you are constantly waiting for these actors to burst into song. Which doesn’t happen. This absence of singing – which is still accompanied by the conventions of musicals: the weird pauses and sing-song convos that lead up to a show-stopper or expository ballad – is particularly disconcerting.
The plot also assumes a convenient lack of knowledge about Parisian geography or society. Nestor – a cop who is still something of an innocent abroad – relocates from the sedate Bois de Boulogne to the urban delights of Les Halles, the working-class market district. Described in the film as ‘the stomach of Paris’ it would certainly have been a rough area, especially at night, but the story happily ignores the fact that for centuries (and to this day) the Bois has had a reputation similar the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens as a seething patch of illicit sexual encounters.
Like Stanley Kubrick, the Austrian-born Wilder was known for exploring different genres in his films, and generally aceing them – the escape movie with Stalag 17, courtroom drama Witness for the Prosecution, Film noir Sunset Boulevard and sexual comedy of manners The Major and the Minor – while maintaining his trademark deadpan humour and bone-dry dialogue. He’d come to Hollywood from Berlin in 1933 as one of many Jewish intellectuals fleeing the growing antisemitism in Germany, and although he personally escaped the worst horrors of the Nazi regime, his mother, grandparents and stepfather all died in the Holocaust. Beneath the Tinseltown fluff, there is a European steel to Wilder’s films (as there is in those of fellow Jewish emigré Ernst Lubitsch, whose popular appeal the Marxist theorists Adorno and Horkheimer dismissed as ‘the Lubitsch touch’.)
Wilder doesn’t ever shy away from tricksy, troubling, grown-up topics, even in his comedies. Where other directors, embracing the relatively new-found permissiveness of the 1960s, might focus on sex, itself a bit of a movie fantasy, cynical old Billy trains his sights on the transactional nature of sexual encounters. With Wilder, the money shot is exactly that: wads of cash dropped from multiple wallets into the symbolically wide-open handbag on Irma’s bedside table. Irma in all her alluring glory is not the helpless wide-eyed damsel in distress that her admirers project on to her, but a bright, fast-thinking Parisian belle who can shape a sob-story to fit the sympathies of any male heart, in order to milk maximum profit.
Nestor and Irma’s tangled romance includes such thorny topics as impotence (a recurring theme for Wilder, including in the screwball Some Like it Hot, where it is openly used as a plot device to trick Marilyn Monroe’s character Sugar Kane into trying to arouse a ‘shy’ tycoon) murder and illegitimate birth. It’s a real laugh a minute. To my teenage brain, though, it was all very matter of fact, and scarcely coy…
As a teen, however, my critical faculties were more active in some areas than others (to be honest, they probably still are). I accepted this story, quite passively, as an entertaining fable. In some ways that was good, as I will explain, but it’s also a bit disappointing, and for that, my older self deplores the youthful me. That I believed Irma was entitled to make her own way and be inventive with her backstory, owing nothing of her true self to her clients in what was a business transaction, that a young woman could be clever and witty, is not a bad template to embrace in one’s adolescence. But my shallow teenage brain made no links between the fictional Irma and the lives of any real Irmas, or even really queried the value judgements made by the male characters in the film based on appearance or the nature of the deceptions that are foisted on an unwitting Shirley MacLaine. Probably because, as a future art student, my mind was occupied with how the film, and in particular Irma looked, and both, in a 1960s super-saturated-colour way, looked absolutely gorgeous.
It’s a challenge to describe the vitality that emanates from the film, through a combination of vibrant colour, Paris-iconic-city-of-love schtick and a type of female beauty that is part dancer-like grace, part keen intelligence in every gesture and word, and part gloriously one-of-a-kind features. MacLaine is irresistible in The Apartment, arguably Wilder’s masterpiece, and she brings the same hypnotic screen presence here too. Your eyes are drawn to her on screen, and if you are young and visually impressionable you think: I’ll have what she’s wearing, please. For the record, then or now, I look nothing like Shirley MacLaine, regrettably.
So one Easter or maybe half-term, my mum and I headed to Debenhams in Bromley, the most likely local venue for novel hosiery and found a pair of green tights that I would go on to wear for quite some time. Nothing was ever made of the style inspiration I drew upon and no attempt was made to modify my choice, beyond the fact that I requested tights instead of stockings because I thought they would be easier to wear.
From this it could be inferred that I had very relaxed, liberal parents, whose bohemian values led their daughter to study art and dress like a Parisian hooker, but that was miles from the reality. I was the youngest child of three, with two significantly older brothers. My parents were older and more tired (though no less loving) by the time they had me. They were a generation that had war as their formative experience rather than the groovy ’60s. We were working-class, so trips to galleries, the cinema or abroad were things that happened to other people or through school. My viewing pleasures were almost exclusively confined to TV, but my parents’ had been shaped by cinema. My brothers had left home by the time I was a teenager so I was left largely on my own to navigate a huge generational and cultural divide whose rules were difficult to understand or apply any logic to. I guess they made sense in my mum and dad’s own teenage past.
Parental edicts decreed that I could wear a pencil skirt, but the split could not be at the back or front, only at the side. The cheap anklet chain I purchased on a school trip to Rouen in partnership with a friend was swiftly stripped from me, and my earlobes were deemed ‘too big’ to need piercing. I could ‘wear clip-ons’ I was told. Years before the explosion of vintage stores, this was literally death-by-middle-aged-costume-jewellery. Despite this, there were what might appear puzzling exceptions: I could wear full make-up, including lipstick, and bright red was absolutely fine, which is lucky as it’s a habit I have never shaken off.
Amid the minefield of acceptable teenage dress, general lack of spare cash and my own eccentric but not-exotic upbringing, I forged a weird hybrid of styles mostly made up of film influences, books I’d read, my mum’s own tastes and wardrobe, and the many jumble sales and charity shops we made good use of, along with the occasional foray to the suburban high street.
I suppose I wore Irma La Douce’s green stockings/tights in an act of naive but joyful screen-worship, one that allowed me to inhabit a look or a personality that was more exciting and glamorous than my everyday reality. My aspirations may have differed from my peers in that I wanted to be in 1960s Paris rather than on ‘TOTP’ in leg warmers, but I was still trying to ‘be’ someone, creating an outward identity that reflected my inner self.
Agreed, the character of Irma in Irma La Douce is a prime example of what theorist Laura Mulvey calls ‘looked-at-ness’ in cinema but here’s the thing: yes, my wardrobe wishes were based on what I had seen on screen, which – however outdated – was based on a patriarchal objectification of women and a female awareness of that. But, this wasn’t what was deemed desirable as a look for teenage girls in the 1980s; it wasn’t cutesy or even punkily ‘rebellious’. It was mythological: it was just that the myth was a French streetwalker.
On my terms it was almost a kind of small, Irma-like victory: I had tailored my dress to my own viewing pleasure, whatever society thought.
Adorno, T & Horkheimer, M ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ in The Dialectics of Enlightenment (1947)
Heathers, dir. Michael Lehmann (USA, 1988)
Irma La Douce, dir. Billy Wilder (USA, 1963)
Mulvey, L. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Visual and Other Pleasures (1989)
Next week: It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop... It’s The Metropolitan