BLACK BRA, WHITE BRA
Since we know that Hitchcock planned everything down to the last detail in all of his movies, what are we to make of Janet Leigh’s undergarments in Psycho? In all the voluminous literature concerning Hitchcock’s films and Psycho, has there ever been an analysis of why Marion Crane wears a white bra and a white half-slip for her afternoon tryst with Sam and then, as she is ready to abscond with the $40,000, is wearing a black bra and black half-slip? [Image 1; click or see below] Well, here goes. We know that Hitchcock wasn’t interested in symbolism and certainly in the simplistic kind that would equate white with good and black with bad. Or even white suggesting Marion’s happiness and appetite for life and black suggesting her headlong rush towards her totally arbitrary death. Not only did Hitchcock not deal in symbols, he was anything but a Manichean. If anything, the opposite is true. His villains, like Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train and Alex Sebastian in Notorious, are suave and charming, and sometimes his heroes, like Devlin in Notorious and Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo, are far from admirable and occasionally despicable. We also know that no detail however small was too small to pay attention to. That’s what movies are made of, thousands of details, piled on one another to create a singular effect. And this is certainly true of Hitchcock movies, perhaps more than anyone else’s. No, this was not an error by the continuity person. Hitchcock’s world did not permit such errors. So we must look elsewhere to find the meaning, and, if not the answers, the reasons.
Marion, after her afternoon tryst with Sam, goes to the office where she is given the $40,000 in an envelope and then leaves early, claiming to have a headache. Dissolve to Marion, wearing a black bra and slip, looking at the $40,000 fairly falling out of the envelope lying on her bed [Image 2]. She is busy packing. What happened in the time between the dissolve? Let’s write an alternate scenario. She comes home and takes a shower after a lunch break of strenuous and sweaty sex. Remember, the window to her hotel room was open, so there was no air-conditioning in the hotel and the man who buys the house from Marion’s realtor boss says the weather is “as hot as fresh milk.” Let us say she takes a shower. She almost surely takes a shower. Is she as delighted to be taking a shower as she seems to be when the hot water comes out in her famous/infamous fatal shower scene, a few hours from now? Perhaps she is. Also, some time during this ellipsis she has come to the decision to take the $40,000 and flee. So maybe she is more worried and concerned than relaxed while taking the shower. Even though, in her long car ride, her inner thoughts are revealed to us by the things she imagines people might say about her actions, we are not afforded the same opportunity to follow her thoughts in resolving to steal the money. Her and Sam’s situation, financial and otherwise, had already been clarified by the exposition in the hotel room. But then she surprises us when she turns down her co-worker’s offer to take some tranquilizers with, “You can’t buy off unhappiness with tranquilizers.” We didn’t realize she was that unhappy, even though she did tell the house-buyer who is flirting with her that she is not “inordinately” unhappy. She suffers, in Freud’s terms, not from neurotic unhappiness, but from normal unhappiness. In our alternate scenario, we perhaps also see Sam taking a plane back home, picking up his car and driving his car from the airport to his home—and store—in Fairville, in an uneventful trip. Clearly this long scene will have to be cut from the final film because nothing much happens. He doesn’t stop to sell his car, as Marion does. He doesn’t fall asleep by the side of the road, he isn’t questioned by the highway patrol as Marion is, he doesn’t encounter a sudden rainstorm or check into a motel. OK. Marion gets out of the shower and chooses something to wear. It’s a much darker, somewhat more formal dress than the one she wore to work, a white summer-y dress. That would explain why she wore a white bra and slip earlier. You wouldn’t wear black undergarments underneath your white dress. She decides on a black bra and a black slip. Is she making that choice because it’s more appropriate for the nighttime? Does she want to surprise and excite Sam in her black undergarments which set off her white skin? She certainly doesn’t wear them to arouse Norman, although Hitchcock knows and we know that black undergarments against white skin have a sharper erotic charge to it than white undergarments, if stag movies of the 40s and 50s are any indication. Does she feel now that she’s a “bad” girl and should dress accordingly? We will have to reject unconditionally that she was dressing for her fatal and fateful date with Norman Bates. Whatever Hitchcock’s cognitive processes were, I don’t believe that he thought that way. Ingmar Bergman maybe, but Hitchcock—never. Now let’s pick up the real movie again. She continues packing—she is almost all done—and she puts her white slip on the very top of all the packed clothing in the suitcase and then closes it. Why is the white slip the last thing she packs into the suitcase, almost as an afterthought? More food for thought.
Now, let us join her, alone in her room at the Bates Motel, after she had her talk with Norman and, presumably, has made her decision to go back to Phoenix. She is tired and hungry and ready to go to bed. She didn’t eat much of the sandwich that Norman prepared for her, and anyway he comments that she eats like a bird. Nor did she eat the untouched sandwich that she brought with her to the hotel the other day. “You never did eat your lunch, did you?” Sam remarks in the hotel room. She must be starving. After a long hard day of driving and great anxiety, she gets ready to step into the shower. She strips down to her black bra and half-slip. Norman, in the parlor, as he calls it, adjoining his office, takes a down kitschy painting of a naked woman being molested by two old men—probably yet another version of Susannah and the Elders, a favored subject of 16th- and 17th-century painters but this one much less modest and much more graphic than most [Image 3]—and looks at her through the peephole it covers. She is perfectly framed as she is about to go into the bathroom [Image 4]. We are to assume that he has seen her completely naked. Norman, as impulsively as Marion stealing the money, pulls away from the scene and goes back to the house. We know no more about his decision, or even what it is, than we knew about Marion’s decision to flee with the money, although his will have more fatal consequences. Nor will we find out until the very end of the film. While he is up at the house, she begins doing her simple addition and subtraction, subtracting the money she has spent from the money she stole. She then puts the envelope full of the remaining money in her suitcase, not back into her handbag, where it was before, but on top of her white slip, before wrapping it in the newspaper she bought, looking for written proof of her guilt. Underwear and money, sex and death, money and guilt, sex and anxiety, money and sex, guilt and underwear—they are all inextricably woven together but nothing gets any clearer. How to explain these strange concatenations and juxtapositions? She steps into the shower…and we all know what happens after that.
Let’s go back two years to Vertigo. In Vertigo, Midge is an ad illustrator who is currently doing a promotion for a new brassiere [Image 5]. Scottie, with his cane, points to the brassiere, which serves as the model, as if to say he wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. He doesn’t and can’t actually bring himself to touch the brassiere, as if that would be too vulgar and crass for a man such as he, although he is not above making a smirky, adolescent joke about it [Image 6]. So, we do know that Hitchcock, as far back as the inception of Vertigo, was interested in bras and we also know that Hitchcock’s interests get repeated from film to film until he puts them to rest, only to pursue other interests, which also will reappear in film after film until the image, for him, is exhausted. The bra they talk about in Vertigo is an “anti-gravitational” cantilevered bra that works on engineering principles. Midge explains that it was designed by an aircraft engineer in his spare time. Clearly what is being referred to here is the cantilevered brassiere that Howard Hughes designed for Jane Russell to wear in his movie The Outlaw (originally opened in San Francisco in 1943 but withdrawn from circulation and then widely released in 1946), the primary purpose of which was to show off her breasts to their best advantage. However, it’s not in the film in which Ms. Russell’s breasts are so blatantly emphasized—the film itself is very tame because the production codes were very strict—but rather in the suggestive publicity stills that Howard Hughes had taken to advertise the film, with a smoldering Jane Russell who promises much more than the timid movie ultimately delivered [Image 7].
It is important to remember that the 50s in America was a very bra-conscious society. It was the era of the Bullet Bra, also known as the Torpedo Bra, also known as the Missile Bra, also known as the Cone Bra. The military aspect of its various nicknames was an unmistakable nod to the free-floating anxiety about and pre-occupation with the Cold War, as well as to sex. It was designed to project a woman’s breasts and extend them further than nature actually did, in order to fill a sweater more amply. Hitchcock’s allusions to brassieres in Vertigo is a pointed commentary on an era that fetishized and apotheosized the abundant endowments of Jayne Mansfield and Anita Ekberg and Jane Russell. The bra obsession and phenomenon is also wryly commented on in the Adolph Green-Betty Comden-Jules Styne 1956 hit Broadway musical, Bells Are Ringing, starring Judy Holiday—“I wanna go back/ Where I can be me/ At the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company…” made into a Vincente Minnelli movie in 1960.
There were also, at the time, ubiquitous print ads in national magazines advertising Maidenform bra, with a tag line that was instantly recognizable. “I dreamed I played chess in my Maidenform bra…” “I dreamed I was twins in my Maidenform bra…” “I dreamed I had tea for two in my Maidenform bra…” “I dreamed I went to a masquerade in my Maidenform bra…”, and so on [Image 8]. The line accompanied a fashion photograph illustrating the catch phrase, as well a little story about the “dream.” Considering the subject matter, the ads were done with wit, taste, and elegance. And were, of course, always eye-catching. The “I dreamed…” theme was an endlessly resourceful ongoing ad campaign that was so successful for the company that the series of ads ran throughout the 50s into the late 60s, with many imaginative variations. Maybe Hitchcock, in his sly way, is suggesting his own ad—“I dreamed I was murdered at the Bates Motel in my Maidenform bra…”
Or perhaps an answer can be found in Marnie, four years after Psycho. Hitchcock once more reveals his interest in women on the run and their suitcases—what gets put in suitcases, what gets left behind. At the very beginning of Marnie, even before we’re introduced to the main character, we’re introduced to the things she’s acquired—her Naples-yellow handbag which contains all the loot she most recently stole, her suitcase, the clothes that she just bought for herself as well as, we will soon learn, gifts she bought for her mother as she packs them very neatly into her new suitcase [Image 9]. It goes without saying that Marnie is a compulsively neater packer than Marion Crane. Meanwhile, right next to the new suitcase is her old suitcase, in which she haphazardly throws items that, we find out several shots later, she will discard. She throws, into the old suitcase, a white bra and a pinkish slip. Maybe that’s what happens to old white bras when you’re starting a new life. So, that’s a possible answer, although there is something frighteningly paranoid about Marnie throwing out her old underwear, as if she could be identified by those items, just as Marion’s behavior is similarly irrational when she buys the Saturday morning paper to find out if the robbery she committed on Friday is reported in it. Marnie subsequently dumps all of her money into the new suitcase. She goes to the train station with both suitcases, deposits the old suitcase in a locker, locks it up, and throws the key away.
Women, in American movies, certainly, before Psycho were rarely, if ever, seen in a brassiere and a slip. There is a world of difference between what we see in Psycho and Elizabeth Taylor slinkily lounging around in a full slip in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and BUtterfield 8 (1960). It was the difference between being nude and being naked. In addition to which, Janet Leigh was what my mother might have called a “big” girl. In a sense, it was as shocking for a star of Janet Leigh’s caliber to casually wear a bra and a half-slip as it was for Manet’s Olympia to unblinkingly stare down the spectator when she is clearly naked, and definitely not nude. But everything about the images presented in Psycho was shocking. It was the first time one had seen a normal bathroom on the screen—elaborate movie star or designer bathrooms don’t count—, with a toilet and the sound of a toilet actually being flushed, a shower that took water and blood down the drain. It was also the first visit to a sleazy motel (if we except Touch of Evil ), it was the first peek at America’s obsession with it’s highways, and certainly the first well-mannered, prep-school psycho-killer. Hitchcock, in movies, did for motels and highways what Nabokov did in novels with Lolita, which was printed for the first time in America in 1958, two years before Psycho.
OK, here we are, over 2,000 words later and I’m not much closer to an answer than I was at the beginning. And yet, and yet, why has this been sticking in my craw all this time? Let’s go back to the previously mentioned dissolve between Marion at her office and Marion packing her suitcase. If she were wearing her white bra and half-slip while packing, it might suggest that no time at all elapsed between her leaving the office and making the decision to take the money and run. But she would need some time to think over her plans. The fact that she is wearing the black bra indicates several things—that she had indeed spent some time to thinking her plans through, that she most probably—let us say definitely—took a shower, foreshadowing, unseen though the shower may have been, her fatal shower at the Bates Motel, and most important of all, that she was naked during the course of the film, actually, during the course of the dissolve—in order for her change her brassiere. It is that unseen nakedness, during the dissolve, that is the very nakedness that triggers Norman Bates’ sexual and, hence, murderous impulses. And to indicate that something important happened in that dissolve interval, Hitchcock has Marion change her bra and slip. It’s a visual shorthand for suggesting that time has elapsed and that she took a shower, the predecessor to the famous shower scene. And, most importantly of all, that she was naked. The shower, both the unseen one and the one we see all too graphically bracket her impulsive decisions—first to flee Phoenix with the money and then to return to Phoenix. One wonders, had she been able to continue her journey the next morning, back to Phoenix, would she have put on her white bra and white half-slip again? Or not? For the moment, this is the best I can come up with, although I’m open to other theories. Additional suggestions will be welcomed and given serious consideration. All responses will be answered.
Mark Rappaport is a filmmaker, writer, and visual artist. His films include The Scenic Route (1978), Impostors (1979), and the widely-acclaimed Rock Hudson's Home Movies (1992) and From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995). A collection of some of his film writings was published in 2008 in French as Le Spectateur qui en savait trop (The Moviegoer Who Knew Too Much). Several of his pieces have appeared in the online film journal Rouge.
The above article was originally published in Trafic, in French; this is its first appearance in the original English.