Gena Rowlands in Gloria: Gangster’s Ex Wears a Skirt Suit | Clothes on Film

Gloria is more presence, more ‘sensation’ than woman, attests Sara Bivigou. On a blazingly hot New York City day she appears suddenly. Dressed in a floor length beige raincoat and what looks to be pale pink pyjamas, she looks both of the moment and as though she has just woken up. This is because Gloria keeps a mood and pace all of her own, carries time around her neck, wears it in the form of a gold pocket watch necklace.

Gloria is the story of a gangster’s ex-girlfriend who goes on the run with Phil (John Adames), a seven year old boy, after his family have been killed by mobsters. John Cassavettes hastily wrote the screenplay and reluctantly directed Gloria (1980) at the request of his wife Gena Rowlands after she was chosen by Columbia Pictures to play the title role. What the film needs is a fuller exploration of the subversive inclinations of Gloria and Phil’s mother-son, partners-in-crime, unrequited lovers relationship. But the action is hurried and character nuances are lost, pushed out the way in favour of another car chase, one more shoot out.

The clothes, however, oh the clothes are good; so good at evoking character. This is important because Gloria herself gives little away so we read what she wears for clues to her personality and answers to questions about her past. Though the film’s costume designer was Peggy Farrell, all of Gloria’s clothes were provided by fashion designer Emmanuel Ungaro. Silk, satin and silk-satin ensembles that mix and match the way capsule wardrobe items should.

Following her coat, the second item we see Gloria wearing, after she and Phil have fled their old apartment block to a temporary safe haven, is a red kimono nightgown with a floral pattern. This is nightwear for someone who is most awake at night. Gloria’s extended appearance in bedclothes is indicative of her waking up out of her quiet life and into a new adventure.

For their first proper day on the run, Gloria is dressed for business in a light cornflower blue/pale lavender satin skirt suit with dusky pink blouse. The jacket has flap pockets and a slight puff detail on the lightly padded shoulders. The skirt is formed of narrow knife pleats and hits just below the knee. The blouse has a delicate, slightly faded floral pattern and is buttoned halfway down her chest. Standard on the lam errands are conducted in this outfit: collecting money, hiding, running away.

The next day as they head out to a cemetery, Gloria wears a similar skirt suit but this time all black in colour, with a dark pink satin keyhole detail blouse fastened at the top of her neck.

The shape of these skirt suits is wonderful. They appear fitted but move so well. These are suits without the usual restrictions of business attire; there is no formality to them. When Gloria lifts her leg the material follows, sails delicately into the air like choreography. The fabrics are shiny and bright; one could fashion a sturdy cocktail dress out of them. There is openness to the way they are worn. An aura of nightlife is present in Gloria’s manner which is reflected in her clothing. She seems out of place in the daytime, natural light competes with her. Gloria belongs in dimly lit spaces, back tables in restaurants or walking down city streets at dusk.

Gloria’s accessories are muted and constant: beige shoes with a slight heel that she is able to dash in, a beige handbag in which she carries her gun, small stud like earrings mostly hiden inside her chin length blonde curls, and a gold ring with diamonds flatly clustered inside. These are worn like a uniform, like armour. They indicate Gloria is up and ready to go.

When their relationship builds into something meaningful, Phil hangs Gloria’s clothes for her, out of respect and appreciation. Material goods are all Gloria really has, all she knows how to look after until she meets Phil. She keeps jewellery alongside money in a security box at the bank. Her first apartment looks like a dry cleaners as it is so full with disco dresses on hangers in clear garment bags, a glimpse into the life she used to lead. Gloria cares about her clothes; she packs neatly, carrying them from one hideout to the other in a carpet bag-like suitcase. In every space she lodges, Gloria hangs her garments preciously. This sets up an easy contrast; the make do surroundings versus her fancy attire. What Gloria has versus who she is.

For their third day on the lam, Gloria chooses a pink patterned jacked with matching blouse and what appears to be the same pleated black skirt. The overwhelming pinkness of the outfit brings out the pinkness in Gena Rowlands’ cheeks. This makes Gloria appear as if she is blushing permanently, pushing past stoicism and eking out her girlishness.

In this outfit Gloria has the most fun: shooting, running, fighting, biting, jumping, drinking, riding the subway. She smiles for the first time, an honest to goodness expression of joy with no wry undertone. Gloria is giddy, happy, revelling.

Apart from a briefly glimpsed mourning disguise, Gloria’s last outfit is a black wrap dress with yellow trim covered in yellow and red odd dots. This dress matches Gloria’s sombre mood as she commits a final dangerous act before attempting to forge a new life. The dress is a simple shape, feminine but toned down, notable as the most relaxed item of clothing we see her in. Chosen perhaps because it is the last outfit she may ever wear, good enough to be buried in, but still with optimistic pops of colour. There is a suggestion she may triumph over this last hurdle after all. Gloria accessorises with a large pair of black plastic sunglasses that mask a third of her face.

All Gloria’s clothes hint at what she was but are styled in such a way as to see her reaching for something else. This reflects Gloria’s struggle throughout the film; in flux, fighting between two selves, between forming a partnership and remaining solitary, between self preservation and newly developed desire to protect.

By Sara Bivigou, a London based writer.

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