Mildred Pierce

  Ann Roth’s costume designs for the mini-series Mildred Pierce showcases her ability to capture characters and portray them in a realistic and believable way, as well as portraying a specific time period with accuracy. The mini-series, an adaptation of the 1941 James M. Cain novel of the same name, narrates the story of the title character Mildred, a middle-class housewife and mother of two, forced into the working world after her husband leaves the home. Issues of economic struggle, social status and class are important themes within the narrative, which centers mainly on the difficult relationship between Mildred and her eldest daughter, Veda. Cinematographer, Edward Lachman points out that through the social struggles of the time motivate the characters of the series, it is not necessarily the central premise, instead the series serves as a “psychological character study, a tragic story of unrequited love in which the object of Mildred’s obsession isn’t a man but her haughty, ungrateful daughter.”[1] The conflicts of this mother-daughter relationship, which is the catalyst for much of the action that takes place in the narrative, are rooted in the class conflicts experienced by the American public during the 1930s.

     The visual style of the film was inspired by 1970s films like The Godfather and Chinatown, director Todd Haynes explains, “In this case I was looking at these films of the 1970s, American sort of revisionist genre films…Many of these were films that were taking classic genres and bringing a sort of new naturalism to the telling of the story, the stylistic language…So, you see right away in Mildred this more naturalistic, soft, softer lens, wider angles, we shot in 16mm and the colors have this slightly more muted, dusty tonality to them.”[2] The naturalistic approach to the cinematography and visual style extends to the use of costume design and absolutely caters to Ann Roth’s method and style of work and she is a perfect fit for this kind of film. Haynes refers to Roth as a “psychiatrist of clothing” and emphasizes her instincts to tailor to the characters and their stories, as opposed to aesthetics, and the designs’ abilities to convey the social psychic conditions of the characters’ inner workings.

Unlike the costumes worn by Joan Crawford in the earlier feature film adaptation, which acknowledged Crawford’s star persona by accentuating her broad shoulders and repeating the silhouette that costume designer Adrian popularized with the actress, Roth’s designs never call attention to themselves, or the actors wearing them. Roth’s treatment of the star’s costumes, in this case Kate Winslet, is based entirely on character and never take away from the narrative being represented.

     While the mini-series provides an accurate retrospective look into the America of the 1930s, strongly adhering to the novel’s time frame and structure, the 1945 Michael Curtiz film adaptation shifts the time frame of the narrative to fit the American experience of the period the film was released. By completely omitting any references to the Great Depression and incorporating a number of hints that support a time shift, Curtiz’s film establishes the narrative to take place in the 1940s. Characters refer to events that suggest they are living in a time of war. For example, Monty’s remark that stockings are “out for the duration” and Ida’s quip about the good men being gone can be seen as indirect references to World War II. This temporal shift provided audiences of the time the ability to directly identify with the struggles and issues portrayed in the narrative and altered or adjusted some of the themes explored by the 1941 novel. As Robert J. Corber points out, “The release of Mildred Pierce coincided with the return of American GIs from World War II and the need it supposedly created for women to make room for them in the workplace by returning to the domestic sphere. Warner Brothers delayed the release of Mildred Pierce until after the Japanese surrendered in September 1945 because it thought that the movie would have more resonance in the postwar context.”[3] The film’s ending can be read as Mildred’s redomestication, since she is pushed away from the workforce and reunited with her husband Bert, asserting the normative patriarchal hierarchy.


The costumes used for the Curtiz film are also indicative of the times, in a subtle way, and serve mainly to highlight the class tensions that are central to the narrative’s conflicts and to indicate Joan Crawford’s position as a film star. Crawford’s star persona is hard to ignore when watching Curtiz’s adaptation of Cain’s novel. The story of Mildred’s struggle to provide for her family, specifically her daughter Veda, is often undermined by Crawford’s off-screen persona, which is communicated frequently by the clothing she dons throughout the film.  Oftentimes the costume design in the film informs Crawford’s role as a Hollywood star, which distracts from the film’s narrative.

     The very first time we see Mildred in the film she is clad in an obnoxiously large fur coat, which emphasized her signature shoulders, over a dark, sequin accented dress and matching fur hat. Our first impression of Curtiz’s Mildred is of a high-class and glamorous woman. As Robert J. Corber points out, “With this sequence of shots, the movie pays tribute to Crawford’s image as a clotheshorse…her outfit recalls the costumes Adrian designed for her at MGM.”[4] This is a great departure from the way we are introduced to Mildred in the novel, which presents Mildred wearing a “loose green smock” and working on decorating a cake in the family kitchen. The different presentation of Mildred seen in the film serves not only to incorporate the noir convention of unfolding a story through flashbacks, but also to ease audiences into accepting Crawford playing the role of Mildred. Even though Joan Crawford was known for playing sympathetic characters audiences could relate to, her identity as a star by that time was solidified in popular culture and audiences definitely expected to see the Joan Crawford they were familiar with on the screen. This issue is raised in a memo issued by Warner, which said, “Since it was clear that Mildred must be the heroine of the story it was necessary to clean up her character. For this reason she was made a member of the upper middle class instead of the lower middle class…”[5] This alteration to the character made it easier for audiences to view Mildred in an aspirational way and root for her success, not only in her business but also her personal conflicts.

     Once Crawford’s star persona in acknowledged, then we are allowed to view her portraying Mildred in her middle-class, housewife splendor. When introduced to Mildred in the first flashback we see her in the domestic sphere, decorating a cake clad in a casual, loose fitting shirtdress, much like the scene described in the novel. Crawford is dressed down in a drab and dowdy outfit that informs the audience of her position in society, which is a drastic shift what we have already seen, but audiences were surely more comfortable with the more elegant version of Mildred as it appealed to their own aspirational hopes. This more glamorous version of Mildred is the one we see more frequently in the film and the one we associate more closely to Mildred’s identity. 

     The shift Mildred undertakes financially and socially is marked visually in the film, as Mildred’s rise in success is seen in the way she carries herself. As Mildred grows successful with her business ventures, her appearance evolves from a dowdy and plain housewife to a strong, assertive, and more sophisticated look. Mildred begins wearing fitted suits with padded shoulders, strong silhouettes that derive from traditional menswear attire, giving her a slightly masculine look. This change not only marks her growth in financial wealth, but also marks a transition of her position in society. Her new occupation allows her to take on what was then a traditional patriarchal role; she is assuming the position that would most likely be a man’s in society. As Corber puts it, “These suits provide a sharp contrast to the simple, loose-fitting dresses she wears in her first flashback when she is still struggling to support Veda and Kay and has not yet shown that she can make it in a man’s world.”[6] This kind of attire also enforces or reaffirms Crawford’s star persona, she is again clad in clothing that accentuates her broad shoulders and mimics the famed Adrian silhouette.       


   Ann Roth’s role as costume designer for the HBO mini series differs greatly from what was needed in 1945. Michael Curtiz’s adaptation was a contemporary film and its costumes looked very much like the fashions popular at the time. Hayne’s adaptation, however, is a period piece and offers a look to a specific point in time in America’s past. A significant amount of work had to be taken in order to depict people in the series in a historically accurate way. Since this period in history is highly documented and audiences already have preconceived notions about how people looked back then, there is a considerable amount of expectation to be filled by the film’s production. Roth is successful in capturing the era of the 30s and the Great Depression in the clothing the characters wear, allowing for the audience to accept the time period the characters are living in and letting them focus solely on the narrative and characters within it.

     The lively and playful look of 1920s American fashion took a definite turn with the new decade. The effects of the depression were seen even in the people’s clothing, where a more conservative approach to fashion emerged; skirts became longer, generally ending in the mid-calf, and the waistline was returned to its normal position bringing back a more traditional womanly look. Though the 30s were a time of drastic social and financial struggle, the American film industry was going strong. The clothing featured in the pictures became very influential and studios quickly took advantage of that influence, creating tie-ins with clothing stores and advertising the screen stars style and look in order to appeal to female viewers. The popularity of screen styles helped fashion trends emerge and propagate like, the accentuation of shoulders, bias cut dresses, and backless dresses.

     Todd Hayne’s re-telling of Cain’s novel is much more faithful to the novel than Curtiz’s film. He adheres closely to the narrative and the order and pace in which it unfolds. There is no flashback structure or film noir convention. We witness Mildred’s rise in success in a linear way and her shift in appearance is a gradual and less sudden one than in the film. Like Curtiz’s film, our introduction to Mildred is changed somewhat, unlike the 1945 version it is changed only slightly. Mildred is first presented while she is cooking, our first glimpse of Mildred is a close-up of her hands kneading pie dough, we then are shown a sequence of shots showing her hands diligently working on the preparation of her pies, shots of her apron-clad waist and mid section still cooking and moving around the kitchen, until we are shown a medium shot of her decorating a cake. While the novel narrates that Mildred is in the kitchen working on a cake, the series takes a brief detour from that and shows us Mildred’s diligent hands working hard. Haynes’ Mildred is introduced as a natural in the domestic sphere, she is a worker and anything but glamorous. The shots of her hands crafting homemade pies seem to suggest a strong connection between the character and work, which we will witness in greater contexts throughout the series. These additional scenes of her working at making pies only reinforce her position and visually support the language in the novel.

     The first three episodes in the mini-series narrate Mildred’s beginnings in the working world and her clothing certainly communicates her social and financial state. Roth insisted that “the characters’ wardrobe should look always slightly out of date,”[7] and Mildred’s sure does, especially when she is on the search for a job. She wears the same brown, floral printed dress for the majority of these first episodes. It is a sad looking dress, not only in color, but also in silhouette and shape. It does a good job in communicating the mood and atmosphere of the time of hardship, it also reinforces the financial struggle Mildred finds herself in. Cain brings up a similar sentiment when writing about a print dress in the novel, “The print dress was pressed so many times she searched the seams anxiously every time she put the iron on it.”[8] In this instance, the costume in the series seems to take a direct cue from the written work. Cain writes how Mildred feels about the dress in that short sentence; he communicates her anxiety caused by looking for a job and hints at how long Mildred has been searching for a job, which is expressed visually by the repetitive use of the dress in the series.

    Mildred’s transformation is not as pointed as the one seen in the Curtiz film. Mildred doesn’t suddenly become a glamorous woman the instant her business begins to thrive. The dress Mildred wears to the opening of the restaurant is surprisingly similar to the brown dress she wore so frequently earlier in the film. Since the restaurant opening is such an important moment in the narrative and her life, we expect her to “dress up” and appear slightly different from what we have become accustomed to. There is no great shift in her appearance, she wears another brown dress with a floral print, and if one doesn’t pay enough attention one could easily assume it was the same brown dress again. It is a bit brighter than the dress we have previously seen, it definitely is less drab in terms of color, but is almost identical in silhouette and gives her a severe look. Cain presents a different take on Mildred and her opening night ensemble:

“She had given a considerable thought to what she would wear. She had decided on white, but not sleazy white of the nurse uniforms then becoming so common. She went to Bullocks, and bought sharkskin dresses, of a shade just off white, white with a tint of cream in it, and had little Dutch caps made to go with them. Always vain of her legs, she had the dresses shortened a little. Now, she hurriedly got into one, put on her Tip-Top shoes, stuck on the little cap. As she hurried out carrying the apron she would wear in the kitchen, and slip off when she came out to greet the customers, she looked like the cook in a musical comedy.”


Cain offers us a completely different view of Mildred, one who spruces up for her big day and makes an outing of it. She goes out of he way to look presentable and attractive, she adjusts the length of her skirt and draws attention to her physical attractiveness; she emphasizes her most favorable asset and in a way flaunts her sexuality. Haynes’ version of Mildred, it seems, did not spend as much time thinking or preparing for her opening day outfit and just seems more natural and effortless.

     The opening day ensemble in the Curtiz film is the turning point for Mildred; this is the scene is when her appearance alters considerably and noticeably. She wears a dark dress with the strong shoulders of the Crawford look. Her clothing prior to this had generally consisted of lighter colors and softer silhouettes so the contrast is absolutely perceptible. Her clothing communicates that she is in charge; the strong shoulders and the dark color assert her authority and power in the restaurant. While Curtiz’s Mildred goes through a drastic change in a short amount of time, almost immediately, Mildred’s wardrobe in the mini series becomes slightly more sophisticated as time passes in a very transitional and gradual way. She also doesn’t become obnoxiously extravagant. Only in a few instances, special occasions, do we see her becoming somewhat stylish.

     A moment in which we see Mildred at her most elegant and expensive is, ironically when she goes to the board meeting and she is essentially forced out of the company she has built up through these past years. She emerges wearing a rich navy blue dress along with matching gloves and hat, a long grey coat, a rich fox fur scarf, and double stranded pearls. We get the impression that Mildred is emulating Mrs. Lendhart, whom she has had two significant experiences with. Her first meeting with Mrs. Lendhart was during her job search where she goes to her home to interview for a service job and she couldn’t go through with it, Mrs. Lendhart’s treatment of Mildred was quite rude and callous. Then Mildred meets her again under different circumstances, when Mrs. Lendhart visits the restaurant to discuss her son’s and Veda’s relationship. Although Mildred has established herself as a successful woman with a thriving business Mrs. Lendhart still treats her as if Mildred is beneath her. Mrs. Lendhart in this scene wears an elegant cream blouse and skirt, with a veiled hat and a luxurious fox fur scarf. Mildred’s fox scarf also mirrors the scarf worn by Veda the night Mildred and Monty marry and she returns to Mildred’s life. It is interesting to note that Mildred looks her most elegant when her financial demise comes to a head, and the fact that even though she appears quite glamorous there is still an aspect of her outfit as outmoded and even passé, which emphasizes Roth’s insistence on making the clothes seem outdated and out of fashion. Even at the peak of her stylishness, she still has a trace of authenticity.

The American look in women’s fashion developed during the 1930s and three major social developments that coincided at the time influenced the course of women’s clothing. These would be, “the clothing initially designed specifically for sport but later broadened into sportswear; the new ideals of beauty that were closely connected to the lithe, sporting look, created in large part for and by Hollywood movies; and the role those movies played in selling new fashion ideas and goods to the movie-going public.”[9] During this time playing sports suggested leisure, wealth and success, only people with enough time and money could indulge in recreation activities and would wear the clothing necessary for it. Monty Beragon and Veda both wear this kind of leisurely attire in the mini-series.

     Monty Beragon makes his way into Mildred’s life by charming her with his easygoing way of life and his effortless sophistication. He comes from a wealthy family and hasn’t ever worked for what he has. When Mildred asks him what he does for a living, he simply states that he “loafs”; he receives money from a fruit farming company his family invested in. He lives a leisurely existence; he plays polo and goes swimming in the beach frequently, he has no real responsibilities or obligations. The first time we meet Monty he is wearing light cream-colored polo and rust colored slim jacket, similar to a riding jacket, which makes the outfit have an equestrian feel to it. This sporty style is a nod to Monty’s affluent background and is a look that persists with him through the narrative. Monty’s way of dress is distinct from the way all the other men dress, especially Bert and Wally who are his main “rivals” or counterparts in terms of their position regarding Mildred. Bert and Wally are usually clad in suits and slacks, but they do each have a kind of signature or identifying fixture. Bert often wears sweater vests and looks put together, whereas Wally usually wears the same suspenders and hat through the whole series and has a kind of unkempt, almost sloppy quality to his appearance. When positioned next to Wally and Bert, Monty certainly appears more dapper and sophisticated, his exterior informs his privileged upbringing.           


                  Veda, Mildred’s daughter, is completely fascinated with Monty, whom she had seen in the society pages. He encompasses everything she wishes to be, and with him in her family’s life she believes she can become a part of his social circle. Veda also is portrayed as a person of leisure. Early on she is shown accompanying Monty to his polo matches, and we see that Bert buys her riding boots for Christmas. After being rejected by a piano teacher and having her dreams of being a concert pianist shattered, Veda resorts to lazing around the house and not doing much but go out with friends and enjoy her time out. In a scene where Veda is lounging in the small patio in her home, she wears a revealing bandeau top with linen trousers and matching short-sleeved jacket, she tops the look off with stylish sunglasses. Veda embodies the casualness of the higher social class she so desperately craves to belong to. An important piece of clothing that made its rise with the emergence of sportswear was the trouser or men’s style trousers for women. Though they were readily available, they were still considered daring if worn on the street. Veda is the only female character we see wearing such trousers, and although she is in her home when we see her dressed in them, we can safely assume that she wore them outside the house as well. Veda’s clothing indicates her desire to belong to a social class that she was not born into, but aspires to be a part of. Her knowledge of the characteristics of the particular group allows her to mimic and copy the way they dress and she makes use of her mother’s newly acquired income and weakness to purchase such items.                   

     Cain expresses a similar idea in the novel, where he writes that Mildred, “bought, without complaining, the somewhat expensive gear that heaven required: riding, golf, and tennis outfits; overnight kits, monogrammed.”[10] In the novel, Mildred gives in to Veda’s whims and desires and aides her pursuit in becoming part of the upper class. The parallels and comparisons between Mildred and Veda, both visually and narratively are central to the significance of the series. The program really is a study of those two characters and how Veda informs most of what Mildred does. We see how Mildred aids in the development of Veda as a character, how she has been influenced by her, etc.


Roth manages to create a completely believable world with her costumes, there is never a moment where you doubt what a character wears and are taken out of the narrative. The characters and their appearance make total sense historically, and in the context of Haynes’ world. Roth does not ascribe to any kind of Hollywood glamour conventions, unlike the work created during the Hollywood system. Roth’s designs are distinct to the ones created for the 1945 film in their realism.






















[1] Jean Oppenheimer. “A Woman on the Verge.” Ameerican Cinematographer (April 2011). 43.


[2] Jean Oppenheimer. “A Woman on the Verge.” Ameerican Cinematographer (April 2011). 43.

[3] R. J Corber. “Joan Crawford’s Padded Shoulders: Female Masculinity in Mildred Pierce.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 21.2 62 (2006). 6.


[4] R. J Corber. “Joan Crawford’s Padded Shoulders: Female Masculinity in Mildred Pierce.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 21.2 62 (2006). 24.


[5] Greg Garrett. “The Many Faces of Mildred Pierce: A Case Study of Adaptation and the Studio System.” Literature Film Quarterly 23.4 (1995). 289.


[6] R. J Corber. “Joan Crawford’s Padded Shoulders: Female Masculinity in Mildred Pierce.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 21.2 62 (2006). 19.

[7] Paul J. Smith “All She Desires.” Sight & Sound 21.8 (2011). 18.


[8] James M. Cain  Mildred Pierce. New York: Vintage, 1989. 144.

[9] Patricia Campbell Warner. “The Americanization of Fashion: Sportswear, the Movies and the 1930s.” Twentieth-century American Fashion. Oxford: Berg, 2005. 80.

[10] James M. Cain  Mildred Pierce. New York: Vintage, 1989. 234.


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